ESN looking to quickly switch to open standards
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
Richard Hewlett giving an update on ESN at the BAPCO Satellite Series event in Edinburgh

During an update on the Emergency Services Network (ESN) at the BAPCO Satellite Series event in Edinburgh, Richard Hewlett, head of technology and the head of live services, ESMCP (Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme), revealed that the programme is considering dropping the pre-standard user functionality (Public Safety Communication System – PSCS) being developed by Motorola Solutions in favour of a 3GPP-compliant solution provided by Kodiak, a Motorola Solutions company.

“As part of the programme reset, we are considering a move to a standards-first delivery model. We believe that this will be of great benefit to both suppliers and stakeholders across the ESN ecosystem,” Hewlett said.“It will give suppliers a much clearer view of what they need to do to support [a] full suite of communication services built around the 3GPP international standards for mission-critical communications – that includes mission-critical push-to-talk, data, and video. The programme and ESN customers would also benefit from the global ecosystem of suppliers who are adapting solutions to the new international standards.

“The focus on moving to adopt international standards for the new network would mean replacing the current public safety communication services suite of applications with the latest Kodiak PTT over broadband platform from Motorola Solutions. Kodiak is typically integrated into a service offered by mobile network operators with Kodiak itself then providing the interface into their platform. There are already over one million users operating on Kodiak powered platforms today. These potential changes would put the programme on a path to fully international standards based ESN at a much earlier date than would have been possible.”

Hewlett added that Becca Jones, ESMCP transition manager, “is currently in Texas with some of our key customer representatives from the emergency services to look at Kodiak in action on the frontline”.

He also said that under the incremental delivery approach, ESMCP would look into trying to make the steps required to get devices and apps accredited for use on ESN “leaner and quicker, because we want to open up the ecosystem”.

Hewlett confirmed previous reports that the Home Office is considering either switching ESN to an incremental delivery model or halting the programme’s activity, with the decision to be made by the permanent secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam in July. “Contrary to what you may have read in the papers, we have not made any decisions yet,” he added.

However, Hewlett also said that “It’s worth observing that in the scenario [in which we decide] to halt our activity, giving the lead times for procuring, building, testing, piloting and going live with a replacement service, it won’t be too before we’d need to start thinking again about setting up a new programme to succeed Airwave. But irrespective of that decision, ESN is still clearly the right strategic choice for public safety communications,” before adding that the Airwave network will require significant capital investment to keep it running and noting the shift within the international public safety community away from TETRA and towards LTE. “In 10 years’ time it’s not hard to see to the TETRA technology starting to become increasing difficult and expensive to support.”

Hewlett said that under the incremental delivery model, ESMCP thinks that “some initial capacity will be potentially ready this year,” and that “In parallel we’ll be working alongside Motorola [Solutions] to extend the operational life of the Airwave system. The existing entry criteria for transition [from Airwave to ESN] will be replaced by exit criteria, which is the capability which will need to be delivered before Airwave can be turned off.”

Summarising the incremental delivery approach, Hewlett said: “As part of the reset we are working on a plan for incremental adoption of customer products collated in a customer product catalogue which are then picked for adoption by customers to a timetable defined by then. The new plan will also be focused on delivering what customers want and when they want it. It would allow the early adoption of products as they become available rather than having to wait until every part of the solution is built.”

The first of the new ESN products that would be rolled out under the incremental delivery model would be ESN Assure, “which would enable customers to test ESN signal coverage in their area. [It] will be available on an ESN handheld device and allow organisations to start building the confidence that the network is available and also to start becoming familiar with the hardware,” followed by ESN Connect, “which will offer customers fast secure reliable connectivity to make sure that [they] have the access to the right data at the right time.”

“The programme’s priority now and over the coming weeks is to consult as many partners as we can about the new plans, so that’s the traditional 3ES [three emergency services] community and the other national users of Airwave and potential users of ESN,” Hewlett added.

He also said that If the decision is taken to go forward with the incremental data-first approach, the programme’s approach to communicating with its stakeholders will become more customer-centric (the customers in this context being the user organisations).

When asked by John Anthony, BAPCO president, as to whether ESN will still be cheaper overall compared to staying with Airwave, Hewlett replied by saying that ESMCP is having to build a new financial model for the project and an accurate answer won’t be known until it is complete. However, he added that “…My view is that it’s difficult to see a way that it won’t ultimately save money.”

Hewlett said that the programme to provide ESN coverage to the London Underground has rolled out more than half of the leaky feeder cabling required, but no further financial commitments will be made on this or any other aspect of the programme over the next few weeks until a decision has been made on the future of the programme following the publication of the review in July.

He explained that he has recently become head of ESMCP’s technology group and as such he manages the pool of technical resources across ESMCP as a programme – “as you might expect there’s quite a few engineers, technicians and testers to manage” and is also responsible for technical leadership – “that means having a series of experts in the different fields that we need on the programme and to give some unity and some direction to them so that we will then produce things like technology roadmaps and we can set a vision for where we need to. That’s something that I’ve only picked up in the last three weeks.”

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