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ESN: a long-term evolution or a game-changing revolution?

There is little doubt that the Home Office’s plan to update the Emergency Services Network is transformational, but how does it compare internationally?

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The Emergency Services Network (ESN) is one of the most technologically ambitious programmes in the government’s portfolio. From Kable’s research supporting the recent National Audit Office (NAO) report, it became clear that the UK has few peers when it comes to providing a long-term evolution (LTE) network by 2019 to replace a tried and tested radio network.

It is a technology that should offer significant benefits to officers across all three emergency services, but it is a programme that is not without risk.

Transitioning officers away from radios and on to mobile telephones is in line with the evolution of emergency services communications. With services’ investment in mobile policing, wearables and in-vehicle devices already under way, there is clearly an appetite for enhanced data capabilities, but under ESN, are officers ready to put all their eggs in one basket?

For Kable’s work with the NAO, it identified a few other countries that are pursuing an LTE network for emergency services communications. However, of those countries, notably both South Korea and the US differ significantly from what is being provided to UK emergency services.

The key difference is the state of existing emergency services networks, as in both countries, a forerunner national network like Airwave has never been provided. In this regard, officers across all three UK emergency services already have access to a shared network, which is relatively unusual across the world.

For their inaugural networks, South Korea and the US will use the same provisioning as is pursued by the Home Office. Despite what is being offered to UK emergency services using LTE, for international peers it is the nationwide voice network that these nations believe is crucial for them to establish for the first time.

This is the essential lifeline offered under Airwave and other national networks, but it has not been available to responders in the US or South Korea. The latter’s latent technology base and world-leading mobile connectivity means an LTE network could be ushered in for voice.

After the Sewol ferry disaster, the South Korean government pledged to rapidly establish an emergency services network so that the lack of co-ordination that hampered the disaster response would never happen again. With 97% LTE coverage, SafeNet is starting from a far higher base than the UK, and for South Korea, LTE was the only way to establish the much-needed network rapidly. The UK already has a near-complete network via Airwave – and, arguably, a more measured approach to introducing LTE may be a sensible path to take.

Sizeable costs

In the US, FirstNet will establish a hybrid core LTE infrastructure for responders. Airwave and ESN may involve sizeable costs, but that is nothing compared to the HS2-sized project proposed in the US. The cost reflects the geography and users required in the US. It also has a far longer project timeline and appears to be more adaptable in empowering stateside emergency services to own what, in the UK, is Motorola’s User Services lot.

Australia is pursuing a similar strategy, further cementing the view that LTE is the future direction for emergency services communications, but it is a strategy that requires time to adopt and significant user expertise.

While the UK’s emergency services differ from many given their experience under the legacy contract, adopting a new technology is challenging regardless of existing user familiarity with smartphones. Despite the government’s promises and aspirations, devices adopted will not be generic consumer equipment.

In Germany, even integrating the established Tetra communications has proved challenging given the impact of redesigning business processes to accommodate a new technology.

Lack of expertise

The UK emergency services will need to learn from each other to educate and take ESN on board because there is a lack of expertise globally in integrating LTE as the core network for emergency services communications.

Given the time pressures, the Home Office needs to collaborate with responders to build the expertise required to bring in ESN. For transitioning organisations, a managed service model may help to provide much-needed expertise.

However, there is no doubt that global knowledge is lacking in this area and, with LTE being the future of emergency services communications, perhaps in-house development could provide a useful future revenue stream for services to share their experiences worldwide.

It would also suggest that for individual emergency services officers, the ESN experience will be highly valued as LTE is rolled out elsewhere.

Josh Hewer is a senior analyst at Kable, specialising in emergency services and transport policy.

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