UK officials revamp ESN plans again, target Airwave-to-LTE transition for end of 2026
United Kingdom (UK) first responders are expected to use the TETRA-based Airwave system owned by Motorola Solutions for at least five more years, as the end of 2026 is the new target date for transitioning to the much-delayed, over-budget Emergency Services Network (ESN), according to a Home Office official.
Home Office Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft made the statements about the latest ESN “reset”—a roughly two-year delay compared to the “overambitious” target of late 2024 or early 2025 proposed last fall—during a hearing today before the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
This represents the Home Office’s fourth new ESN timetable since Rycroft assumed the top job at the organization last July, but Rycroft said he is more confident about this schedule, because it was established through greater cooperation with representatives of the public-safety agencies that will be using the public-safety LTE network.
“We have taken the time on this one to do a full business case with the future users, with the suppliers, to have some very robust conversations with users and suppliers, and to come up with a plan that everyone can see is the right one,” Rycroft said during the hearing, which was webcast.
“There will be further bumps in the road inevitably—it’s a complex program—but there is contingency built into that timetable, and we are determined to meet it.”
First-responder representatives previously have been in relevant discussions about Airwave and the ESN, but the Home Office was much more attentive to public safety when preparing this latest timetable, according to Rycroft.
“They [public-safety officials] have been involved, but certainly in the first months of my involvement, I was struck that they weren’t sounding as if they were inside the tent, if I can put it that way,” he said. “I think what we have done in recent months is to bring them back into the tent—partly by moving the tent and partly by expanding it, making it a bigger tent, so there was space for more users, because they need this product.”
Motorola Solutions is expected to be the primary benefactor from the renewed commitment to Airwave, as its initial three-year extension of the Airwave system is due to expire at the end of 2022, as Motorola Solutions CEO Greg Brown noted recently. Based on the 450 million pounds ($638 million) per year that the UK pays Motorola to keep the Airwave system operational, a four-year contract to extend the TETRA network until the end of 2026 could generate more than $2.5 billion in additional revenue for the LMR giant.
Motorola Solutions also plays a key role in the ESN, holding the contract to lead the development of software and services for the UK’s public-safety LTE system, although for much less money than it receives for Airwave services. This arrangement has made several UK officials uncomfortable about Motorola Solutions’ incentive to make the TETRA-to-ESN transition happen as quickly as possible.
“Motorola has a foot in both camps,” PAC Chair Meg Hillier said during the hearing. “It’s doing rather well out of this delay.”
Rycroft quickly responded to Hillier’s statement.
“That is a conversation that I have had with the chief executive at Motorola and that others on the team have with others at Motorola very regularly,” Rycroft said. “We need to ensure that they are putting their very best people onto this program to ensure that no one could make the sort of allegation that you have hinted at—that they are seeking to go slower than they might, because they are making money out of delay. It is really, really important that they demonstrate that that is not the case.”
Conversations with Motorola Solutions may include suggestions that the vendor work more with other companies to address unspecified capabilities, according to Rycroft.
“With the benefit of hindsight, there are all sorts of things commercially that could have been done differently,” Rycroft said. “But we are where we are, as they say, and we are seeking to make the most of the relationships we have with the existing suppliers.
“Part of that is to ensure that, rather than just concentrating on what Motorola can do themselves, we work with Motorola to partner with other organizations—for instance, to fill areas of capability where they’re perhaps not as strong as they are on the core basics of delivering this program.”
As initially proposed, UK first responders were supposed to begin using the ESN in 2016 and transition completely in 2019, when the TETRA network would be retired upon the expiration of the original Airwave contract that year. With the Airwave-to-ESN transition delayed until the end of 2026, the total estimated cost of the UK public-safety communications program has grown from 6.2 billion pounds ($8.786 billion) in 2015 to 11.2 billion pounds ($15.872 billion) today, according to an official with the UK National Audit Office (NAO).
Despite the eight-year delay and 5.086-billion-pound ($7.210 billion) budget overage, Rycroft said transitioning UK public-safety communications to the LTE-based ESN continues to make sense.
“Other countries are pursuing this sort of technology at the same sort of scale as us, whereas previously we were way ahead of them,” Rycroft said. “This is an idea whose time has come.”
Rycroft said that Immigration Enforcement personnel are using the LTE push-to-talk functionality available through ESN, and some ambulance services also are using ESN to augment the mission-critical communications from the Airwave system. In addition, an estimated 200 emergency calls per months are being connected to control rooms because of the additional cell sites that have been installed as part of mandated ESN coverage, he said.
Overall, ESN is about 70% complete, with capabilities like control-room integration and air-to-ground communications being demonstrated, Rycroft said. However, considerable work remains before the ESN will be complete, he said.
“I wouldn’t want to pretend that we’re nearly there; we’re not,” Rycroft said. “That’s why my letter was very clear that this is going to go on until the end of 2026. But we are making progress, and we will keep you updated.”
As a point of comparison, AT&T’s initial five-year buildout of the FirstNet public-safety LTE network in the U.S. is expected to be completed on schedule in March 2023 and required only $7 billion in federal funding from spectrum-auction proceeds to get started. as well as 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum known as Band 14. On a square-mileage basis, FirstNet’s Band 14 coverage already is more than 20 times the geographic size of the UK, which is slightly smaller than the state of Michigan, albeit it much more densely populated.
FirstNet supports 2.2 million public-safety connections and is fully self-funded into 2042, with the FirstNet Authority expected to have about $15 billion in discretionary funds to enhance the network during the next two decades from its agreement with AT&T leverage the Band 14 MHz spectrum.