ESN program director says most of UK public-safety LTE system will be finished in fall 2020
First responders in the United Kingdom (UK) should be able to use push-to-talk-over-cellular (PoC) technology on the Emergency Services Network (ESN) nationwide public-safety LTE network next year, according to Bryan Clark, Home Office’s program director leading the ESN project.
Clark made the statements during his keynote presentation the Mission Critical Technologies (MCT) even in London last week. While expressing confidence that the much-delayed and over-budget ESN will deliver a technical alternative to the existing Motorola Solutions-owned Airwave TETRA system within the revamped project schedule, Clark acknowledged that the timetable for convincing users to switch to the LTE solutions—and implementing it—is not as firm.
“I think, technically, we’re really on track to get the meat of the program complete by the autumn of next year,” Clark said. “The real challenge that we face right now is building confidence in our customer base and demonstrating in the real world that this is up to the job, that people’s lives can be trusted with it, and that we have comprehensive testing—what we call an assurance program—that’s being finalized at the moment. It’s a major set of activities, a whole series of real-world tests before we go for at-scale deployment.”
ESN will begin initial trials in the middle of July, with border officials using Motorola Solutions’ Kodiak PoC offering. The trial is slated to expand in December. Home Office officials are devising a plan to distribute all of the equipment needed to make the shift to ESN voice, assuming the early deployments go well, Clark said.
“That’s the thing that’s not exactly clear, how we’re going to do all of that,” he said. “Work is in progress to refine that now, working closely with emergency services.
“I’d say we’ve got a really clear path forward, in terms of the technical solution. We’re now gearing up for the major challenge of assuring and then deploying.”
Replacing the expensive Airwave system has been the Home Office priority for building the ESN, but initial deadlines of having the proposed LTE system ready in 2016 and 2019 were both missed. As a result, the UK government recently signed a contract with Motorola Solutions to extend use of Airwave through 2022, and Home Office officials have told Parliament that at least some aspects of Airwave will need to be used until the end of 2023.
Cellular provider EE is supplying the spectrum and most of the network infrastructure using its existing commercial system, and Motorola Solutions is responsible for the software applications, including the PoC solution.
“This is mission-critical technology. People’s lives depend on it—both the lives of the emergency-services workers and the lives of the public.
“Our number-one priority is safety, and it’ a complex task to replace an existing and highly functional voice-communication system with one that can be enhanced and grow into the future. We have to provide mission-critical voice communications from the start, without any risk.”
Clark said that many outsiders may not grasp the scope of the ESN project, which is designed to provide LTE connectivity to support critical voice and data application to more than 350,000 users and 48,000 vehicles. Making the change from TETRA to PoC is a “major challenge,” he said.
“We’re trying to change the wheels on the bus while we’re going down the road,” Clark said.
From a coverage standpoint, the completed ESN will “make sure that everybody can communicate instantly everywhere in the country, including some quite remote and difficult-to-access places,” Clark said.
“We have a very clear definition of the amount of coverage that we need to achieve,” he said. “It takes us into areas that don’t have coverage on a commercial basis.
“We’re building extended-area masts, which are owned are owned by the state and which will be used to provide services to remote, rural areas. But, of course, people do live there, as well, and that’s a big plus for some areas of Scotland and Wales, in particular.”
While the EE portion of the network deployment is proceeding well, a report released last month from the National Audit Office indicated that the UK government had completed only two of the 200 cell towers it is responsible for deploying.
When asked whether the ESN would require another time extension, Clark said that is not part of the current plan.
“It’s a very reasonable opinion, based on past experience of large government projects,” Clark said. “At the moment, I can say categorically that we’re not planning for another reset. We’ve done that work, we’re working through a very clearly defined plan, and we’re actually hitting our milestones.
“Now, we’ve got a lot of certainty on the arrival dates, we’re proceeding at pace to determine the optimal deployment strategy. I can categorically say that we have no secret plans for a further reset.”
In addition to terrestrial coverage, the ESN is supposed to support maritime communications with coverage that extends 12 miles off the coastlines, according to Clark.
“Surprisingly, the coverage is very good, using existing masts [EE cell towers] and existing technology,” he said. “There are gaps; our job is simply to identify the gaps and fill the gaps. Pleasingly, I don’t think we need to do anything particularly clever.”
ESN service also is slated to support air-to-ground communications for helicopters and other first-responder aerial vehicles operating at elevations up to 10,000 feet, Clark said. Devices for these vehicles are being procured now, and Home Office officials believe the needed aerial coverage can be supplied by deploying new LTE equipment on less than 100 existing cell towers in the UK, he said.