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ESN – too much, too fast?

The UK Government’s Emergency Services Network project will provide the emergency services with a new 4G broadband voice and data solution using commercial bearers – an unprecedented move – and one it wants signed off in just 12 months. James Atkinson reports

ESN – too much, too fast?

The UK Government’s Emergency Services Network (ESN) project aims to replace the current narrowband TETRA two-way radio network used by the police, fire and ambulances services, with an LTE 4G broadband system providing integrated mission critical voice and data services.

While that might seem a natural enough progression, the hugely ambitious nature of this move should not be underestimated. The UK Government is attempting something unprecedented given the short time scale it has set itself.

No government has ever attempted to move its emergency services communications system onto a completely new wireless technology standard, untested for public safety purposes, using multiple suppliers. It is allowing just 12 months to complete the entire tender process.

Nor has any government elected to use a commercial mobile network operator (MNO) to provide the main communications network. This means the emergency services will share the same spectrum and infrastructure as the general public, rather than using a dedicated service as they do now.

Furthermore, the wide range of mission critical applications in the TETRA standard, especially those for voice communications, are not part of the current LTE standard.

The Critical Communications Broadband Group (CCBG), a Working Group of the TETRA & Critical Communications Association (TCCA), which is working with standards bodies 3GPP and ETSI to write mission critical applications into the LTE standards, advised in a White Paper (Mar 2013) Mission Critical Mobile Broadband: Practical standardisation & roadmap considerations, that mission critical data services will not be fully incorporated into the standard before 2018, while some mission critical voice applications will have to wait until 2020 or after.

The US Government has rejected the idea of using commercial mobile networks to provide broadband services for its public safety users. Instead, it has opted to build a dedicated network with its own spectrum. It has pledged $7bn towards the FirstNet broadband LTE network.

It is also worth noting that the German government has looked at various scenarios for evolving TETRA networks to all-IP 4G LTE systems in a Federal Ministry of the Interior White Paper (Version 1.0 – 08.11.2013) On the Future Architecture of Mission Critical Mobile Broadband PPDR Networks. It noted that: ‘Nationwide mission critical broadband voice plus data PPDR networks will not be available before at least 2025.’

It recommended that TETRA network operators should: ‘Concentrate on broadband data only in the beginning and continue using voice services of your narrowband TETRA network as long as possible since mission critical LTE networks will provide group calls and group management in the far future only as good as TETRA does today.’

Nearer to home, a report by PA Consulting for Ofcom: LTE Brings A New Capability to Mobility: How Might it Enable a Range of Cross-Sector Services? (Nov 2013) envisaged a three phase evolutionary transition from TETRA to LTE for the emergency services with both networks running in parallel until such time as end users were confident of the new system and mission critical standards were incorporated into LTE.

It stated that in Phase One, ‘it is likely that LTE will only be used as additional service for data but not for any high priority mobilisation tasks’. In Phase Two: ‘Dual operation will result in the use of both the Airwave and LTE networks to deliver service to the emergency services in parallel’. Phase Three would see a full migration to LTE.

 

How ESN will work

Despite all these considerations the UK Government is determined to press ahead with its ESN plan to jump straight to an all-LTE network using commercial bearers.

The ESN contract is overseen by the Emergency Services Mobile Communication Programme team in the Home Office. ESMCP has said that ESN will deliver critical voice and broadband services that are:

  • Affordable – to address budget pressures on user budgets
  • Enhanced – to provide integrated broadband services to meet user need
  • Flexible – to better match and be responsive to user demand.

The Government now wants the contract signed and sealed ahead of the May 2015 elections – meaning the already very tight tender programme has been cut further with March 2015 the revised target date for sign off. The first Airwave contracts end in 2016, while the last will expire in 2020.

To say this is trailblazing in terms of complexity and timescale is a major understatement. Unsurprisingly, it has given rise to considerable anxiety among end users and suppliers concerned that the Government is taking a very risky approach to replacing what is an essential tool for the emergency services. However, other interested parties have been impressed by the way the ESMCP team has approached the project, noting that ‘because it is so committed to making this work, they have really worked hard to find the solutions to key issues’.

They also believe that the timescale makes sense, as the longer the process is drawn out the more expensive it becomes for bidders, and that it makes sense to get it signed before the general election. The thinking being that: ‘no one wants an expensive, long drawn out procurement process that might get derailed by the general election’.

On 7 February 2014, ESMCP published a prior information notice (PIN) in the Official Journal of the European Union, which outlined how the contract will work. Instead of one overall provider, the contract has been split into four suppliers, or lots. This fits with the strong direction coming from the Cabinet Office to move away from large single incumbents for major Government contracts.

 

The NPfIT contract

The industry’s worry is compounded by the fact that the Government is intending to use a version of the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) contract, which was employed to disastrous effect in the NHS. The attempt to install a national electronic health record system, begun in 2002, was abandoned in September 2011 at a cost of £9.8bn and rising.

It is worth noting some comments made in an article in Computer Weekly (13 Sept 2010) by Alistair Maugham, partner with law firm Morrison & Foerster (UK) LLP, on why the NHS NPfIT failed.

Commenting on ‘motives’ he said: ‘Top-down projects are much more likely to fail than bottom-up projects... I identify a top-down project as one done for political reasons...the history of public sector ICT and outsourcing is littered with politically inspired projects that failed.’

Maugham then pointed out that 30% of ICT project failures can be attributed to poor strategy and business planning. Critical to success is the need for good consultation with all stakeholders, particularly end users.

He observed: ‘NPfIT rushed to award contracts in almost indecent haste with insufficient planning…contract scope was unclear and much work needed to be done after contract award...’

‘The NPfIT procurement model called for a drastic cut in timescales, with no negotiation allowed, contracts offered on a take it or leave basis and a very aggressive approach to legal remedies against service providers.’

He noted that NPfIT attempted to force service providers to accept ‘onerous and one-sided contracts...NPfIT and its advisers appeared to forget the golden rule that these contracts involve a long-term relationship, so a hyper-aggressive approach to supplier management is counter-productive.’

The word is that ESN will follow a depressingly familiar path imposing punitive fines if providers fail SLAs and miss KPIs. With all this is mind, it is hard not to conclude that the Government is at risk of repeating exactly the same mistakes with ESN; and there are also concerns about the outline business case.

 

Outline business case numbers

The figures apparently being used for the outline business case were revealed at a Cambridge Wireless event on 26 November 2013. No explanation was given for the provenance for the figures. Nonetheless, four economic options were outlined:

Do Nothing: £4.71bn – retain the incumbent with renegotiated contracts

Do Minimum: £4.78bn – procure a new private TETRA network

New Private Network: £7.36bn – a new private 4G LTE network

Single Transition: £3.69bn – the four lot option outlined in the PIN (see box-out)

Industry commentators who have spoken to Wireless think these are reasonable options, but they are puzzled by the figures.

The Airwave network cost between £1.5bn-£2bn to build and the cost per annum for its services is something between £300m and £350m. As the infrastructure is already in place and the contracts would undoubtedly be renegotiated at a lower rate, the figure of £4.71bn seems high. The same applies for the Do Minimum option even if another supplier had to build out a new TETRA network.

It is difficult to find a figure for the cost to the mobile operators for their 4G roll outs in the UK, as much depends on the state of their existing infrastructure, towers and backhaul.

Even so, the £7.36bn figure for a new private LTE network also looks high even if the cost of new dedicated spectrum paid for at market rates is included in the price. If entirely new infrastructure, site acquisition and backhaul were required the figure might be reasonable, but this is unlikely to be the case.

The Single Transition figure is also seen as a high, if somewhat nearer reality than the other estimates. If these are indeed the figures going before Treasury for the final business case, then it is difficult not to conclude that the figures have been chosen to ensure only one possible outcome.

Many other aspects also need addressing, not least: network resilience, prioritisation/access and retention rights, a push-to-talk (PTT) function on LTE, and establishing an inter-system interface to enable interoperability between LTE and TETRA (no standard currently exists), as well as between call groups.

The question of whether manufacturers are willing to produce proprietary (or pre-standard, as ESMCP calls it) equipment and devices ahead of any mission critical LTE standard is also highly problematic. However, others point out that the arrival of multiband chips from Qualcomm and others will mean devices are not confined to single bands, thereby easing migration from proprietary to mission critical LTE standards.

 

Summary

The Government will have to absorb a large amount of cost in the first five years as its pays for both the existing Airwave contracts (albeit on a diminishing scale) and the new suppliers (potentially £600m-£1bn). All this has to be paid back in the final period, so will it be cheaper?

Given that mission critical voice and data standards are not yet available for LTE networks or devices it is questionable that ESN will be ‘better’ than TETRA. ‘Faster’, sure, and nice to have, but there is little evidence that the emergency services are asking for broadband as a mission critical tool, so why the rush to an all-LTE solution?

Wireless invited the Home Office to respond to some of the concerns raised in this article, but it said it was inappropriate to comment at this stage, as the tender process has begun. A spokesperson added: ‘Any supplier would have to ensure they provide a sufficient level of resilience for ESN.’

The decision to abandon TETRA and switch entirely to LTE using commercial operators in a way no one has attempted before, rather than adopting some kind of hybrid, is either brave or foolhardy depending on your point of view.

Whichever view you take, it seems clear that the ESN contract has all the hallmarks of a revolution, rather than a seamless evolution - and revolutions tend to be bloody.

 

Mission Critical Network Considerations

In a report entitled, Emergency Services Radio Communication (Dec 2013), Keith Turner, former Chief Constable of Gwent Police (and a non-exec director of Airwave Solutions) put together his personal views on the subject following discussions with many stakeholders. Among the issues he highlighted are:

Availability: The current service has a mandated level of switch and connectivity to base stations, with SLAs defining resilience and availability over and above that associated with commercial Mobile Network Operators (MNOs).

Coverage: Public Network mobile coverage is reported on in Ofcom’s Infrastructure report of 2013 and identifies a number of parts of the UK that have no coverage from 2G and 3G networks.

Capacity: Consideration needs to be given of the impact on the Emergency Services in heavily loaded network scenarios such as New Year’s Eve. The network has to continue to provide the necessary quality of service for mission critical users even in these situations.

Prioritisation/Access and retention rights: Will mobile operators guarantee priority access to the emergency services in the event that base stations reach maximum capacity, including 100% ruthless pre-emption on cell sites for public safety use?

In regard to the last two issues, others point out that the MNOs have far more spectrum available compared with Airwave and argue it is very hard to model an extreme scenario where MNO cell sites get so congested the emergency services couldn’t make a call, or that commercial customers wouldn’t also be able to call (although speeds might be throttled back).

 

How the ESN will work

The ESN is divided into four lots outlined below. If bidders apply for more than one lot they must provide separate bid teams, who are forbidden to collaborate until after the preferred bidders are chosen. They then have just three months to stitch the contract together.

Lot 1: Delivery Partner

The delivery partner will oversee the transition and integration period between 2016 and 2020 when the last Airwave contract expires.

Lot 2: User Services

Delivers the dedicated public safety functionality, provides and controls user accounts, enables security and hosts user applications. The plan is to re-tender in 2022.

Lot 3: Mobile Services

The main wide area network provider, which is expected to be a mobile network operator that ‘supports public safety functionality’. This lot will be re-tendered in 2021.

Lot 4: Extension Services

Provides network coverage beyond the Lot 3 mobile network – essentially rural broadband connectivity.

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