UK May Be Stuck With Old Public Safety Network Till 2023

UK authorities have delayed a government plan to replace the country's ageing public safety network with a more sophisticated 4G system at a substantial cost to the British taxpayer.

The government had originally planned to switch off the existing Airwave service next year and shift users, including police, fire and ambulance services, onto the new Emergency Services Network (ESN) provided by UK telecom incumbent BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA). (See OrbTV: EE Talks Emergency Services & 5G.)

But after a series of hold-ups, authorities now appear to have acknowledged ESN will be in no position to replace Airwave in 2019.

In a statement that avoids any mention of delays, the Home Office said the project would now be rolled out "in phases" under a new "incremental approach."

Exactly what that means is made clearer in a statement from Motorola Solutions Inc. (NYSE: MSI), which maintains the Airwave network and is an ESN supplier. "The Airwave agreement, which is expected to be completed later in the year, will extend the network on substantially similar terms for three additional years to December 31, 2022, with the option to be further extended," said the US-based vendor. (See Motorola Pays $1.2B for UK Public-Safety Operator.)

ESN is expected to save taxpayers as much as £200 million ($263 million) annually when it has fully replaced Airwave. Those savings would have kicked in during 2019 under the original plan, but they seem unlikely to materialize before 2023 with the phased approach.

The Home Office said police, fire and rescue services would be able to use some data services over the ESN starting in 2019, with voice capabilities to follow "soon after."

The alternative would be to wait until ESN has fully replaced Airwave before making services available on the new system, but this could entail additional cost and risk.

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The Home Office said it was in discussions with commercial partners including Motorola and EE, the mobile subsidiary of BT, about future changes to their contracts.

Motorola said it would develop a new push-to-talk software product, based on 3GPP standards, as part of its work on the ESN. Its ESN agreement has been extended by two-and-a-half years until the end of 2022, it revealed.

The PTT product will use software from Kodiak Networks, a company that Motorola bought last year. The current Airwave system uses older technology from Motorola.

"The ESN's voice service aims to support 'push-to-talk' capabilities, which are not standardized in today’s LTE networks and require new network technology to be developed," said Anthony Sutton, the vice president of marketing for UK vendor Cobham Wireless, in a comment about the challenges facing ESN. "It is probably for this reason that the government has been unable to specify a date for the voice service."

“Another challenge for the network is ensuring widespread LTE coverage, including deep penetration into buildings such as basements, large enterprises, and parking lots, as well as remote rural locations," he added. "Networks must be densified in order to provide coverage in hard to reach areas, which has obvious cost implications."

EE landed the contract to build ESN in 2015, before it was a part of the BT empire.

The project has generated controversy not only because of the delays for emergency services and apparent cost to the British taxpayer. Under the terms of the government contract, BT is required to give its rivals access to some of the ESN mobile sites it is building in rural areas, but Vodafone UK has complained that it should not have to pay the usual fees when BT has received government funds to erect masts.

"If it costs £100,000 [$131,249] to put a mast up and they've had £50,000 [$65,625] [in state aid], why should we pay ordinary wholesale rates?" said Helen Lamprell, Vodafone UK's corporate affairs director, during a meeting with reporters in June. (See Vodafone Grills Authorities for UK's 5G Lag.)

— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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