back to article Competition watchdog? We've heard of it. But emergency comms firm still on track to Airwave hello to £1.2bn

Airwave, the company behind the supposed-to-be-defunct legacy data and voice network for the UK emergency services, is on track for projected profits of £1.2bn for the technology's extension period. The current Airwave system – which uses TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) radio tech – was due to be replaced by the 4G-based …

  1. Lotaresco

    The right tool for the job

    I still have not encountered a Conservative member of parliament who will answer the question which system would you rather have if your job description included "Meeting some of the most violent members of society and detaining them". Airwave has features that are superior to those touted for the 4G (aren't we on 5G these days?) replacement. For a start a big, friendly, emergency button that only needs to be held down to transmit a distress call. The person who needs help may speak but does not necessarily need to because the call alternates between send and receive, the operators are alerted to the call which has priority over all other traffic, and the operator can hear what's happening. The 4G alternative is "hang on, would you mind not beating me with a shovel while a make an emergency call. After I get this phone to start up and just as soon as my credentials have been verified."

    Airwave also supports connection into command and control systems and displays the status of the user which can be changed by the user to show what they are doing. The C&C system then updates the information. It's all simple and rugged. The only failing with Airwave is that government did not take the option to fit their terminals with a SIM meaning that users must carry around a phone as well as Airwave.

    The only issue here seems to be, yet again, those in government making poor policy, not funding it properly, and signing contracts that hand the supplier enormous amounts of cash.

    1. Tom Chiverton 1

      Re: The right tool for the job

      You left out an embarrassing lack of coverage in the new shiny, or any realistic plans to close the gap.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The right tool for the job

        There are plans to close the coverage gaps. There is a project for it. I know this because I've had to submit data to it. Also, the new system provides functions which can't be handled by the slower data stream of the Airwave system. eg. the ability for police to do on the spot fingerprint checks. The ability for a fire crew to roll up to an incident and download a plan of the building they're about to risk their lives in. And I do believe there are plans to have interfaced handsets... eg. a USB handset which cables to the phone. But yes, the delay and cost is hideously embarrassing.

        1. John Robson Silver badge

          Re: The right tool for the job

          No good reason for the data and voice to be completely lockstepped.

          The voice features have no replacement in LTE, the data is presumably more useful in vehicles than on every handset.

          This phrase "legacy halfway-between-a-mobile-phone-and-a-walkie-talkie radio system Airwave" really doesn't do Tetra justice.

          1. msknight

            Re: The right tool for the job

            "the data is presumably more useful in vehicles than on every handset."

            Very true, but the vehicle is also tied in to the system. The vehicle is part of the handset grouping so when control ring the group, the vehicle rings as well as the handsets. The vehicle has a better tranceiver while the handsets ring if the staff aren't in the vehicle. If the handsets are in a dead area, the, "message," catches up or gets left on the vehicle unit. So voice and data not being lockstepped is something that I don't see as being an issue.

            And to a degree, we don't yet really know what opportunities the data on the handsets will really open up. We're only judging on what's known at the moment. Handsets being able to handle portable modules like fingerprint scanners is interesting for bobbies on the beat.

            1. John Robson Silver badge

              Re: The right tool for the job

              My assumption was that the high rate data and voice/low rate data could be separated completely.

              So the fire officer in charge of the scene can get the building schematics on the high speed data link in the vehicle and plan/discuss/guide based on that, whilst the tetra radio on the vehicle provides a local repeater so that the handsets being used in the burning building basement can still talk to the network at large.

              Not something that LTE can do (the relaying part in particular).

              1. highfrequency

                Re: The right tool for the job

                Airwave is only used by the fire service from a vehicle radio to contact the county control room. Local on scene communications are by back-to-back UHF radios as that is the only way of guaranteeing in-building coverage.

                Many brigades already have vehicle computers and tablets to access building information which is over the cellular networks.

                Airwave was billed a giant leap forward when fire services moved over from their own VHF systems. The radios have 30+ talkgroups loaded in for all kind of interoperability, but in truth many still only use one channel and operate exactly as they have done for years.

                Perhaps they realise that a simple all informed open voice channel is the most important communication tool they need.

                1. John Robson Silver badge

                  Re: The right tool for the job

                  Not been out with an active fire crew, but there is certainly value in a dedicated, decentralised, localised comms setup with good penetration. I can imagine various situations where fire wouldn't help most radio penetration.

                  I suspect that AW was a leap forward in terms of dispatch control and information to crews en route, and very much in terms of cooperation with the other services at or near a scene. Once you are at an incident then you are probably right that for the vast majority of the time a single open channel is what's needed.

                  1. highfrequency

                    Re: The right tool for the job

                    AW definitely helped getting all control rooms on the same band. Before it was introduced 90% of brigades in England & Wales used the same AM 70MHz systems with all UK channels programmed in their radios. A few used FM systems which was a slight hurdle in some areas but were largely interoperable. Scotland using high band VHF and completely different to England and Wales.

                    I do know of at least one case where a county has setup AW differently with the crews requesting a call using status message. Unfortunately they seemingly now ignore anyone else calling in on the main group so when a neighboring force responds to a call in their county, they have to get messages through their own control room passed over the phone!

                    Simple is best with communications. You can spend millions of pounds on cutting edge complex technology showcasing what's technically possible, but a lot of the time the end users just don't need or want it.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The right tool for the job

      Currently working on integrating Motorola's ESN into our product. The original, ruggedised handsets were obsolete several years ago. We are using COTS (commodity off the shelf) Android phones for testing and initiating an emergency on these phones is a faff. I would hope that the eventual handsets will have a big, red EMERGENCY button.

      The biggest problem is that Motorola's ESN is *incredibly* flaky/unreliable. It's still many years before I'd trust letting anyone use it for real.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The right tool for the job

        It sounds like we work in the same business segment :-). I am sure that there will be a big red button that sometimes appears in the app, that will push a request to the Declare Emergency Microservice, where that request will be consumed by the "What the hell do we do now" cloud-native AI-driven automagical call handler..etc..etc...

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The right tool for the job

      That " big, friendly, emergency button" caues us issues as our radios have a big, friendly, keypad lock button" and when we use Airwave radios, we have to be very very careful!

  2. x 7

    Surely we could buy.......

    an off-the-shelf 5G system from Huawei?

    We might as well get something thst's modern technology and reliable

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I am shocked that the Airwave supplier Motorola are in receipt of much more money for their still-profitable legacy system because ESN supplier Motorola haven't yet delivered a working replacement system.

    Who would have guessed that the new technology supplier Motorola would be delayed in replacing the legacy technology supplier Motorola while the legacy technology supplier Motorola is tied into open-ended, index-linked critical infrastructure contracts?

    Entirely unforeseeable.

    1. Snapper

      I wonder how many MP's or their families have shares in Motorola.

    2. John Robson Silver badge

      It's not as if motorola weren't already profiting from airwave's continued existence...

  4. MatthewSt

    Government accounting...?

    "Airwave recorded an operating profit of £192m up from £198m a year earlier"

    (yes, I know this should have gone to corrections@ but I'd rather get the laugh)

  5. Thicko

    ESN is the Brexit fantasy of the telecoms world. Everybody who wants it keep saying its just one more small hill away whilst almost everybody else wonders if they will live long enough to see it. And finally there are those who just keep taking the coin wherever and however they can. What an utterly British mess.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I know many people have said this but this outcome was entirely predictable.

    Motorola saw a big business opportunity when they noticed a naive load of government officials were handing out buckets of cash for something that was impossible at the time, especially when the terms 'world first' and 'pioneering' are being bandied about. A quick cash purchase of Airwave was a guaranteed profit, especially when 'essential upgrades' were needed to Airwave to keep it going another few years.

    Why on earth didn't the government purchase and run the network themselves if Motorola can make hundreds of millions in profit in just a year from operating it.

  7. Delta Oscar

    Just checking my abacus......

    'Airwave recorded an operating profit of £192m up from £198m a year earlier...' (probably been spotted already, I know)

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