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Risky and untested: What went wrong with the ESN procurement?

In his first major interview since walking away from the Emergency Services Network procurement, Airwave COO John Lewis reveals why his company could take no further part in the process, and discusses the future of emergency services communications

With a fully constructed and paid-for network spanning 99% of the UK’s geographical area, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that long-standing incumbent emergency services communications supplier Airwave would have been a serious contender when the Home Office kicked off the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) – a procurement to replace its terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) network with a 4G LTE system called the Emergency Services Network (ESN).

For a while it was. Airwave was the only supplier invited to bid across three lots of the four-lot programme. However, in early 2015, the procurement began to break down, ultimately resulting in the current near-farcical situation of having two lots out to tender with only one bidder on each and one potential lot with no bidder at all.

On 11 February 2015, it emerged Airwave would no longer be taking part in the ESN procurement. As Computer Weekly revealed at the time, a source close to the procurement said that, in private, it was considered Tetra was too old, too costly and too inflexible to meet the changing needs of the UK’s emergency services.

But now, Airwave’s side of the story of what really went wrong can be told, and along with it comes a warning that the UK government may be setting itself up for another costly IT disaster and a potential public safety nightmare.

Tetra: The right system at the right time

To understand the problems that have dogged the ESN procurement process, it is first necessary to understand a little more about Tetra itself.

First developed in the 1990s by the European Telecommunications Standardisation Institute, Tetra was designed from the outset as a targeted infrastructure for emergency services customers. Ambulance, fire and police services all rely on mobile radios to communicate in the field – and Tetra is the technology they rely on.

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, to the extent that Airwave became the sole supplier to the UK’s emergency services.

However, it will eventually become obsolete, and the Home Office believes 4G LTE mobile networks will one day supersede Tetra. This is why it left no place for Tetra in its procurement and set out a plan to procure an enhanced mobile service over a commercial 4G network – with priority routing for emergency services traffic.

The logic behind using an existing commercial network was partly a logistical one, in that there was no spectrum available to buy a dedicated mobile network for the blue light sector, and partly a financial one, in that in these times of austerity there was no money available either.

Airwave’s COO, John Lewis, fully backs the Home Office’s view on the eventual dominance of 4G, as he takes care to point out when he sits down with Computer Weekly for a no-holds barred dissection of the process.

“The first thing you have to understand is that we fundamentally agree 4G LTE is the right system for the future of public safety communications, and that’s an important point to register. The problem with 4G LTE is that it is not the best system currently,” explains Lewis.

“The best system in the world today for what we do is Tetra. The reason for that is Tetra is a proven and trusted mission-critical voice system.”

This view was echoed by many when the procurement began, including the then shadow policing minister Jack Dromey, who accused the government of acting with “unseemly haste” in its rush to replace Tetra.

As Tetra is such a critical element of the current emergency services communication system, it is vital the ESN procurement is fit for purpose and can transition seamlessly.

The consequences for public safety if something were to go wrong would be dire. Imagine the consequences for the victim of a car crash in the remotest part of the Highlands if the first responder could not request an air ambulance, or for London if it saw a repeat of the 7 July 2005 bombings and nobody could call for help.

Risk for no reward

According to Lewis, the procurement came with a number of risks attached to it. Firstly, the standards for mission-critical voice over LTE (VoLTE) have yet to be agreed or specified, and will not be until long after Tetra is switched off in 2020.

This means features such as group calling, handset-to-handset communications and the all-important emergency button – which is used by a police officer somewhere in Britain every six minutes on average – will not be ready in time for the final switchover to ESN.

“The government is addressing that through using pre-standards systems, which we have looked at, validated and demonstrated, but those pre-standard systems have never been deployed on a national scale anywhere in the world. This is high-risk adoption of immature technology,” says Lewis.

“The second issue is really about the maturity of LTE networks and their ability to provide the coverage and the resilience the emergency services need. The roll-out of those networks will not be sufficient in the timeframe the government is aiming for.”

Given that 2G and 3G networks still do not cover the entirety of the UK, in Lewis’s view it is simply not worth the risk to assume 4G will be fully available by 2020. “We have experience of building a Tetra network in these remote areas, so we know what it takes,” he adds.

Convinced the technology and infrastructure were too high risk and the commercial model didn’t really work, Airwave elected not to bid on Lot 2, User Services, or the deleted Lot 4, Extension to Mobile Services, and articulated these concerns to the Home Office at the time.

For a little while, it remained involved with Lot 3, Mobile Services, alongside its strategic partner, Hutchison Whampoa’s Three.

“When we submitted our bid, we made it very clear we didn’t think the timeframe was achievable. We outlined our view of the risks on what the government was trying to achieve,” says Lewis.

“In all my experience of bidding on these things, that doesn’t normally set you up to be selected on the shortlist, but we thought it’s better to be honest about what we thought the industry was feeling,” he says.

Airwave was not selected. Instead O2 and EE were invited to submit their final tenders. Following O2’s withdrawal – citing almost identical concerns to Airwave’s – EE remains the only bidder and therefore the presumptive supplier on the crucial Lot 3.

On Lot 2, meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard’s withdrawal – again citing concerns over risk – has left Motorola as the only company bidding for Lot 2. The tender process for Lot 1 concluded in early September 2015, with Kellogg Brown and Root winning out.

“To put it simply, the new technology is not ready. You don’t throw out old technology until new technology is ready. Motorola, the only bidder left on Lot 2, says LTE won’t be ready until 2020 or 2022, so even the government bidders who are going to deliver the system don’t think it will be ready,” says Lewis.

ESMCP: The wrong procurement at the wrong time?

Although he is no longer involved in the process and can speak only at arm’s length, Lewis maintains a certain amount of sympathy for the Home Office’s situation, saying it had done everything it should and could have done.

The Home Office talks about cheaper, faster and better. Quite rightly, it’s looking at driving efficiencies with austerity, improving its capabilities as technology evolves and doing better things with it,” he says.

The Home Office could never have just renewed the Tetra contracts as it had to run a procurement. However, with Airwave at the end of its contract and holding a paid-for asset that will cost less in the future – neatly knocking the austerity argument on the head – and 4G networks already good enough for non-mission critical processes, it seems it was just the wrong procurement at the wrong time.

“They have to understand and approve what the market can bear. It’s perfectly reasonable to run a procurement to test what the market can do, but the market’s telling them it’s too soon because they’re left with one bidder in Lot 2 and one bidder in Lot 3 and no bidder in Lot 4,” says Lewis.

The fact that Lot 4 was revived barely eight months after it was axed also suggests the government has no answer for how to provide coverage in remote areas, most of Scotland and Wales, the London Underground or for air-to-ground communications with emergency service helicopters, which are all crucial elements of a national plan.

So what should have happened? Lewis says the right answer would have been to continue to use Tetra until 4G LTE was good enough to implement – in effect – a parallel system.

“Users would have had two devices: Their emergency radio and a smartphone, whereby commercial LTE brings them the business process improvements. You run those together and at some point LTE overtakes Tetra and then you switch over, in a timeframe that’s probably somewhere between 2020 and 2025,” says Lewis.

Looking to the future

With Tetra eventually on the way out, it is inevitable Airwave will have to evolve. Lewis is leading the firm down the route towards becoming a company less known for its network asset and more for its services offering.

Airwave has taken to 4G services like a duck to water, supplying its Pronto application suite to a number of police forces, enabling officers on the beat to easily and quickly go through processes such as issuing tickets and fines, booking an arrest or checking someone’s details on the Police National Computer.

To date, 15 forces have bought into Pronto, says Lewis, which he sees as an indication of the relationships Airwave has built up with its users.

“We are the trusted brand for emergency services. They know and like the quality – a third of the police forces have entrusted us with dealing with the digitisation of their capabilities, and there are a few more we are talking to and hope to bring on board as well, so there’s a big aspect of evolving the system in the market, which is a big part of what we do,” says Lewis.

Tetra isn’t going to go away for at least five years: The fire service has recently signed a national extension to keep using its radios right up until the network is switched off at the end of 2020; the ambulance service’s contracts don’t expire until then either.

Elsewhere, Airwave is taking Tetra into Germany, where it is currently advising the government on its network build, and has also opened a satellite office in Dubai to support its work in the Middle East.

Rural broadband

But what of Tetra? What of its sites and what of its spectrum? The spectrum will ultimately be returned to the Ministry of Defence when Tetra is switched off, but that doesn’t mean it will necessarily be taken out of use.

One area Airwave is actively exploring alongside the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is the repurposing of its infrastructure for rural broadband. Lewis believes the demand is clearly there and the will from government could be there to repurpose Airwave’s infrastructure into a much-needed element of the consumer broadband roll-out.

Lewis concludes: “I guess the re-issue of Lot 4 is interesting because it says the Home Office doesn’t have an answer to the complete challenge it’s trying to solve.

“It neatly fits into the discussion about rural broadband – if the government is trying to solve the rural problem in multiple ways, there’s a sensible answer there, which is to do it once. I think this seems to be leading to a proper debate about how you address rural communities. We’re excited to see where that leads in the coming months.”

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