Vertical Markets

Emergency services network latest

by Mark Rowe

It’s been ‘quite a difficult’ year, for the Home Office project to replace the 999 services’ Airwave radio, the man in charge has admitted. Programme director John Black was speaking this afternoon to the BAPCO annual show for the 999 and public safety communications sector.

Briefly, in December Motorola formally exited the contract to provide the ‘lot two’, user services, core part of the comms. It looks like businesses will have to form consortia (‘more than one viable solution’ is out there, Mr Black commented at the end of his talk) to provide the 4G and 5G Emergency Services Network (ESN) of voice and data for the ESMCP (Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme). BT are due to do the connecting. Mr Black (as last year) did not give any date about when the new comms would come in, while stressing that safety came first (nothing old will be switched off before a new system is switched on). He spoke of later this year starting to go into a formal contract process for a replacement for Motorola. “Large Government procurement contracts like this do take time,” he said.

The catch, as Mr Black told the BAPCO audience, is that Airwave (provided under separate contract by Motorola) ‘won’t last forever’. When, we don’t know, Mr Black said, ‘but it certainly will be some time’. As Airwave gets towards its ‘end of life’ it will become more expensive to maintain, and at some point will become less reliable, he said. Staying on Airwave is not an option; but he spoke also of the need to stay out of the ‘risk zone’ of unreliability. He gave some detail of the 60 contracts making up the programme; requiring the comms to work out to 12 nautical miles; in the air up to 10,000 feet (drones, and aeroplanes, have been used in testing there) and on the London Underground. He named the Grand National in Liverpool and the Open Golf Championship as two examples of events where the new network has been tested (to see that the new product can hold up where masses of people are using their mobiles).

Almost all the EE masts are activated, he reported. And a further 292 ‘Extended Area Service (EAS)’ masts for coverage of remote areas (as he admitted, the most politically contentious part of the programme) are mostly built. The programme includes an app for data collection; on a handheld ESN device which monitors coverage while on the move and in buildings.

Mr Black acknowledged it was ‘frustrating’ for the emergency services.

To recap

The ESN is the ten-year-old UK Government’s chosen option to replace the Airwave Tetra (Terrestrial Trunked) radio, as used by 107 police, fire and ambulance services in England, Scotland and Wales, for communications between control rooms and the field. The Government was hoping to save money by sharing a commercial network, unlike Airwave which is only for its (hundreds of thousands of) users (picture by Mark Rowe, police community support officers on patrol, Porthmadog, north Wales).

A national Audit Office (NAO) progress report in 2019 found that the Home Office’s management of this critical programme had represented poor value for money; and that the Home Office was unlikely to deliver ESN by a new target date of 2022. Mr Black joined the Home Office in 2020 and was appointed the programme director for ESMCP in August 2020.

BAPCO 2023 in Coventry runs today and tomorrow. BAPCO 2024 is running at the same venue on March 6 and 7, 2024.

More in the April print edition of Professional Security Magazine.

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