TWC 2012 interview: Airwave CEO Richard Bobbett on reducing the cost of TETRA networks

James Atkinson catches up with Richard Bobbett, CEO of Airwave Solutions, which operates the UK’s TETRA public safety network, to find out about its new enhanced repeater, preparations for the 2012 Olympics and the future of the public safety communications

TWC 2012 interview: Airwave CEO Richard Bobbett on reducing the cost of TETRA networks

Budgets for public safety organisations are under pressure in many countries, not least the UK, so anything that helps to reduce their communication costs is going to be welcome.

Airwave Solutions, working in partnership with Axell Wireless, chose this year’s TETRA World Congress in Dubai to unveil a piece of kit that should go a long way to reducing the cost of both building and operating TETRA networks (see interview with Axell Wireless MD Ian Brown for more details on the technology).

The enhanced repeater introduces some clever variable delay technology that cancels out interference between base stations that can lead to dropped or noisy calls. What this allows a network operator to do is to reduce a seven or eight base base station architecture, for example, to just two base stations.

One central base station is beefed up and transmits to a series of enhanced repeaters, which are much cheaper than base stations. As base stations have to operate on different frequencies to avoid interfering with each other, if you get rid of a number of them, you can then operate that area on just one frequency, which frees up precious spectrum.

‘The enhanced repeater is a great opportunity to roll out coverage at a different price than we’ve ever seen in the industry before,’ says Bobbett emphatically. ‘The great thing about it is that it takes some fairly basic technology that has been around for ages and solves some of the implementation problems that you will have seen in traditional network architectures, such as interference and timing issues.

‘We are working with the guys at Axell, who are well known and trusted, so it’s a great partnership,’ says Bobbett, ‘By providing this extra enhancement, we can get into the market quickly and deliver coverage in a way that has never been delivered before – whether that is delivering more coverage at the same price or the same coverage at a lower cost. That’s an exciting prospect.’

The product gives Airwave some handy intellectual property and a product it can now sell around the world. ‘We are looking at major roll-out programmes around the world, and there are still quite a lot [of TETRA networks] to be rolled out, where we can present it as an opportunity,’ says Bobbett.

The enhanced repeater is a vendor agnostic product, so it can be used in a Cassidian or a Motorola environment, for e ample. Bobbett explains that the biggest cost saving advantages will come from new networks where the repeaters can be deployed from the word go. Existing networks will take longer to see a return on investment.

‘If you introduce the repeaters to existing network you will reduce the cost of running them over the long term. But, yes, there is a bigger challenge there as you have the cost of change. You don’t get the immediate savings you’d get in a new build environment where the use of this enhanced repeater is a no brainer,’ says Bobbett.

‘But in an existing built environment it will still give you some advantages,’ he continues, ‘especially if you are looking at extending in-building coverage. Over the long term, it can take you to a lower operating cost once you have resolved the cost of change issue.’

The enhanced repeater is ready to go now. ‘It is based on a standard unit, so it is a very quick turnaround time. We expect to be shipping it this year,’ says Bobbett. Airwave and Axell will work in partnership to sell and distribute the enhanced repeater with each company taking the lead in countries where one or the other is better established.

Reducing network costs

The new product is one example of how Airwave is trying to reduce the cost of building and operating public safety networks, as Bobbett explains. ‘We live in a world where customers are under pressure and have a lot smaller budgets, so how do we respond to that? We have already worked on proposals for customers on issues around long-term contracts such as indexation and we are working actively to find smarter ways to deliver the same service and therefore reduce their spend.

‘One of the ways we are doing that is to look at new technology to see if it can reduce costs. We are looking for sustainability – if you use less power, for example, you spend less money, but it also contributes to a better outcome in terms of the environment. We’ve reduced our power consumption considerably over the year. Our investment is all around managing our network in a smarter way and doing things smarter for our customers.’

The second aspect Airwave is examining is how does it help its customers get the most out of the network? While the UK has got one of the most advanced public safety networks in the world, Bobbett acknowledges that is was not cheap to build,

‘But that price was driven by the high specifications,’ points out Bobbett. ‘Look at the layers of resilience and robustness that are built in - battery back-ups for seven days, not seven hours – all that stuff. It’s a great product, but it costs what it costs. That said; how do we drive benefit so users get the best value from it?’

Airwave has been working to provide applications, particularly around data provision in the field, for its customers via its Kelvin Connect subsidiary. ‘It about providing data to enable single crewing for ambulances, or giving data apps to police officers, so they don’t have to go back into the station. You can make some powerful savings,’ says Bobbett.

‘Officers can go out more safely on their own thanks to emergency buttons, group communications and so on. Look at the merging of resources together when two police forces sharing resources. If they were not sharing an interoperable communications platform, they couldn’t do that. When you look back at what the police have been doing, while it is not directly attributable to Airwave, it is actually underpinned by the use of Airwave in some way. So, there is a lot of good stuff happening,’ argues Bobbett.

2012 London Olympics

Airwave has been working for a good two years on setting up and testing the Apollo TETRA network, which will be used by up to 18,000 Olympic officials and volunteers. So is Bobbett confident that everything is ready?

‘We cannot be complacent,’ he says. ‘We must expect the unexpected. We’ve been there and done a lot of this already as the network got a real test with the riots last year. We went from 3,000 users on the London network to 22,000 users in one night; 600 to 3,600 in Birmingham in 24 hours – that is a large unexpected increase, but that gave us the chance to test and prepare.

Bobbett says that perhaps the key challenge is dealing with thousands of volunteers who are not at all familiar with two-way radios and how they work. ‘We are dealing with a largely volunteer workforce, or for those that are not volunteers, they are a short-term retained workforce. It is a huge transient force coming in and they are not traditional radio users. We’ve put a huge amount of effort into this by putting our people into every venue, so trained Airwave staff are handing out radios and can talk to the volunteers.

‘We don’t want someone chatting away on the channel, who might then deny access to the next volunteer who has an important message,’ he continues. ‘The volunteers are coming from a mobile environment with all you can eat data and unlimited minutes and texts. So, it is about controlling the users; educating and helping them to understand how to use radios effectively.’

He adds that staff have been assigned to London Metropolitan Police feeding stations, so Airwave can talk to people at shift changes and solve problems immediately. ‘There is no point fixing things tomorrow,’ says Bobbett. ‘It has to be fixed there and then. We have to get the information on problems back quickly – get it live. Hence, our people are there to get the feedback and solve problems immediately.

‘It is going to be exciting. We are quietly confident, but certainly not complacent,’ he concludes.

Next generation Airwave

As to the question of what will eventually replace the Airwave TETRA network in the UK, Bobbett says the company is obviously talking to Government about its Emergency Service Mobile Communication Programme (or Airwave 2, as it is known colloquially). Tenders are currently scheduled to come out in the second quarter of 2013.

Bobbett says that it is a shame that UK Government representatives are not present at TWC in Dubai. ‘If they were here, they’d get a real understanding of the market, the technology and the way it is evolving. I do believe that this year, much more so than last year, there is a concensus view coming through, which is that LTE will come, but not yet.

‘We haven’t got the spectrum, for a start,’ he continues, ‘and the date that seems to be emerging is that you won’t get combined LTE voice and data public safety networks until 2025. By that time, we will have seen a second tranche of digital dividend – one that will perhaps free up some 700MHz spectrum [for public safety]. If it does that’s great, but that won’t happen until 2021/22 – by then hopefully the technology will be ready to be deployed.’

In Bobbett’s view that means everyone has to go back and look at how the UK continues to deliver critical services using what it has got already. ‘I can’t see the point in running a bid for another TETRA network when you know you are going to use LTE in 2025/26 – that doesn’t make any sense,’ he says. ‘So, we are looking again at things like the enhancers and seeing how we can deliver at a lower price.’

That said, Bobbett says what he is pleased about is that there is a real realisation and focus now in the UK Government that they have to make a decision. ‘And the industry is coming together at the same time, so hopefully we’ll get the information out there and start to make really good quality decisions. So, we fully support the process.’

Smart grids and managed services

In the meantime, Airwave is looking around at other opportunities and Bobbett says there are interesting developments in the machine-t- machine (M2M) world that are looking attractive.

Airwave is participating in the tender process for the radio access part of the UK Government’s smart metering programme and is looking at opportunities in the network managed services sector.

‘We have coverage on the Airwave network in areas where no one else has any. We are looking to leverage that asset as we think there is some value there – backhaul for instance. How does the utility sector manage its infrastructure? We are looking to do it in the most effective way for them – smart metering is one piece of it, but then there is the smart grid – there are a lot of exciting things in this space over the next two to three years,’ says Bobbett.

He believes that constructing a smart grid is crucial. ‘Smart metering manages the demand side, but there’s not really any point in doing it unless you manage the supply side to match it via a smart grid. You’ve got to have the two together in my view.’

What makes Airwave’s TETRA network different to every other one in the UK, is the fact that it is built to meet the stringent demands of mission critical requirements. 

‘Mobile networks respond in a way that makes sense commercially to them. We respond immediately if something need fixing, because we have to. We take security really seriously – we are the mission critical service provider – it is what we do. We look after really important systems and that’s what makes us stand out, says Bobbett.

‘I think the concept of power, transportation and other industries as being mission critical to the country in the same way as public safety is starting to penetrate Government. Look at some the major power failures in the US and Italy. A major grid failure would take the UK three or four days to re-start it – that’s quite scary stuff,’ points out Bobbett.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

Leave a Comment