Did Vodafone just kill Airwave?

Author:Iain Ivory

Yesterday (1st Feb), the UK House of Commons Committee on Public Accounts (PAC)held a follow up session on the ESN project (minutes here). I and many others listened in, wondering what the meeting was about since the committee had held a session back in December – so what prompted this meeting? The answer – a week or so before, Vodafone informed Motorola Solutions (the owner of Airwave), the Home Office ESN team and the PAC that in 2020 it would no longer offer or support a critical function needed to keep Airwave running!

OK – so what does this mean? The current plan is that ESN, the replacement for Airwave, should be operational and all users migrated from Airwave onto ESN by the end of 2019 and so the Airwave network is not needed after then. No problem then…

The reality is that Vodafone has thrown a grenade into any contingency plan for ESN. There are many views on Linked in as to whether ESN is good or bad, will work or not – but for this article, lets forget them – I want to look more at what is behind Vodafone's statement, and how many other users of TETRA could face the same situation.

Many people may be thinking what exactly is Vodafone's involvement in Airwave anyway – aren't they a mobile comms provider? Well – it all goes back to 2012 when Vodafone bought Cable & Wireless Worldwide, which gave them ownership of C&W fixed network business. Those of you who have been involved in UK Public Safety comms for a long time may recall that C&W took over provision and operation of the core network connectivity for Airwave – linking all the core switches, radio sites and control rooms – so when Vodafone bought C&W, they got this critical part of the Airwave network with it.

So what is Vodafone withdrawing and why – because this is the critical element that all other operators of older TETRA systems need to worry about! 

Short answer – fixed line circuits. No more dedicated E1.Anyone remember those pre-IP days? The bottom line is nobody should be surprised by this – telecoms operators have been talking about this for years and network operators know about it because there costs have been increasing as providers increase fees to try and persuade users to move onto newer products. The problem is that life is all too often never as simple – in the case of TETRA, the first IP based solutions were not introduced until 2004 / 2005 (and Motorola, the provider of Airwave's TETRA solution was one of the first to introduce IP). What this means is there is a LOT of kit out there in the field that is pre-IP and so relies on the good old E1 connection. They are running the same risk – that their fixed network provider will announce withdrawal of service, leaving them up the proverbial creek….

Let me be clear – Airwave is not the first to face this issue and it will not be the last. 

I know of a number of TETRA users around the world that have faced this issue – some have prepared for it and planned migration to newer networks, other have not. Many TETRA customers complain that vendors are always trying to sell them warranty and service packages, or software upgrades – thinking they can do without it and the equipment will keep working. OK, yes of course vendors are looking for ways to make more revenue and also to maintain the customer relationship (or lock them in) – but it is also to make sure the networks keep working. In recent years the focus has been more on provision of full managed service packages where not only is software upgraded but also hardware and connectivity – all this helps keep the network running, but has the added benefit of making sure the latest features are available.

So back to Airwave – should they / the Home Office / Motorola have known about this and made provision? Well, I am sure that Airwave and Motorola would have known of the risk – but until Vodafone made that call to pull the plug, it was only a risk. Now it is real – and from yesterdays PAC session it seems that they are all sitting around a table today talking it over. The simple answer is for Vodafone to be persuaded to extend the life of fixed network for a period of time, but for how long (and at what cost)? The other route is to upgrade the Airwave network to a shiny new IP based system – but THAT comes at a significant price and would require a long term commitment from the users (i.e. Home Office) to keep using the system. In my view – that is not what the UK needs and while there are many challenges to the ESN program I truly believe that while there a lot of problems and challenges ahead it NEEDS to succeed – it will be late, but we will look back in many years time and think how did we manage without. Sort of the same thing that happened when Airwave was rolled out…

* Photo courtesy to Iain

Iain Ivory

Founder & Partner, Hermitage Comms.

Iain Ivory is a proven leader and senior manager with over 25 years'experience in the mobile communications industry with senior roles in business development, strategy and product management. 

Iain has led multi-disciplinary international teams, defining and delivering innovative products and solutions for the world’s leading mobile communications provider. He has a proven track record in initiating and leading collaborative projects working with multiple vendors to bring to market complete solutions to address complex challenges in the mission critical communications environment. 

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