The Airwave digital radio project, designed for use by all three emergency services, aims to speed up response times. But Jane Dudman finds that slow take-up has meant that some police forces have adopted alternative mobile technologies.
The Home Office first recommended a joint police and fire service radio system more than a decade ago. The need to get all UK emergency services onto a common communications platform is now even greater. But implementing the communications system is proving a prolonged process. The government's strategy rests on the Airwave project, a scheme to replace all existing police radio systems in England, Scotland and Wales with a national digital radio service, based on Motorola's Tetra (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) technology.
Airwave is a massive investment, worth just under £3bn. When the deal was awarded to BT (it is now run by O2 Airwave, a subsidiary of BT's former mobile offshoot mmO2) by the Police Information Technology Organisation in 2000, it was the largest public/private partnership contract to date. The aim is to migrate all 52 UK police forces over to Airwave by 2005. So far, it has been delivered to 35 forces, of which 12 are fully operational.
Preparing for Airwave and getting ready for service has dominated the IT and communications budgets of many police forces for several years and accounts for up to one-third of all IT and communications project spending in the police sector, according to public sector IT research firm Kable.
The move to digital radio provides substantial benefits for police forces by replacing ageing, inefficient and incompatible systems, but questions remain about Airwave's capability, particularly whether its data throughput of 3kilobits per second offers enough bandwidth for mobile data applications.
O2 Airwave says bandwidth is not a problem. It says Police National Computer checks take no more than 5 seconds over the existing network and that four police forces are already using Airwave for data applications such as vehicle tracking. But PNC access to Airwave will only be available to half the police forces by the middle of 2005.
Some forces have overcome the issue of bandwidth by implementing their own mobile data systems. North Wales police, for example, has issued more than 150 handhelds and 30 tablet PCs, which use the GPRS mobile network. "We have targeted these systems in the places where we will gain greatest operational benefits, such as officers in geographically remote areas," says Mike Hughes, project manager for the North Wales mobile data project.
He says this approach to mobile data is not intended to replace Airwave, which will be ready for voice and data service by the end of this year. "We have no intention of discounting either approach. We will be using Airwave where appropriate. Where the difference lies is in the bandwidth capability. We hope to see a bridging of the technologies through the development of Airwave, so we can use both."
Other emergency services have yet to be convinced that they should adopt Airwave. The police are heavy voice users with the Short Data Service used for text messaging, which is available with Airwave. "The police are very much voice-driven, whereas the ambulance and fire services tend to be very heavily data-driven," says Gary Maughan, business director at Motorola.
The use of data has not prevented places such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles, which use Tetra systems but not the UK Airwave network, from implementing common systems for all their emergency services. "Other [UK] services are looking and although the applications may be different, the requirements will be similar," he says.
Maughan says the combination of GPS location systems and the ability to send images to Airwave terminals will bring big advantages to the way police forces are able to handle communications. Motorola claims to be able to send high-resolution pictures to its MTH800 terminals in 20 seconds, enabling officers to receive pictures of stolen cars or missing persons. "If you consider we used to distribute those kinds of images by photocopying, we start to see a real differentiation in police radio," he says.
Initial implementations of Airwave raised questions about reliability and safety, both of which are being addressed. Last year, the government launched a £5m monitoring programme to look at the safety of Airwave after some problems were reported, and early users of Airwave, such as Lancashire Police, have been having problems with coverage, but say these are not insuperable.
A growing number of agencies are considering Airwave. Darlington Borough Council has linked its community wardens to Airwave. Although this is not a large deal, it is an important stepping stone because it illustrates one of the facets of Airwave that was always intended to be important: interoperability. Airwave is already in use at Durham Constabulary, which includes the Darlington area, and the wardens now have direct contact with Durham police.
Similarly, the Highways Agency has signed a seven-year Airwave contract. Eric Belfield, divisional director at the agency, says using Airwave will enable traffic officers to work more closely with police officers.
Airwave is already in use at Hereford and Worcester Ambulance Trust and it has been delivered to two fire and rescue services. But the biggest projects for which Airwave is now being considered is the national contract for the fire service radio system and the NHS Information Authority Radio Re-Procurement Project, which O2 Airwave is bidding for with third-party provider Vivista.
If Airwave is chosen for these contracts it will be a huge step in the direction of national coverage. In the meantime, with some police forces choosing other mobile data options, questions remain about whether Airwave can fulfil its initial promise.
This article is part of Computer Weekly's Special Report on mobile IT produced in association with Vodafone
This was first published in May 2004