Mike Norfield, CEO of UK based critical communications group TTG, and a former police radio engineer, has criticised the Home Office’s handling of the impending replacement of the Airwave radio system used by public safety organisations, with a new national mobile communication service, the Emergency Services Network (ESN).
Norfield comments: “I’m concerned that the Home Office is moving too quickly and not fully assessing the impact of a full-scale rush into a system based on commercial mobile networks or LTE.
“I am absolutely a supporter of our emergency services having data applications that can aid efficiency and help save lives, but parties are missing the fundamental requirement that emergency calls must be able to over-ride other network traffic – basically what we call ruthless preemption.
“I believe the Home Office should ask every network operator that is tendering to deliver the ESN whether they can guarantee that, in an emergency situation public safety users will not just be given priority over the network but that they will be given ruthless preemption. This means millisecond access to the network so that when an emergency services worker presses the button the radio device works.
“If the answer is ‘no’ or ‘we can’t guarantee that’, then the government should think again and think hard and fast about dedicated spectrum which has already happened in the US. Running public safety networks over consumer networks could be disastrous as mission critical voice is still a main requirement for all emergency service users.”
Organisations have been invited by the government to tender in Q2 2014 and the system is due to be operational as early as September 2016.
“These timescales are too tight and the government will see a whole host of companies with little relevant public safety experience bidding for contracts,” Norfield added.
“It seems that the Home Office is more concerned about quickly terminating its contract with Airwave rather than ensuring that the right alternative is found and implemented successfully. It shouldn’t be about the cost of its current contract, it should be about what is right for public safety.”
Norfield has called for more pilot schemes to ensure that the solutions put forward are fit for purpose.
“Bidders should be selected to run a pilot scheme in a chosen area that already has partial 4G coverage during a reasonable period of time – otherwise we could be heading for a disaster. What if there is a problem with the network after a full roll out? The government can’t back out then. A pilot scheme would address the key components of the new network and whether its partners are truly capable of the management, integration and delivery of LTE.”
Norfield is also concerned that the tendering process has been split into four areas (Requirements, Commercial, Solutions Development and Business Change and Transition), meaning there is no cohesive end-to-end view of the new communications system.
“If comms fail, resulting in a fatality or other major disaster will we see the network operator responsible for the failure held to account, rather than the police commissioner or fire board? The whole strategy needs to be better thought out before we spend the tax payers’ money on something that won’t fit the bill.”