Getting off the ground
Philip Mason talks to deputy director of the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme Steve Whatson about the recent ESN air to ground procurement, UK emergency services’ eventual move to 5G, and his role on the TCCA board.
Air to ground is a firm requirement from our user groups, in order to replicate the network overlay which they currently have with Airwave. We had to do it.
How is the work broken down?
It’s split into two pieces, the same as the other parts of the ESN solution - the network and the devices.
In terms of the network, we made the decision to build-out rather than rely on what we had with the commercial EE solution on the ground, due to the level of interference we would have experienced above 500 feet. There would have been 4G signal, but we wouldn’t have been able to use it - the percentage chance of holding and making a call would have been too low for our users to accept.
We undertook a series of test flights using a company called P3 at the beginning of this year. They took place from London to Cornwall, with flights also around Manchester and in the highlands and islands of Scotland.
What will the A2G network look like in terms of infrastructure?
We’ll be using around 86 sites to provide the air overlay network, covering England, Scotland and Wales. There are fewer sites required for A2G compared to the ground network simply because the capacity doesn’t need to be as much, and the larger site spacing reduces interference. For the vast majority, we’ll be using existing locations and just bolting our equipment on top of the mast.
In terms of frequency, we looked at 800 MHz, as well as 1800. We also did a little bit of work with 2600 MHz, but again that was discounted due to the level of interference, as well as the fact that use of 2600 MHz is not allowed by OFCOM, as it can interfere with air navigation radar. The 2600 MHz signal is there, but the higher up you go - in terms of frequency -, the more base stations you can see, and the more difficult things become.
We’ve already agreed to lease spectrum at 2345 MHz, which is 4G, and that’s what we’ll be using. It all hooks back into the EE network, so the backhaul transmission is the same as the ground one. From a User perspective, the air network is a seamless part of ESN.
Who will be using the A2G network?
We support four sets of users in relation to this, which are the National Police Air Service, the Air Ambulance programme, as well as Scottish Police and Scottish Ambulance. We currently have a commitment to purchase 66 devices, which may rise to over 100 if the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and Ministry of Defence, decide to fit out their aircraft as well.
What happens once Airwave is switched off if the latter two agencies don’t choose to do that?
They’d have to go back to using VHF. That would be the only option when it came to talking to air traffic control, and they also wouldn’t be able to interact with the other emergency services. The Maritime and Coastguard agency are likely to be working with the police and Air Ambulance on an increasing basis, so it would be an issue.
Those two are not core stakeholders when it comes to the current system or ESN, but they are obviously an important part of the working groups we’ve been holding.
Moving onto devices, why did you award the contract to Cobham?
There were a variety of factors, ranging from price to the technological side of the solution. It was weighted according to the technology - obviously, we didn’t want to buy the cheapest, just to find that it didn’t do what we wanted. Cobham is the supplier of the current Airwave solution when it comes to air to ground.
What will be the level of crossover between the A2G devices and the ones being used on the ground?
The aircraft devices will be built using a Linux operating system, onto which will be ported the Kodiak application. The latter will also have to be integrated when it comes to the screen, enabling it to be used while wearing accessories such as gloves and night vision goggles.
Fundamentally, it’ll be the same as using a handset with Kodiak, with the same interface - albeit tailored to the specific aircraft type -, access to talkgroups and so on. The aircraft device will have full interoperability with devices on the ground, as they will both be running on the same network.
What’s the timescale for the A2G roll-out? Will it take place in parallel with the terrestrial network?
We’re looking to do some testing in the first quarter of next year, with full deployment planned for Q3 2021 up until the end of 2022.
Most of the terrestrial network is pretty much complete now, at least in terms of upgrading the existing commercial sites. EE has built around 300 new sites as well, and they’re just gap filling at this point. We’ve also now got something like 50 extended area services sites built in the most rural areas, but there’s plenty more of those still to do.
In terms of the progress of the programme more broadly, we’re on the verge of awarding the contract around the fixed vehicle devices. That’ll be on the 4th of October. We’ve also run the first phase of trials on the network inter-working product, and we’ll soon be doing acceptance testing on that as well.
Staying on the subject of the network as a whole - bearing in mind the delays to the project - what should have been done better?
Honestly, I think we should have gone for a more staggered or iterative approach to the deployment, which is exactly what we’re doing now. A series of releases that added functionality as we went would have shown progress, and also made the technology available to the users much earlier.
Regarding incremental delivery, I wouldn’t want to suggest it’s a huge number of users at the moment but the interest is certainly there, and the project is moving. The second phase of coverage testing [using the ESN Assure product] is about to begin, and we’ve got Connect available as a proof of concept.
Did you ever lose faith in the project?
No, because I’m certain that it’s the answer to what the UK emergency services require when it comes to their communications. In fact it’s the only answer, given that TETRA’s now 20 years old.
The idea is to move onto a platform which can evolve with the users, so they won’t have to make this kind of jump again.
Which you have to assume includes 5G...
5G is certainly in the discussion, and the aim now is that once the supplier - whoever it is - moves onto their next generation network, we’ll be able to do the same with a minimal period of change to the users.
As the technology evolves, we want to be in a position where we can move with it, so the aim would be to take advantage of any 5G offer almost immediately, although we’ll wait until it’s widely rolled out.
Changing the subject slightly, what made you want to become a TCCA board member? What do you think you can bring to the role?
I was very pleased to stand and get elected earlier this year, representing not only the UK Home Office but also national government departments within the organisation. My presence – alongside people such as Nina Myren and Tero Pesonen – keeps the board nicely balanced between industry and government.
What can other countries learn from the UK when it comes to rolling out emergency services broadband? What can the UK learn from them?
There’s a lot of lessons, for instance around timescale, procurement, and how you might want to design the business case. We can certainly learn from governments who are going along that path, and hopefully they can learn from us.
Going back to TCCA and its remit, when more governments are involved and active in this process, it also helps drive standards more quickly. That in turn helps stimulate the market, because suppliers see an increasing level of opportunity around the world.
Without the work we’ve done, there would be no 4G device that can fit into a helicopter. We’re happy to share that experience and knowledge.
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