The go-live date for the UK’s £1.8 billion 4G Emergency Services Network (ESN) is to be delayed by five months, Wireless has learned. Under the current business case, the ESN network is scheduled to go live in September 2017 when the first of 12 emergency services regions (North West) is due to begin transition from the existing Airwave TETRA network to ESN.
If the full five month extension to the design, build, test and assure mobilisation period is required, it means the North West region will now begin transition in March 2018 with the other 11 regions following at regular intervals with the last, the South East, now due to begin transition by April 2020. Under the current programme, transition was due to be completed in December 2019 and the Airwave network switched off on 31 December 2019.
When contacted by Wireless, a Home Office spokesman responded: ‘The new Emergency Services Network (ESN) will help keep people safe and provide the dedicated teams who work so hard protecting the public and saving lives with the most advanced communications system of its kind anywhere in the world.
‘We are committed to rolling out ESN and completing transition to the new network as soon as possible, and when acceptable to the emergency services’. To make sure this happens, we have rigorously reviewed the Programme with suppliers to make sure our plan is achievable.’
The Home Office said it has detailed contingency plans in place. The Government has extended all Airwave contracts to 31 December 2019. Should it be necessary to extend Airwave contracts beyond that point, the Government has agreed with Motorola Solutions (which now owns Airwave) a fixed monthly price for doing so.
The cost of extending Airwave by 12 months could be up to £475 million, according to the recent National Audit Office report, Upgrading emergency service communications; the Emergency Services Network, published on 15 September 2016. If the full five months extension is required that would mean a rough additional cost of nearly £200 million for extending Airwave assuming no one had transitioned to ESN.
The NAO also pointed out in its report that the programme had already slipped by two months due to delays in the procurement process in the second half of 2015. Since contract award in December 2015, detailed designs were finalised three months late. Some elements of the functionality due to be delivered by August 2016 will now be delivered in a phased manner, with some coming as much as eight months later than planned.
Both the emergency services and communications industry experts have long argued that the timelines were not sufficient for such an ambitious programme, especially one using untried technology for mission critical services on such a large scale.
This belief was reinforced by the NAO, which highlighted the tight timeline as a major concern in its report. The NAO observed: ‘Delivery of the programme against these technical challenges is by no means certain and, while total failure seems unlikely, there remains a risk that the programme will not be able to overcome these challenges for the cost or timetable proposal in the full business case, or to the satisfaction of users.’
It also noted that both the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) staff running the ESN procurement in the Home Office, and personnel in the emergency services, saw delivering ESN in line with the timeline of the full business case as ‘very difficult’.
The NAO expressed concern that the timeline contained no contingency to extend the design, build and test phase. The Home Office now appears to agree, as this is the period that has been extended by five months.
ESMCP staff told the NAO that they believe there is contingency to compress the planned timeline during the transition period (Sept 2017 to Dec 2019 as was). But the NAO recorded that emergency services personnel did not agree with this view, arguing that the September 2017 to December 2019 period ‘already gave them limited opportunity to plan or learn lessons from each other’.
Potentially, if ESMCP is right, some time could be recovered during the transition phase, but if the South West region does indeed not begin transition until April 2020, then that already seems unlikely.
The reasons for the delay are probably down to a number of different factors. EE has repeatedly said that it will have the necessary coverage and service equivalent to Airwave in place by September 2017. Some 700 new 4G sites have to found, designed, built and tested, as well as work to improve resilience and guarantee availability of the network.
Assuming EE fulfils its commitments on time and likewise Motorola Solutions with the user services, then the delays will be down to other aspects of the programme, and the sheer logistical difficulties of preparing, training and transitioning 300,000 users and re-fitting 45,000 vehicles.
It is well known within the communications industry that drawing up the specifications for the radio devices has been been causing problems. The Home Office intends to use a Dynamic Purchasing System to appoint manufacturers, but this has yet to go out to tender.
Establishing the right form factor(s) for rugged 4G devices with the necessary mission critical functionality is also proving difficult. For example, a solution for direct mode, radio to radio communications which bypass the network, has still to be announced.
Specific chipsets from Qualcomm enabling Google’s Android operating system to be adapted to meet the demands of a mission critical network are required and need to be tested and approved. In addition, both the network and devices will, at least initially, be based on LTE Release 12.
The first version of LTE to contain mission critical functionality specifications, principally for mission critical push to talk (MCPTT) for voice, were included in Release 13 – finalised by the 3GPP standards body in March 2016.
Specifications for mission critical data and video, and other functionalities, still have to wait for Release 14 or perhaps even 15. Providing the emergency services with access to fast data services is a key reason for moving to LTE, but this will have implemented on ESN ahead of the 3GPP standardised specifications.
All of which means proprietary (or pre-standard as the Home Office likes to call it) solutions have to found until the 3GPP standards are ready for commercial use in chipsets and devices and EE upgrades its network to Release 13.
At present, it is not yet clear how many device manufacturers will want to provide mission critical devices based on LTE Release 12 for what may prove to be a very small number of users in global terms.
Vehicle fit out
Vehicle fit out solutions are another area of concern. Wireless understands that designs for the fit out of 4G radio equipment in an ‘ideal’ vehicle exist, but these still need to be adapted in detailed practical terms for each type of emergency services vehicle – and then all the actual fit out scheduling needs to be organised and carried out.
Air to Ground
Solutions for the air to ground (A2G) coverage using commercial base stations and 2.345GHz spectrum shared with the Ministry of Defence still have to be finalised and agreed. Bespoke aircraft radios are the subject of a separate procurement, which has not yet gone to tender, although a PIN has been issued in the Official Journal of the European Union.
A solution for installing 4G coverage within the London Underground (LUL) system also still have to be agreed with Transport for London. The solution proposed by ESMCP includes installing ESN in stations using 4G access points connected to Wi-Fi infrastructure. ESN coverage would be extended throughout the tunnels using the existing leaky feeder cable network. EE would provide access equipment and connect it into its core.
However, it is thought LUL has concerns that once EE equipment is installed there will be no room for other communication service providers to install their kit. LUL is believed to prefer a multi-operator solution, so staff and customers can access all the UK mobile networks in the future.
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