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Police's Airwave radio system 'unreliable', says committee

Ian Grant

A committee set up to review emergency procedures in the wake of the 7 July bombings has raised concerns over the unreliable coverage of the police forces' £2.9bn Airwave digital radio communications system.

Plans to link to the system to ambulance, fire brigade and the London Underground are also running late, the London Assembly's 7 July Review Committee has concluded.

It published its second report last week, and will report again in November.

Richard Barnes, chair of the committee, said the original contract to provide UK police forces with digital radio communications was flawed from the outset and produced a service unfit for police and emergency use in a metropolitan environment.

"In particular, we will be following up our concerns relating to the rollout of digital radio communications in the Metropolitan Police Service, London Fire Brigade and London Ambulance Service.

"Whilst the authorities are clearly making considerable efforts to address problems as they arise, some of the problems that have arisen, especially within the Metropolitan Police Service, do give us cause for concern," the committee said.

Barnes told Computer Weekly that Airwave met the original specification of reliable communications in open air at ground level. But, as reported in Computer Weekly in March, it was unreliable in buildings, in moving vehicles and underground.

These shortcomings meant it does not meet the needs of a metropolitan police force such as London's, he said. "Londoners and the police deserve better, especially when we are asking them to put their lives on the line," he said.

Barnes said the committee has asked the Metropolitan Police and others specifically for solutions to these issues.

The original Airwave contract, which uses Motorola's Terrestrial Trunked Radio (Tetra) technology, was granted to BT. BT later passed it to its O2 subsidiary before O2 was bought by Spain's national network operator Telefonica. In April 2007, Guardian Digital Communications, which is owned by two subsidiaries of Australia's Macquarie Bank, bought the Airwave network for £2bn.

Airwave holds a £115m contract to allow police communications to piggy-back on London Underground's Connect communications system. Barnes said this will be completed in August 2008. Even then, "there are apparently some areas underground where Airwave radios will not work", the committee found.

However, Barnes said he worried that Airwave would not provide reliable in-building and in-transit communications by 2012, when London is due to hold the Olympic Games.

Barnes added the first calls for the communications system had gone out in 1988. "I think they were filed in the 'too hard to do now' tray," he said.

However, the committee found that in December 2003 the Metropolitan Police Authority had received a report stating that Airwave had been conditionally accepted as ready for service in October 2003.

"The Authority noted that full implementation would take place by March 2006. By December 2004 this date had slipped to December 2006. The target date now is September 2007," it said.

The National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA) has taken over the running of the Airwave contract from the Police Information Technology Organisation (PITO).


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