Can UK ESN be saved?

Today I take a brief look at a growing number of similar programmes from other parts of the world, in order to shed light on possible alternative paths that UK could follow as a "Plan B" (or maybe even Plans C, D…) if/when it becomes clear that ESN can no longer be delivered successfully in its current form. I would expect UK Government already to have such contingency plans in place – and maybe they do – but they appear to be buried under a growing pile of NDAs, restrictive contract clauses & oaths of secrecy from the inner priests in charge of this programme that make it difficult for outside observers to judge their validity.

In an increasingly open, transparent world where we all benefit from sharing best practice & working together to build truly global standards, I find UK Home Office/ESMCP/ESN's attitude frustrating, ill-placed & totally unnecessary. Only through open debate & frank, constructive discussions can we build the next generation of public safety communications solutions that emergency services personnel, Governments & societies will require as we enter the new hyper-connected, globalised 5G world of the 2020s & beyond.

My only personal reason for writing such posts is to inform a wider audience of the reality & options available today & tomorrow in order to protect the public from the dangers that lurk in the modern world. I hope you find them useful & informative & I hope that they will lead to a more informed debate within our community & beyond. Please do not remain silent! Secrecy leads to complacency & complacency will lead to very, very bad outcomes at some stage in the future. We can allow this to happen.

So what is happening around the world? What lessons might ESN be able to learn? Is it time for certain nations to eat a large slice of humble pie & start collaborating more openly & more proactively with partners in Europe, USA, Middle East & further afield to develop one common, harmonised strategy for critical communications that could benefit billions of global citizens beyond the shores of one small island & lead to more robust & coordinated critical comms for all?

In United States, FirstNet is now close to choosing its partner(s) for the roll-out of a nationwide public safety LTE (broadband) network, with $US 7 billion assigned by US Government, 2 x 10 MHz awarded in 700 MHz (Band 14) & a separate entity with a separate Board set up to run a Government-sponsored project working together with experts in the field of LTE network roll-out & public safety. Dedicated spectrum, dedicated resources & a nationwide plan. It is a shame that USA & Canada will be using a different frequency band to the rest of the world in 700 MHz (Asia-Pacific has chosen Band 28, which appears to be the preference of Europe/Region 1 & also Mexico, Brazil & most Latin American countries), but at least they have a large enough market (?), the proximity of commercial LTE carriers & dedicated spectrum.

In Australia, Telstra is about to launch its LANES Emergency service that will provide priority access to advanced broadband services to the emergency services. I wish them well. My hope is that ACMA, Canberra & state governments will continue to work together to provide emergency services with additional spectrum for their own use in recognised ITU bands so that they can supplement any service agreement they might have with Telstra. Of course, existing LMR/P25 networks should also be maintained & enhanced for the foreseeable future to provide mission-critical voice & short data services on a daily basis & when disaster strikes.

A lot has been happening recently in Middle East. Qatar Ministry of Interior led the way back in 2011 by instigating a private LTE network for public safety use with 2 x 10 MHz in Band 20 (800 MHz), plus additional spectrum in higher frequencies for capacity when the need arises. In Dubai, Nedaa has recently signed an agreement with Nokia to build a 5G-ready public safety network to complement its existing Airbus TETRA network that it continues to maintain, upgrade & extend into new areas of development, in-building coverage etc. Dubai Police also have a clear vision of the future of policing & Dubai Expo 2020 is also driving the requirements for next-generation public safety ICT systems (network of networks). Similar projects are under way in other Emirates, Oman & also in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where Bravo (PTC) is developing exciting plans for the future of mission-critical communications (explaining this will require a whole separate article over the coming days!).

Across Europe, the vast majority of European public safety organisations, Ministries of Interior etc. have been meeting regularly to develop a coordinated plan for the future of public safety & mission-critical communications. Most European nations have nationwide TETRA networks of varied vintage. Belgium, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden and others have been operating TETRA networks for a decade or more & are refreshing these with the latest versions ready for integration of more advanced solutions, including broadband. Germany and Norway have just completed extensive TETRA network roll-outs.

Hybrid solutions that combine TETRA and commercial LTE within a secure environment are being developed with cooperation of existing TETRA and LTE suppliers to prepare for the next stage of emergency services communications. Spectrum is being sought especially in 700 MHz (Bands 28 + 68), with possible assignments also in UHF 400 MHz bands (especially 450 MHz) in particular cases. Progress was made during WRC-15, but time is required to harmonise bands.

Another positive development within 3GPP standardisation of mission-critical solutions has been the incorporation of the railway community (UIC, ERA etc.) into the process in recent times with the FRMCS (Future Railway Mobile Communication System) study item potentially increasing the addressable market for mission-critical LTE/5G solutions by the mid-2020s.

So let us now turn to what is happening in South Korea:

Following the tragic Sewol ferry tragedy in April 2014 & the resulting, well-documented public safety communications failures, the South Korean Government decided that enough was enough & they would lead the global effort to achieve true interoperability between all their emergency services by constructing a nationwide multi-layered, fully coordinated, high-capacity, mission-critical network based on 3GPP standards being developed with SA Working Group 6.

The Korean SafeNet programme deserves its own lengthy article explaining its multiple aspects, dependencies & relationships, but what is most important for us today is that 2 x 10 MHz of dedicated spectrum was found within the valuable Band 28 (700 MHz APT), sufficient resources were assigned to the programme by Government to help develop standards & get the commitment of all major commercial & mission-critical players in Korea, as well as developing a model that can serve as a benchmark to the rest of the world as we grapple with the complexities of building highly secure, highly resilient, next-generation platforms for public safety.

An extensive trial period has been concluded over the summer of 2016, a number of provinces should be completed & operational during 2017 & the full nationwide solution will be available by the end of 2018. Korea did not have a nationwide TETRA network; it also has perhaps the most complete LTE coverage of any nation on the planet; and it has also understood the close, synergistic relationship that will need to exist in the future between commercial & mission-critical solutions as we move towards the 5G era.

So what overall lessons can we learn from the above examples? I would like to open this up to general debate within the global critical communications community, but I will also make some comments of my own here:

  • Our industry is very small compared to the global commercial LTE market, so we need to think regionally & even globally.

  • No individual Government or mission-critical services provider can behave like an island & turn its back on the rest of the world, who should be considered valuable partners in a global drive towards increased harmonisation & coordination of public safety communications efforts.

  • There are so many positive, uplifting, inspirational programmes being conducted around the world at the moment & most of these are happy to open themselves to others & share their experiences.

  • There are so many options surrounding hybrid models at the moment that this is an exciting time to be working in this field. Every market, every nation, every end-user has its own unique requirements, but there is also a lot we can share.

  • Emergency services, authorities & citizens will all benefit from global standards, global best practice & shared experiences.

  • We need to work together to develop a common spectrum strategy across ITU Regions, if possible. Work has been going on for several years so far & many more years will be required to reach a common position for public safety. Even the existing PMR/TETRA bands in UHF (380-400, 410-430, 450-470 MHz) need to be preserved for decades to come for mission-critical communications, so we need to start putting realistic dates on an eventual handover from TETRA to mission-critical LTE, even if this cannot realistically happen until 2025-2030. TETRA will continue to save lives for at least another decade, but 3GPP Releases 12, 13, 14 and 15 will move into the mainstream over the coming 5-10 years with mission-critical communications features at their core. This is the best legacy that TETRA advocates will be leaving for future generations.

  • The need for interworking between TETRA/P25 and LTE also depends upon the existing position of each market & each network operator. Existing nationwide TETRA networks must be maintained, upgraded & eventually migrated to mission-critical LTE as the standards are completed & solutions become available. Solutions such as Motorola's WAVE 7000, Airbus' Tactilon Agnet & other similar R&D programmes from Thales, Huawei, Sepura Group, Harris & many, many more need to be standardised within 3GPP in readiness for one generation of hybrid mission-critical solutions.

  • I would also expect there to be a market for a hybrid TETRA+LTE(+other?) handheld & mobile unit if we take our time as a global community to get the transition to next-generation platforms right, rather than rushing the effort, fragmenting the market, confusing the end-user & undermining the global, coordinated effort for the benefit of tens of millions of first responders around the world.

So what should UK Home Office do right now?

  • Take a long, long look at the current management/responsibilities structure within ESMCP/ESN to make sure it is fit for purpose & serving the needs of emergency services; where necessary, bringing in additional resources, new blood, independent experts & more emergency services buy-in.

  • Undertake a comprehensive review of global best practice in public safety communications.

  • Start serious negotiations with Airwave to guarantee that the existing nationwide TETRA service will be available to emergency services if required until 2025 on the best possible terms for UK Government & taxpayers (maybe even looking at alternatives to Airwave for the next 8-year period, if Airwave refuses to engage in serious negotiations)

  • Continue working closely with existing ESN contractors & especially Motorola Solutions & EE to allow them to continue developing innovative solutions, interfaces & products/services. Mission-critical LTE must continue its course as we all agree it is the natural replacement for TETRA – one day!

  • Carry out all the necessary tests, PoCs & real-world trials that are necessary alongside existing Airwave & other solutions until police forces, ambulance, fire, London Underground & all other Tier 1/2 users are comfortable with & convinced that the service will work. Only when at least 2 regions are live & a stable, mission-critical-grade solution is guaranteed should the service be rolled out to all remaining regions. All regions should continue using existing TETRA + complementary commercial data services.

  • Continue all the excellent work being done by Home Office personnel & consultants within global standards bodies to make sure next-generation critical communications platforms are fit for purpose, available, affordable & an integral part of all future 3GPP/IET/IEEE releases.

Let's build a Global Critical Alliance (Oh, I've also written about that as well in recent times:

where we build upon the work done over years & decades by all the fantastic existing associations/organisations such as TCCA; thereby avoiding the unnecessary, potentially fatal fragmentation of a niche that must be at the heart of all future ICT solutions that benefit humanity & keep us all safe.

Let's put aside all our differences – we have so much more in common! -, admit our mistakes – I have made more than my fair share over the past 20 years or so – , start an open & honest debate & engage with all players across all sectors who can help us support South Korea, FirstNet, ESN, Bravo, Nedaa, Telstra and all the other valuable experiences & initiatives currently under way.

To do otherwise would be a tragedy. To do otherwise would be to fail our citizens & to follow a path that leads us nowhere, disappointing the community we are here to serve.

Over the coming days, I promise to tell you more about what Bravo (Public Telecommunication Company) is doing. These are exciting times for global critical communications, but we must stop trying to be "better, smarter & cheaper" and focus on "mission-critical first". What price can we put on safety & security in such a volatile, uncertain world?

* Photo courtesy to Getty

Peter Clemons is the Founder & Managing Director of Quixoticity.

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