UK public safety’s transition from TETRA to LTE-based ESN targeted for 2024 or 2025, Home Office officials say
Emergency-services agencies in the United Kingdom (UK) are expected to stop using the Airwave TETRA LMR system in 2024 or 2025, when the transition to an LTE push-to-talk solution on the much-delayed Emergency Services Network (ESN) is scheduled for completion, officials for the UK Home Office said last week.
Home Office Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft, who succeeded Sir Philip Rutnam in March, acknowledged that the ESN has been a “troubled program in the past,” but he expressed confidence that the project “has turned a corner” and is on track to provide UK first responders with reliable broadband connectivity.
“The absolute latest that we could turn Airwave off is 2025, and what we are seeking to do is to accelerate that date, so that we can turn it off by the beginning of 2024,” Rycroft said during a Sept. 10 hearing before the Public Accounts Committee of the UK Parliament, which was webcast. “If we could turn it off even sooner than that, then obviously we can, but I don’t want to give a date which then doesn’t get met.”
Original plans called for the LTE-based ESN to replace the Airwave TETRA network by the end of 2019, but myriad delays caused the transition timeline to be changed last year to at least 2022 or 2023. Rycroft’s new timeline of an ESN transition represents an extension of a year or two to the previous timetable.
Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, described the ESN initiative to date as “another government failure” and expressed frustration about the new timetable for the project cited by Rycroft.
“That is quite disheartening, really,” Hillier said. “I fear that we could possibly predict that we might get closer to 2025 than 2022.”
Home Office officials told the Public Accounts Committee in June 2019 that it had included a contingency budget to extend the Airwave system through 2023. At that time, the UK’s National Audit Office released a report that the ESN project would be £3.1 billion—or $3.999 billion, based on current exchange rates—over its original budget.
Joanna Davinson, the chief digital, data and technology officer for the Home Office, said the cost of each year’s delay in making the transition to ESN “is in the ballpark of £550 million,” or more than $700 million, according to current exchange rates.
Most of this money will go to Motorola Solutions, which owns the Airwave TETRA network.
“Just for the Airwave contract, we’re talking about £360 million to £400 million per year,” Davinson said. Under current exchange rates, these figures mean that each additional year of Airwave operation represents between $464.4 million to $516 million for Motorola Solutions.
In addition to providing the incumbent TETRA service through Airwave, Motorola Solutions also owns Kodiak, the carrier-integrated LTE push-to-talk solution that UK Home Office officials are relying on to replace the TETRA PTT service provided by Airwave. In the U.S., Kodiak software powers the cellular push-to-talk services offered by carrier giants AT&T and Verizon.
In previous Public Accounts Committee meetings, committee members have expressed concern about Motorola Solutions’ crucial role on both the TETRA and LTE sides of the public-safety-communications transition. In this meeting, there were several references to both Airwave and Kodiak, but Motorola Solution was not mentioned during the 35-minute discussion of the ESN.
Davinson said the terrestrial LTE network portion of the ESN—being built by cellular carrier EE—is almost complete.
“All the physical builds will be there, certainly by the end of the year—we are actually targeting the end of October,” Davinson said, noting that work remains to deliver air-to-ground communications, as well as reliable connectivity to the London Underground transit system, which is expected to be finished near the end of 2022.
Davinson also expressed optimism about the hardened Samsung LTE device that is being used for the ESN, describing it as “a really good product.” About 1,000 of these handsets are being trialed through the ESN Direct 2 offering, which uses version 9 of the Kodiak software. Plans call for 5,000 more devices to be distributed in April for testing of a new version of Kodiak-based PTT called Prime for a nine months of trials that would extend through 2021, she said.
“We’re currently testing Kodiak 10,” Davinson said. “We’ve had that in our test environment since July. The testing is going well. That will be the product that we will release in Q2 next year as Prime—the final product, with all the functionality in.
“Then there is a road map beyond that, where we will go to successive versions of Kodiak as and when they are released. One of the things that we do have in our contract with Kodiak is that they have an obligation—where the 3GPP standard moves, then within 18 months that standard has to be reflected within the Kodiak software. So that gives us the confidence that it will evolve.”
Calls by IWCE’s Urgent Communications to Motorola Solution in an effort to clarify the feature sets included in the different versions of Kodiak’s push-to-talk offerings were not returned in time to be included in this article.
Davinson said she believe that such PTT trials will greatly enhance acceptance of the ESN within the UK public-safety community—something that has been a problem to date. While the additional delays in the ESN project are not ideal, Home Office officials now are more confident in the new deployment roadmap and timeline, she said.
“We are now looking at moving into 2024, but with a plan that has much more detail, confidence and engagement behind it with the user community,” Davinson said.
“What are we doing with the user community? One of the challenges has been that until we have got a real working solution, of course there is skepticism in the user community, because they cannot see, touch and feel something … Over the course of the next few months, we are working with a number of fire and rescue services and with a number of police services. They will have these devices, and we will be working with them to test it in the run-up to them delivering the core, final release, which is called Prime, roundabout Q2 next year.”
Given this scheduled testing, Davinson acknowledged that the transition to the ESN “absolutely” will not occur by the end of 2022, the target date for completion given to the Public Accounts Committee last year.
Citing the many delays and budget overages associated with the ESN, some in the UK have questioned whether the UK nationwide public-safety broadband is worth completing. Rycroft repeatedly insisted that the ESN project can be finished and provide first responders with communications capabilities that were envisioned initially.
With this in mind, abandoning the ESN at this juncture is not practical, according to Rycroft.
“There is no alternative; or rather, any alternative would be worse than sticking with this program and ensuring that the emergency services have the sort of network and the sort of equipment that they need,” Rycroft said. “The position of the Home Office is that this will succeed; it must succeed; the emergency services need it.
“Even if there is further delay into 2025—even in that scenario—the net present value of this program will be positive. We have to go ahead with this, because it is going to be a better product and, in the long run, cheaper year on year than the existing system.”
One touchy subject within the UK has been whether the public-safety agencies or the Home Office ultimately will decide when first responders must switch from Airwave to the ESN. Rycroft said that the Home Office continues to want to let public-safety agencies decide when to make the technology migration but offered a significant caveat during a verbal exchange with Hillier.
“That is the position of the Home Office, but I wouldn’t want any single force to think that if they feel perfectly comfortable with the existing system they can keep going on their own for years and years,” Rycroft said.
Hillier noted the important distinction.
“That cuts to the point,” Hillier said. “There is going to be a point at which, even if they are not 100% happy with it—and with all the different versions of Kodiak coming through, they could always be wanting to wait for the next change, the next situation—is there a point at which you are going to change position and say, ‘Now we are cutting off Airwave. You have to move over to the new system come what may, whatever glitches, whether you like it or not’?
Rycroft said he believes that there will be point when public-safety entities will have abandon Airwave, even if they don’t necessarily want to make the transition.
“There will come a point when we say we must turn off Airwave and cut over everyone to the new system. By that point, there will have been a snowballing effect of more and more users using it, shaping it, getting comfortable with it, improving it, and convincing all of the other users that it’s the right way to go.
“In the end, I am sure there will not be universally high levels of enthusiasm for this change; I don’t think you find that for any change in any organization anywhere. So, there will come a point where people will need to look very carefully at their own finances— at the … disincentives for not coming across and literally getting with the program.”
Initially, the UK’s ESN was slated to be the first nationwide public-safety broadband system to be completed in the world, with users migrating to mission-critical LTE communications as early as 2016 and finishing the transition by 2019, so the expensive Airwave system could be shut down.
But that timeline has not been met, and other public-safety LTE systems—the FirstNet system in the U.S. and the SafeNet system in South Korea—have gained real-world usage more rapidly. However, those non-ESN systems are not specifically designed to replace LMR communications, which public-safety officials have acknowledged is very difficult challenge for an LTE system, for a variety of reasons.