UK plans to start public-safety ‘mass transition’ from Airwave to ESN in first half of 2024
United Kingdom (UK) public-safety agencies are scheduled to begin switching mission-critical voice communications from the Airwave TETRA radio system to the LTE-based Emergency Services Network (ESN) during the first half of 2024, with complete ESN migration expected in 2026, according to a Home Office official.
ESN Programme Director John Black shared the timetable while updating the progress on the much-delayed UK public-safety broadband initiative during his keynote address at the British APCO (BAPCO) event conducted this week in Coventry.
ESN deployment has been plagued by significant delays, as the original project proposing that UK public-safety agencies start migrating mission-critical voice services from the expensive Airwave TETRA network to the ESN in 2016. But delays in the ESN network buildout and development of a suitable push-to-talk (PTT) solution have forced the Home Office to extend its contract for the Airwave service, which is owned by Motorola Solutions—the same company charged with developing the PTT replacement service for ESN.
Despite the many past delays and billions in projected cost overruns, Black expressed optimism that the latest revamp of the ESN project has the broad-based support and realistic business plan needed to make UK public-safety broadband communications a reality throughout the UK.
“We’re currently targeting the start of mass transitioning in the first half of 2024,” Black said during the BAPCO keynote. “It’s a 27-month projected period. We’ll do everything we can to accelerate that, if we can … The objective then is to achieve Airwave shutdown by the end of 2026.”
Achieving this timeline will require Motorola Solutions to provide a PTT solution suitable for public safety. Black said the UK government has been conducting tests with multiple version of Motorola Solutions’ carrier-integrated PTT offerings that the vendor giant gained by purchasing Kodiak in 2017 and will continue to do so through next year.
Motorola Solutions is expected to deliver ESN Version 1.0—described by Black as “the version we need for mass transition”—in the spring.
“The real target is ESN Version 1.0. ESN Version 1.0 is based on Kodiak 12, and the critical part of that is that Kodiak 12 [will be released] by Motorola around April of next year, and then we have a year of testing on that to make sure it does everything that we need it to do,” Black said, indicating that a production version of ESN 1.0 should be available in the first half of 2023.
“Even when we’ve done that, it will still be another year before we start the mass transition, and that’s currently targeted for some time in the first half of 2024.”
Meanwhile, Home Office officials will be working with UK public-safety agencies to test the PTT solution and the rest of the ESN system to ensure that it functions as needed.
“The absolute priority is officer safety” Black said. “We have to test this thing, test it to death, retest it and put through some big operational scenarios.
“Our users have been clear to us that safety is paramount, and that absolutely is critical. There is a red line there that you can’t cross.”
From a coverage standpoint, 648 of the 700 new ESN cell-site towers have been built by EE—the commercial carrier that is serving as the network contractor for the public-safety broadband initiative—with 566 already operational, Black said. The UK government is responsible for building 292 Extended Area Service (EAS) sites in remote and rural areas.
“That [EAS] program is well underway,” Black said. “We’ve built 127 of those, and we’ve started the process of activating them. We’ve only got six of them activated so far. We’ve got a plan to complete work before mass transition starts in 2024.”
Black also cited good progress in providing coverage for users in the London Underground, in aerial vehicles and at sea, but he noted that “we’ve still got quite a bit of work to do” in providing in-building coverage.
Overall, Black said he believes “we’re in a really strong position with [ESN] coverage” and offered an encouraging note about the comparison between the ESN’s coverage models and real-world coverage.
“Every time we make actual measurements, we’re finding that our models are conservative—we’re underestimating the available coverage,” Black said.
Airwave service originally was supposed to be halted in 2019, when the initial contract for the TETRA service expired. The current Airwave extension is set to expire at the end of 2022, and the agreement requires that any further extension be signed by the end of this year. Officials for Motorola Solutions and the Home Office are in the process of negotiating a four-year extension of the TETRA system that would result in the shutdown of Airwave by the end of 2026.
Many throughout the UK government have expressed concern about Motorola Solutions’ dual role as the owner of Airwave and as a key supplier of the ESN. In particular, those familiar with the situation have noted that Motorola Solutions makes significantly more money annually from maintaining Airwave than it does to develop a PTT solution that would replace Airwave.
This summer, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) noted in a 36-page report that Motorola Solutions currently is positioned to realize about £1.2 billion—$1.66 billion—in “excess profits” from 2020 through 2026 from its dual roles with the UK government.
With this in mind, the CMA initiated a proceeding in July to gather input whether it should launch a market investigation into Motorola Solutions. Comments in the proceeding were due on Sept. 2, but none have been published to date, as the CMA website for the proceeding only states that “we’re analysing your feedback.”