Airwave's Tetra emergency services radio "costly and inflexible"

Incumbent Airwave failed to advance to the next stage of the Emergency Services Network procurement because its Tetra radio technology was too inflexible for current needs, according to reports

Further details have emerged of why incumbent emergency services communications provider Airwave was dropped from the procurement process for the Emergency Services Network (ESN).

It emerged yesterday that Airwave – along with UK Broadband Networks and Vodafone – would not be moving forward on any of the three lots for the ESN procurement.

The selected bidders are, on lot 1, Delivery Partner, Atkins, KBR, Lockheed Martin and Mott MacDonald; on lot 2, User Services, HP and Motorola; and on lot 3, Mobile Services, EE and Telefónica.

However, because the terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) technology provided by Airwave is well over 10 years old, when compared to modern smartphones and 4G networks it was no longer fit for the changing needs of the UK's blue light services.

In addition, according to a source close to the procurement, the service was considered "costly and inflexible".

Emergency communication standards

Initially developed by the European Telecommunications Standardisation Institute (ETSI), Tetra comprises a set of standards defining a common mobile radio communications infrastructure for emergency services, utilities and other enterprises that require specialist communications capabilities, such as private/professional mobile radio or public access mobile radio.

The standard first evolved in the 1990s to help emergency response teams across Europe communicate with one another in response to major disasters.

It is based on digital, trunked radio technology and includes mobile radio, paging and wireless data features. Tetra-based hardware also comes with encryption hardwired into it and, when first developed, was able to transfer data packets much faster than existing mobile technology.

Over the past 15 years, Airwave has built up a substantial business based on Tetra technology, supplying a private network, mobile radio technology and communications services to Britain’s blue light services.

Broadband data services

However, instead of a private network – which the government deems too costly – the suppliers selected to run the ESN will be expected to enhance commercially available broadband networks with more coverage, resilience and security, using priority access for emergency services traffic.

Importantly, the Tetra network is unable to offer broadband data services, which are increasingly relied upon to protect the public and save lives.

Public sector bodies had previously expressed concern at the ability of Tetra to provide complete coverage in some areas, notably on the London Underground following the 7 July 2005 terrorist bombings.

Responding to the news yesterday, Airwave’s chief operating officer John Lewis said the firm was proud of the extensive work it has carried out to help Britain’s emergency services fight crime and save lives.

Lewis reassured customers that Airwave would continue to deliver new capabilities to its network over the remaining lifetime of the current contracts.

“We can reassure our 300,000 emergency services and public safety customers around Great Britain that we remain totally committed to continuing to deliver a mission-critical communications service with many contracts in place until at least 2020,” he said.

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