Do the Emergency Services need a mobile network of their own?

Do the Emergency Services need a mobile network of their own?

The Home Office find themselves at a cross roads concerning the mobile network for the emergency services. One road would renew the contract for the current Tetra mobile network provided by Airwave at a cost of around £500m per year. It does a respectable job for a voice service but the Cabinet Office sees the cost as far too high. It also has no credible data story in an era where the smartphone is driving a new revolution in mobile computers. A second road would see the Home Office get some new spectrum from Ofcom and for a specialist LTE (4th generation) network to be rolled out. It is the route that would allow a network closely tailored to today’s operation needs and practices of the emergency services. The third road would be for the emergency services to buy data capacity from the public mobile companies – EE, Vodafone, O2 or 3. But these public mobile networks might not be able to meet the current operational needs and practices of the emergency services in every detail. Is the stage being set for another classic network technology battle?

In October I attended a meeting of  experts (hosted by the IET) to address a number of questions the Home Office had put together on the technology issues. For the most part the questions centred on the middle option – a new LTE network on Home Office spectrum tailored to the needs of the emergency services. To an outsider, like myself, this seemed to signal a preferred direction of travel.

I was certain that the second option of another specialist network on Home Office spectrum for the emergency services would be a strategic mistake. I also believed that the status quo would be an even more epic mistake in cutting the emergency services off from being able to fully exploit the future smartphone revolution on a high performing mobile data network. But I could not find a question on the Home Office list to make the case for the third option. So I decided to invent one, answer it and delivered it in a short written contribution to the meeting. This can be summarised in the three short paragraphs below:

“If we share the assumption that trying to keep broadband mobile data performance up with the rising performance of the fixed broadband networks is the likely future trend over the next 20 years – then we know that new mobile technology alone will not meet this challenge. LTE (or what might follow) will never be in the same performance league as a single mode optical fibre cable that is driving the ever higher user data speeds on the fixed broadband network. Spectrum is scarce so trying to get hold of ever more spectrum offers no escape route.

This leaves only one degree of freedom to win the long term mobile data speed/capacity challenge – continuously shortening transmission ranges…that is adding a lot more base stations. But the number of base stations fundamentally drives the Capex and Opex of a mobile network – so this future challenge is perhaps more economic than technical. Put another way the above trends could drive a growing economic and/or technical disparity between the public cellular networks and a financially constrained specialist mobile network. My fear is that the specialist network route could prove economically unsustainable and/or significantly fall behind in data performance in the long term.”

My alternative strategy is for the emergency services to buy data services on two public cellular networks, with one contract going to either EE or H3G and the second contract going to either Vodafone or O2 (enabling access to an order of magnitude more masts in totality) and use standard smartphones with dual SIM’s or National Roaming to always route data to the nearest base station (which drives up data speeds in the worst 50% of the coverage area). My scenario embraces exploiting Wifi /Femto Cells where available (just as everybody else will have to do).

This scenario would offer the emergency services the following advantages for their wide-area broadband mobile mobility needs:

  • Mobile data speeds up to 10 time faster over the worst 50% of the coverage area  (simply based on the fall-off curve of LTE or HSPA over the cell area and exploiting the diversity of Cornerstone and EE base station sites)
  • ·Twice the resilience (all the way down to and including the HLR with dual SIM)
  • ·At least 50% cheaper for the same QoS with on-going competitive pressure to sustain low prices in the long term (no lock-in)
  • ·Considerably better mobile data outdoor and indoor coverage (multi-band and multi operator site diversity)
  • ·Much faster to bring into service
  • ·Economically sustainable in the long term
  • ·Aligns better with faster standard global mobile handset innovation (by not using odd ball spectrum)

There would also be benefits for the public cellular networks in making public rural broadband mobile provision more economic. There are some rural areas where Tetra has better coverage than the current public cellular networks. It seems wrong that public money has been spent on rural coverage of a network that spends most of its time empty (in such areas) and where the public has no access to any mobile network.

My expectation was of a battle royal.

The big surprise to me, the Chairman (Prof Will Stewart, who did an excellent job) and I suspect most of the meeting participants there was a large degree of consensus, if not on every detail, but certainly on the broad end vision. The real complexity was how to get there and on what time-scale. The issue boiled down to how quickly the adaptations to a public LTE network could be implemented to meet the operational needs of the emergency services and whether this would be in advance of…or after the current contract renewal date for the existing Tetra network.

As is so often the case the destination is easier to define than the best route to get there. But the prize in enormous. Whilst the Cabinet Office may see the public cellular networks route as a cost saving opportunity I see it as a huge opportunity for operational efficiency gains. The smartphone revolution is all about mobile computers and the opportunities abound to exploit mobile Apps to improve the efficiency of all those whose jobs are highly mobile – and no jobs are more highly mobile than those of the emergency services. If there is money to be saved on the basic communications infrastructure of the emergency services it is important for some of those savings to be ploughed back into the Home Office commissioning innovative smartphone software apps for the emergency services – the impact could be really transformative!




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