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What’s next for Airwave?

With Airwave out of the bidding for the UK’s £1.2 billion Emergency Services Network there are question marks over its future. But there are plenty of other opportunities out there, Airwave CEO Richard Bobbett, tells James Atkinson

What’s next for Airwave?

Airwave is in what might be described as an ‘interesting’ place right now. The private company operates Great Britiain’s dedicated emergency services communications network. But as things stand at the moment, it will have no part to play in the successor Emergency Services Network (ESN) project currently being procured by the Home Office.

ESN will replace the existing narrow band TETRA radio network with a 4G LTE broadband network provided by a commercial mobile network operator. It is due to come into service in mid-2017. The Government has opted to replace the single provider approach used for the Airwave procurement with one using several providers.

Airwave was the only company shortlisted on three of the original four ESN Lots, but it declined to bid for Lots 2 (User Services) and 4 (Network Extension Services) and was eliminated from the bidding for Lot 3 (Main Area Network) in February this year.

At the time of writing, the Government has only awarded one of the ESN contracts, selecting KBR (with Arup and Mason Advisory) as project manager. Awards for Lots 2 and 3 are imminent, although there is only one bidder for each: Motorola Solutions for Lot 2 after the only other bidder HP pulled out; and EE for Lot 3 following Telefonica O2’s withdrawal.

Hence, with no apparent stake in its successor network, Airwave is in an ‘interesting’ place. It will continue to offer its services until the last of its contracts with individual police, fire and ambulance services ends in 2020. But beyond that, what’s the future for Airwave?

Speaking to Wireless earlier this year, Richard Bobbett, CEO of Airwave, seems unperturbed, explaining that the company is looking around to see how it can exploit its assets and critical communications expertise.

Exploiting assets
One asset is Airwave’s spectrum holdings, which are partly owned by the company and partly on loan for the duration of the emergency services contracts. ‘The chunk of 380MHz spectrum was allocated by ETSI for European public safety and is for use by the customers, so it will go when those contracts end. But the chunk of 410MHz spectrum is owned by us forever,’ he explains.

In addition to its spectrum, Bobbett says Airwave also has other major assets in its core network and 4,000 base station towers. It is exploring what the value of that might be outside of the emergency services and how it might by exploited. For a start Airwave can rightly point to the fact that its coverage in rural areas is second to none in the UK.

‘We are looking at rural broadband provision and have got one of the Department of Culture, Media & Sport trials in North Yorkshire, which is going quite successfully. We are using 410MHz spectrum and some other things as well, such as unlicensed spectrum. We have also looked at TV White Space spectrum (unused spectrum within the TV guard bands), but have not done much with that yet.

‘We are looking at other things too, such as M2M/IoT applications, which will grow enormously over the next few years,’ he points out. ‘Utilities and smart grids, as opposed to smart metering, is a world we have been looking at. That ties in with the M2M market and is on our radar.’

He adds that Airwave also has considerable people resources. ‘We have over 600 staff with an engineering services capability which has some spare capacity, so we are offering that out to other operators.

‘For example, we have two microwave circuit maintenance support contracts for MBNL and NEC right now: one an upgrade project; the other new build. So, that is a new business stream we’ve begun to develop in the last 12 months. We think there will be more opportunities in this field with the roll out of 4G networks, as there is a lack of this kind of engineering resource around.’

Consultancy services
Airwave has also developed a public safety consultancy service. The company has 50-60 people supporting BBDOS (the Government organisation running the new TETRA network in Germany) which is now in its fourth year. ‘We have a pipeline developing in the Middle East too,’ adds Bobbett.

Airwave has already signed a contract to extend its FireLink contract with the Fire Services until the end of 2019 with a possible further one-year extension. ‘Some of the smaller customers like the Highways Agency have also extended and we are in discussions with a couple more, which is positive for us,’ notes Bobbett.

And naturally, he points out that if ESN does not deliver on schedule Airwave will continue to be supportive of its customer base and will extend its TETRA services. This will certainly have to happen to some extent as the first contracts for the likes of Lancashire Police and Greater Manchester Police run out in October or November 2016 and ESN will not be ready before mid-2017.

ESN will provide the emergency services with access to broadband data. But Bobbett argues that there is an LTE market capable of delivering data and with the devices to do so already, albeit with the caveat that UK emergency services have to pay for both Airwave and a broadband provider.

‘We already offer data services today through our MVNO arrangement and we can transition customers through to LTE and other services.’ Airwave provides data capabilities via its Pronto suite of applications.

Some 15 police forces are using Pronto to date. It provides a range of electronic applications, such as electronic ‘stop and search’ forms, which can be filled in on the spot and sent back to the police database.

‘It is very effective,’ says Bobbett, ‘as it has taken the paper notebook away and it reduces the number of times officers have to return to the station and fill forms in. It also greatly improves accuracy. In fact, we are now trialling linking the information collected on the devices through to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) files. This is where the cost savings in policing will come from, as well as improving police effectiveness.’

‘Pronto is changing the way the police work,’ argues Bobbett, ‘but it sits alongside their existing mission critical TETRA voice and dispatch system.’ This is the public safety communications model being adopted by most other European countries. They are retaining their dedicated mission critical TETRA networks for voice services and making use of ‘best effort’ broadband data services from commercial providers.

Hybrid networks
Hybrid TETRA/4G LTE networks are being anticipated with an eventual transition to 4G LTE from the mid-2020s onwards as applications for mission critical LTE standards are written and a competitive device and infrastructure ecosystem develops.

However, Bobbett observes: ‘I’m not seeing any great customer pull for mission critical LTE products and solutions yet in Europe. So, there isn’t much of a market to go for right now.’

But besides the UK, no other country plans to move both its emergency services communications onto a commercial mobile operator, not imminently anyway. If successful, it may well prove to be an alternative model for other countries to follow, especially if budgets are tight or dedicated spectrum cannot be found.

But one of the risks of adopting this approach right now is that LTE mission critical standards have not yet been written, so proprietary solutions for crucial applications such as group calling, push-to-talk (PTT) voice over LTE (VoLTE) and direct mode calling have to be used.

‘These OTT voice over LTE PTT applications are not well proven yet,’ points out Bobbett. ‘What if people are downloading large amounts of data when a police officer needs to make a voice call? And if the mobile operator does provide priority and pre-emption (which they are pledged to do, according to ESMCP), what happens to the non-emergency service user?

‘If you throw consumers off the network you could lose vital sources of information. And given that something like 70% of 999 calls come from mobile phones now, do you really want to throw people off the network to make way for emergency services calls? These sorts of consequences do not seem to be being talked about right now,’ says Bobbett.

Dedicated vs. shared
Questions as to the appropriateness of using commercial mobile networks when it comes to resilience, robustness, availability, coverage, control and security are all pertinent, but Bobbett reasons that there is a bigger question that merits discussion beyond the choice of technology.

‘I hear the debate about TETRA vs. LTE as it stands at the moment, but I think the real debate is: should we have a dedicated network or a shared one? ESMCP can argue that a shared network will save costs. Well, yes, of course it will.

‘If you share a TETRA network with other users that will be cheaper too; that’s hardly rocket science. The point is a shared network carries extra risk and challenges, but a dedicated one is proven and is not impacted by other events going on around it during an incident.’

He insists he understands the logic of the Government’s desire to do away with big single prime contractor contracts by splitting them into smaller lots and going out to tender as often as possible.

‘But the big challenge of procurement in the past has been the Government’s inability to be a successful integrator of major projects,’ he says. ‘It is now taking on that integration responsibility again by splitting ESN into smaller lots.

‘To be fair, the intent of the Government’s new procurement policy is exactly right,’ he concedes, ‘but in my view you need a prime contractor to take responsibility for delivering something as complex and vital to the national interest as ESN, but you then allow competitive subcontracting. Today, only one phone rings if there is a problem.

‘Ensuring a seamless service is what we are good at,’ he asserts. ‘We designed and built Airwave that way so it always works. It is not just about the kit; it is about having the people and processes that fit around that. And this is where I think the commercial networks will struggle.’

Sales rumours
So, what of Airwave’s future? It is owned by Australian investment firm Macquarie Group and rumours persist that it is up for sale with at least four organisations said to have taken a look earlier this year with the most serious being Motorola Solutions. The latter is said to have stepped back, but recently it is thought to be taking another look.

Certainly, Airwave’s expertise would be immensely useful to Motorola in Lot 2, although the company’s £1bn or so of debt may prove a sticking point. Bobbett smiles when asked, but unsurprisingly will not be drawn on the idea of a sale (nor would Motorola). A case of watch this space perhaps.

‘I think that there are a lot of opportunities in many different guises coming along in the next four or five years and there is enough for us to remain bullish,’ says Bobbett. ‘So, I feel pretty upbeat really.’

See also: ‘Motorola Solutions to buy Airwave’ speculation resurfaces

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