Delays associated with overbudget ESN in UK could generate additional Airwave TETRA revenues for Motorola Solutions
Delays and uncertainties surrounding the Emergency Services Network (ESN) mean that some United Kingdom (UK) public-safety personnel likely will need the Airwave TETRA network for at least one extra year beyond the current December 2022 target date to retire the Motorola Solutions-owned system, according to UK officials.
UK Home Office officials initially planned to have the nationwide ESN public-safety LTE system operational and retire the expensive Airwave system at the end of this year. Last fall, the Home Office announced that it reached an agreement with Motorola Solutions to extend the life of the Airwave for three years—a deal that was signed this spring.
While the contract extension provides UK first responders with some certainty about the availability for Airwave to provide TETRA push-to-talk voice communications for the next three years, it also extends the budget overage for the ESN project to more than 3.1 billion pounds, according to a report recently released by the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO).
Stephen Webb, the senior responsible owner for ESN in the Home Office, said the latest plan includes contingency funding to pay for Airwave for a year beyond December 2022. The Home Office hopes to know more about the transition—currently set at 27 months, although some public-safety officials believe it will take four years—from Airwave to ESN after conducting two sets of ESN push-to-talk tests that are scheduled to begin in July and late this year, respectively.
“The 27 months is to what we call the national shutdown [of Airwave] at the end of 2022, but it’s really a ‘not-before’ date,” Webb said during a hearing before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the UK Parliament. “The actual 9.3 billion [pound] figure in the business case here includes a contingency and is really premised around an end of 2023—it assumes that it will probably take a year longer. That’s our current assumption. We will have a better sense, once we’ve worked with the users, how realistic that is.”
Sir Philip Rutnam was named permanent secretary for the Home Office in April 2017, shortly after the Home Office was granted a nine-month timeline extension. Rutnam said he quickly realized that the ESN initiative was under “strain” soon after his appointment and that further delays were possible.
“The thing that that really sounded a warning to me was that we had just added nine months into the program, and now the most senior people in the program were saying, ‘That might not be enough,’” Rutnam said during the PAC hearing. “That was a real concern to me … The thing that concerned me was that we had bad news coming so quickly [after being granted] an additional nine months.”
Rutnam also noted that the contractual structure of the ESN is “unusual.” UK cellular carrier EE is contracted to provide the network infrastructure for the ESN, while Motorola Solutions is responsible for delivering push-to-talk and other software solutions for the UK’s public-safety LTE system.
“To go back to pre-2015, when the procurements were put in place, this was a highly disaggregated approach to the delivery of this program which leaves the department—which was always going to have an important role—in an even more important role as systems integrator and responsible for managing a multiplicity of suppliers,” Rutnam said. “So, there is no prime contractor, in the same way as you might be familiar with in other contexts.”
Webb explained that talk of a delay greater than nine months came after a discouraging software test between EE and Motorola Solutions in spring 2017 “revealed a whole set of problems in the program.” One major issue was that EE was testing network infrastructure based on LTE Release 12, and the Motorola WAVE push-to-talk product was based on LTE Release 10.
PAC Chairwoman Meg Hillier noted that even people who are not technical experts understand that systems operating on different technology releases could have compatibility issues and questioned why the discrepancy between the network and software releases “didn’t raise a bigger alarm bell” for those heading the ESN project.
“I don’t think we’d realized how major an impact that was going to have,” Webb said. “We knew that Motorola had used this (3GPP) Release 10 … Until we actually saw this live in testing, it wasn’t really clear how big the problem was. I completely accept that.
“I think we knew early on that there was a distinction between the Release 10 and the Release 12. What we didn’t understand was how fundamental that was going to be in making this system work over a commercial—as opposed to a private—4G network and just how many problems it would cause later.”
This episode caused relationships among those involved in the ESN project to “become very fractured,” and officials for both the Home Office and Motorola Solutions “assumed the worst of each other” at the time, according to Webb. In fact, Webb acknowledged that he was questioning the technical viability of the ESN when UK officials visited Motorola Solutions headquarters in Chicago in the fall of 2017 to discuss the situation.
“That was quite a seminal meeting with the top team in Motorola,” Webb said. “I think it brought home to them the scale of the concern on our side. They were able to dispel some of our concerns. They acknowledged some of the problems with early quality, and the explained what they were doing with their testing organization in the U.S. to improve the quality of the software before it left the U.S.
“We made a lot of progress on what was concerning us at the time about the route to standards, but particularly the security architecture. That remained a considerable concern and the driver behind the shift to Kodiak.”
Indeed, Motorola Solution recently had completed its purchase of Kodiak, the supplier of carrier-integrated push-to-talk solutions to operators such as AT&T, Verizon and Sprint in the U.S., as well as others throughout the world. Although the shift to Kodiak added extra delay to the project and caused some completed work to be redone, Webb said he believes using Kodiak technology that already is proven to work on carrier network gives the Home Office “a reasonably high level of confidence” that the ESN is technically viable.
Webb said that initial field testing of the Kodiak push-to-talk solution is scheduled to begin in July, when the ESN Direct application–a push-to-talk offering designed for “less-critical scenarios,” according to a UK government web sited about the ESN–will be used by about 120 immigration and border personnel to assess basic functionality. Late this year, another test of the push-to-talk service will be conducted to assess “interworking with the Airwave solution and the integration with the control rooms,” Webb said.
Released in May, the National Audit Office report expressed caution about the ability for the Kodiak product to meet the complete push-to-talk needs of UK first responders.
“During development of the ESN service, it became clear that Motorola’s Wave 7000 ‘push-to-talk’ product was not meeting the users’ requirements,” the NAO report states. “In 2017, Motorola purchased the Kodiak push-to-talk product, which is a theoretical improvement, because it complies with the international telecommunication standards used by EE. However, the system still requires significant development and testing and will not meet user requirements until 2020, at the earliest.”
The NAO report also states that “Kodiak is not currently used by emergency services but is expected to be adopted by the national FirstNet project for emergency services in the USA,” referencing the FirstNet public-safety LTE system being built by contractor AT&T in the U.S.
Kodiak’s cellular push-to-talk product is available to FirstNet customers today and is used by public-safety personnel primarily to augment their land-mobile-radio (LMR) communications, particularly when outside of their jurisdictions. However, most public-safety agencies in the U.S. have no plans to consider replacing their LMR systems until FirstNet makes push-to-talk voice available that at least meets the mission-critical-push-to-talk (MCPTT) standard approved by the 3GPP standards body.
AT&T officials have stated that FirstNet subscribers will have a choice of multiple vendors providing “fully 3GPP-compliant MCPTT solutions during the second of 2019.” AT&T completed an RFP selection process for MCPTT vendors last year but has not announced any result to date.
3GPP took unprecedented actions in creating the standards for MCPTT—as well as standards for MCData and MCVideo—to serve the needs of global first responders, particularly in LTE Releases 12, 13 and 14. In many key cases, this standards push has been led by UK officials.
“The UK plays an absolutely pivotal role in designing and developing the international 3GPP standards for this service, so they are more suited for our needs,” Rutnam said.
Despite this UK standards focus, the terms “mission-critical push to talk” and “MCPTT” were not mentioned in the NAO report or spoken during the PAC hearing about ESN plans.
The UK government’s ESN web site describes a future product called ESN Prime that will provide a “full suite of public-safety communications services, including critical voice push-to-talk, messaging and video, and is aimed at organizations who are ready to begin the move away from Airwave. ESN Prime is scheduled to be available in October 2020, according to a graph in the NAO report.
A Motorola Solutions official told IWCE’s Urgent Communications in April that the latest Kodiak solution complies with “aspects of the MCPTT standard that are currently available to us.” One of the missing MCPTT elements—one that has been a problem through the LTE community—is proximity services (ProSe), the direct-mode communications technology specified by 3GPP to support communications between LTE devices when connectivity to an LTE network is not available.
Samsung has stated that it has developed a ProSe chipset, but it has not released any information to date on the performance of the technology. No other vendor has announced that a ProSe chipset as being available.
Another problem for the Home Office is coverage. To match the coverage provided by Airwave, the Home Office assumed the responsibility of building 292 cell sites to augment the coverage provided by EE’s commercial network build, which is close to meeting the terms of the contract. However, only two of the projected 292 Home Office cell sites have been built to date, according to the NAO report.
Even if the ESN delivers the promised functionality, Home Office officials have stated that the Airwave shutdown will not happen until public-safety agencies accept the ESN service as a suitable replacement—something that all acknowledged as a major challenge, especially because it is more subjective than meeting a technical requirement.
PAC member Lee Rowley asked whether the Home Office had the power to retire the Airwave system, even if some first responders don’t support the move. Rutnam said the Home Office plans to work with public-safety agencies, if a dispute arises about the ESN’s.
“The reality is that what will happen is more discussion and more effort to reach a resolution,” Rutnam said. “That is the reality. We’re not going to be in the business of threatening to deprive emergency services of their vital communication.
“This is the nature of the relationship—whether we like it or not—between the Home Office and the emergency services. We’re both dependent on each other, … which is why building user confidence is so fundamental.”
Rowley expressed support for the Home Office goal of public-safety unanimity but said he is concerned about having to fund additional Airwave contract extensions, even if the ESN is a technically viable alternative.
“The statements you’re giving me scare me quite a lot,” Rowley said. “All of those things, taken together, mean that—in an extreme scenario—you’ll never sign this [Airwave system] off. So, what’s the point in doing it? You will be running Airwave forever—out of those 470 organizations, at least one will say ‘No.’
“You can’t reconcile all of these statements. I don’t mind which one you change, but you can’t reconcile them. And we will be here in two years’ time, saying, ‘There’s a billion-and-a-half-pound cost here,’ if we’re not careful … You may be doing this, but you need to give me more confidence that you’re doing it. Because I see a brick wall, as it’s being explained today.”
Rutnam acknowledged Rowley’s concerns but reiterated that the Home Office will take the steps necessary to ensure that UK public-safety agencies have confidence in the ESN.
“I understand the risk that you’re talking about, but I’m trying very hard—we’re trying very hard—to avoid this crystallizing into a standoff,” Rutnam said. “That would be bad, I think, for all of the parties.”
Other ESN issues that still need to be addressed include an air-to-ground solution, in-vehicle devices and integration with control rooms (the UK equivalent of 911 centers in the U.S.), according to the NAO report.
“The Home Office will not be able to switch Airwave off until all control rooms are upgraded, which depends upon work done by the emergency services, their control room suppliers and suppliers of associated systems, but it has no way to ensure this work aligns with ESN plans,” the NAO report states. “Any changes will be managed and contracted by the emergency services, under various funding arrangements.”
No matter what the reasons, it is very likely that the UK government will need to pay Motorola Solutions to continue Airwave service beyond the current target date at the end of 2022. The fact that Motorola Solutions is the vendor designated to deliver the ESN push-to-talk software to replace Airwave—a TETRA service that delivers Motorola Solutions much more in annual revenue than ESN would provide—has been a point of concern for many UK officials since Motorola Solutions purchased Airwave shortly after winning the ESN software contract.
“The Home Office will need to manage carefully the commercial consequences of renewing Airwave before changes to the Motorola contract have been agreed,” according to the NAO report, which was released shortly before the contract extending Airwave through December 2022 was signed. “Motorola will benefit from the successful development of ESN, but it also receives large revenues from the continued use of Airwave.
“Following its acquisitions of Airwave and Kodiak, Motorola owns several key components of the current and future emergency services communications systems, putting it at an advantage over any competitors when the ESN contract is renewed in 2024. Motorola is also a control-room vendor, potential supplier of handsets and vehicle devices and in charge of accrediting devices and control rooms for ESN.”
Although there is a budgetary contingency to extend Airwave an extra year, the terms of such an extension remain subject to a negotiation, particularly if Motorola Solution must invest money to upgrade the TETRA system to ensure that it meets the needs of emergency services in the UK, according to Joanna Davinson, the chief digital, data and technology for the Home Office.
“It will be a negotiation, but we will have to agree with Motorola on the scope that needs to be extended,” Davinson said during the PAC hearing. “Is it everything, or is it part of the solution? Clearly, if we’ve already rolled out [ESN] in parts of the country, we wouldn’t want to extend the entire network.
“We would have to agree on a price, and that would depend on whether there does need to be further upgrades or enhancements of the Airwave system for tech refresh. And some of that will depend on if we are extending for 6, 9 or 12 months. It will be a very different conversation, if we have to extend for further than that.”
But PAC member Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said he does not like the government’s negotiation position, if any kind of Airwave extension deal is necessary. Currently, the cost of extending Airwave costs the UK government about 620 million pounds each year, he said.
“It does seem to me that, if you have any substantial amount of Airwave usage left [when an extension deal is needed for service beyond 2022], Motorola will inevitably say to you, ‘I’m sorry, we’ve got to invest a lot of money to do this. We’re putting the price up considerably,’” Clifton-Brown said during the PAC hearing. “You’ve lost your leverage, haven’t you really?”
Davinson said, “We will have a negotiation.”
Clifton-Brown replied, “You will have a negotiation, but you’ve lost the leverage.”
Despite the technical and financial challenges associated with establishing the ESN, Webb said he believes completing the UK’s nationwide public-safety LTE network remains the best available option.
“If you believe this is technically possible at all, there’s almost no circumstances where it would make sense to remain with Airwave,” Webb said. “Even if you assume it would be possible to keep TETRA going well into the 2030s—which I don’t think anybody really believes—the big cost drivers don’t change, whether you transition to an ESN now or in five or in ten years.”
Rutnam echoed this sentiment.
“We continue to anticipate very large financial savings associated with being able to switch off Airwave and relying on the new network—it will be on the order of halving [the annual costs],” Rutnam said. “We think the business case continues to be resilient in that scenario.
“There are a couple of other points I’d add. The first is that, from a practical perspective, I think if we lose courage now and stop this process, … then I would predict that—at some point, in a smallish number of years—the government of the day would come back to the question of how to replace Airwave. A second point that is linked … is that, as the program has gone on, more and more countries have started to do the same things—France, Finland, the U.S., Denmark.”
ESN Programme Director Bryan Clark is scheduled to deliver an update about the public-safety LTE system as one of the featured morning keynotes at the Mission Critical Technologies (MCT) event in London on June 12.