Airwave looks to the future

Richard Bobbett, CEO of Airwave Solutions, which runs the UK’s TETRA network for the emergency services, talks to Wireless editor James Atkinson about the company’s plans for the future and some of the changes underway at the network

Airwave looks to the future

‘Airwave Solutions is in a good place,’ says its CEO Richard Bobbett. ‘In the last 18 months we have seen some of the most incredible deliveries of any public safety communications requirements, such as unplanned civil disturbances across the streets of London on scales we’ve never seen before.

‘There were 170 public agencies on the same radio network for the Queen’s Jubilee; and the helicopter crash in Vauxhall this year, which was the largest civil response since the 7/7 bombings,’ he continues.

All this has put Bobbett in bullish mood. ‘I think the UK is in a privileged position,’ he says. ‘We have a dedicated communications service for all our emergency services, which enables them to interact and interoperate together to keep our country safe and secure and deliver the requirements the general public expects.’


Responding to technical change

That said, he is keenly aware that technological change is coming that will eventually leave the current TETRA narrowband two-way radio system behind.

‘As we move into an era of new technology and new contracts, and clearly we need to do that and move forward, the challenge is recognising how far we have come and how much further ahead we are then almost any other country in terms of public safety communications,’ says Bobbett.

‘The question is: how do we grasp the opportunities these new technologies bring and deliver them into the public safety world? We all believe that it will be an LTE product of some sort, but when will it be available?’ he asks.

Data will be available over the next two or three years as the mobile operators build out their 4G networks, but voice remain much more problematic. ‘When will we have an application for voice that is robust and reliable enough to cope with the demands of public safety?’ says Bobbett.

The indications are that all the mission critical voice functionality TETRA provides will not be incorporated into the LTE standard until towards the end of this decade. That leaves the question of the network.

Commercial public networks are best effort and as such consumers tolerate patchy coverage, slow Internet downloads and dropped calls. Bobbett points out that this situation will be exacerbated by 2020 when data demands will have skyrocketed thanks to more smartphones. As a result, many predict that even the new 4G networks will be rammed by that date.

‘So, are commercial operators in the best place to provide a mission critical network?’ ask Bobbett. ‘Clearly they are in the best place to provide the lowest cost solution. They have 22 million users, while Airwave has 300,000, but you get what you get. Is it good enough for public safety? I say no, and most public safety professionals I know say no too.

‘You’ve got to look at a dedicated service to deliver the reliability, robustness, responsiveness and interoperability our customers need,’ argues Bobbett. ‘But to do that we need spectrum.’


Spectrum issues

In 2015, the World Radio Council is expected to approve the reallocation of 700MHz spectrum in EMEA to mobile telecoms. Bobbett says that the WRC is also seriously looking at allocating 2 x 10Mhz in the 700Mhz band to public safety in Europe.

‘We have the opportunity here to get spectrum, if we get on our backsides,’ says Bobbett. ‘I do recognise the challenge facing the UK Government. Affordability is a key driver and we are no longer in a world used to the public spending levels of 10, 15, 20 years ago.

‘It has to be affordable therefore, so the more standardisation we can get, the more affordability we can deliver. If we can get access to lower cost equipment that is driven by large volumes, because we are all on a standardised band using technologies being used by public networks, then I expect to see a much more affordable service,’ he says.

In the meantime, Airwave is looking forward to seeing how the UK government’s ESMCP (Emergency Service Mobile Communication Programme) rolls out. The ESMCP contract will take over after Airwave’s contracts come to an end.

‘I think there is much water to go under the bridge yet, as people get to grips with what is needed and what opportunities they have really got,’ says Bobbett. ‘But I think we have things stacked up in our favour as we know our customers and we know how to do this.


Hybrid networks

‘We have the opportunity to come back with an LTE network. We call it our hybrid solution, as it combines lots of different elements, including some elements where if it is cost effective and appropriate we might want to wholesale in from other operators.’

Bobbett is convinced that as of this moment, the best technology for public safety mission critical voice is TETRA. ‘Yes, it will probably be replaced by some kind of LTE voice application at some point. But TETRA will be around for some time yet,’ he says.

Airwave is already tackling ways to deliver data, along with vehicle and personnel location apps (see interview with Airwave CTO Euros Evans), so it is not waiting for LTE. It is also tackling aspects of the Airwave contract.

A recent survey by Cassidian recorded high levels of approval among public safety users for the service provided by Airwave. Where there is unhappiness is with the contract construct, a fact that Bobbett is well aware of and is seeking to change.


Changes to Airwave charges

‘One thing we have done this year is that we have written to all our customers to say we are revolutionising the way we charge for usage,’ says Bobbett.

‘We are moving away from some of the traditional guarantees we have in the PFI contract. We have to recognise that the contract was written at end of 1990s and parts of it are probably not relevant today, so it is up to us as the supplier to show some flexibility and leadership.’

In response to this, Airwave is changing the way it charges for usage. ‘We have just launched this and I think it will make a big difference to all our customers and to local budgets, as usage is paid for locally. I think that will have a big impact and make it much more transparent as to how customers are using the system and what they are getting from it,’ he says. ‘In the long term is may even encourage usage.’

Bobbett says the old contract was designed to give certainty of spending levels for a year at a time, so chief constables could see their budget for the full year. But that meant they paid the charge whether they used it or not. ‘You had certainty, but it didn’t necessarily quite match what you were doing. I understand why it was written that way and it was what the customer specified.’

Airwave has now taken that away and adopted more of a pay-as-you-go approach. Emergency service chiefs understand that there will be more fluctuations in costs as a result, but now they can see the reasons why and they can manage that and take control.

If they want to use it more, they can choose to pay more, or they’ll pay less if their radio usage goes down. ‘We’ve put control back to the customer and I think that is important,’ says Bobbett.

Airwave is also working the Home Office and Cabinet Office on possible changes to other parts of the contract. ‘We are trying to get it into the modern era,’ says Bobbett, ‘but it is very difficult for Government because of EU procurement rules to change contracts half way.  

‘It is frustrating though when you want to bring some more common sense into the contract, but it is a difficult world to deal with so we have to be patient. I think we are getting to a better place with our customers and my message to them is don’t throw this away: no one has got this type of public safety communications system or is able to deliver what we can,’ says Bobbett.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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