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The Terrestrial Trunked Radio (Tetra)-based communications network has cost the police £2.9bn in total.
The five-year project has had problems, but has proved more resilient than other wireless technologies such as GPRS.
Airwave will allow police officers to communicate directly with each other. It will also save officers time, because they will no longer have to return to the office to file data.
Sean Price, chief constable of Cleveland Police and the Police Service's lead for Airwave, said, 'Airwave provides us with much better coverage and clarity through the use of secure and reliable communication of voice and data. It is a great advantage to officers in their day-to-day work and is highly significant in making them and our communities safer.'
Police officers are using Airwave to access the Police National Computer (PNC) through handheld devices. The PNC holds details on suspects as well as a range of public information and was formerly directly accessible only via police stations.
Officers also have the potential to save time by filing data from the field and working with digital images. Airwave allows them to access Automatic Vehicle Location Services and deploy officers more quickly.
The Police Information Technology Organisation (Pito) managed the contract between O2 Airwave (a division of O2) and police forces on behalf of the Home Office. Partners include Motorola, BT, Cable and Wireless and Northrup-Gruman, as well as Pito and the Home Office.
Airwave uses Tetra technology, which is an open digital trunked radio standard, defined by the European Telecommunications Standardisation Institute (ETSI) to meet robust usage.
The system has ETSI level 3 encryption security (the highest level) and provides digital sound quality, background noise reduction, text messaging and telephony, and an emergency button, which overrides all other communication and identifies the source of the message. All Airwave communications are encrypted so they cannot be scanned or monitored by outsiders.
Jason Chapman, managing vice-president at analyst firm Gartner, said as Tetra is separate from mobile phone systems, the emergency services will be able to maintain communications when members of the public are making calls from an accident scene and blocking the network.
Also, Tetra handsets can communicate between themselves without going via a base station, so they are not affected directly if the base station is down.
Chapman said, 'One of the driving forces behind adopting Tetra was the interworking. One of the problems of [the World Trade Center terrorist attacks] was that different services could not talk to each other because they were using different communications technologies.'
However, Chapman said the system had limitations. 'You cannot use it to send highly detailed pictures, as the data rate is very slow, around 7kbps.'
Pete Richardson, managing director at O2 Airwave, said, 'The completion of the roll-out paves the way for future emergency services interoperability, where all public safety organisations will be able to communicate with each other should the need arise.'
Airwave has had setbacks since its inception, including fears that handsets were affecting users' health, plus problems over voice clarity and coverage.
However, it is now poised to be adopted by other emergency services. Airwave has been shortlisted for national contracts for fire and ambulance services, which are due to be announced later this year. These include Mersey Regional Ambulance Service and Hereford & Worcester Ambulance Trust, Lancashire and Shropshire Fire and Rescue Services, the British Transport Police and the Highways Agency.
February 2001 Lancashire Constabulary pilots Airwave.
May 2001 Lancashire three-month pilot extended to six months after problems over voice clarity and coverage. Police Federation studies show Airwave's handsets and radios could pose a health risk.
September 2001 Airwave gets green light for operational roll-out.
March 2002 Ministry of Defence plans to adopt Airwave for secure UK military communications.
April 2002 National Audit Office says Airwave was not delivered in full, and the equipment costs varied considerably around the UK.
August 2002 More than 170 police officers testing the system complain of nausea, headaches and poor sleep after using it.
May 2003 Government launches a £5m health-monitoring programme for police officers using Airwave.
April 2004 Metropolitan Police orders 30,000 Motorola handsets.
September 2004 Thames Valley Police officers test service using O2 XDA2 Pocket PC-based smartphones. They report savings of one hour a day per officer.
December 2004 Lancashire Police tests Airwave using O2 XDA2 handheld devices. Officers submit regular reports electronically.
April 2005 Airwave to go live across all UK police forces.