Watchdog’s intervention over legacy radio system will hasten the transition to push-to-talk technologies

By Luke Wilkinson.

For a critical communications system that appears unfit for the future, the Airwave Network was nevertheless shaping up to be a healthy earner for its owner and operator. In fact, Motorola could expect to earn £1.29 billion in profits from its legacy TETRA network over the decade, the absence of an alternative provider for the emergency services leaving the UK taxpayer to pick up the bill.

This was too much for the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which this month announced a price cap and put an end to the estimated £200m per year of alleged over-charging, proving that some watchdogs do have teeth. Motorola has signaled its intention to appeal.

Commissioned back in 2000, the Airwave Network was due to come to an end in 2019/20. But delays to the new Emergency Services Network (ESN) – unlikely to arrive before 2029 and possibly later – mean that the police, fire, ambulance and other crews must rely on the old network and a monopoly provider of essential services.

The CMA said the price cap was “the only effective way of ensuring the emergency services, and the taxpayers who fund them, aren’t paying considerably over the odds”. As well as making uncomfortable reading for Motorola, the case also highlights how much critical communications technology has changed over the last two decades.

Citing a National Audit Office report from 2016, the CMA said TETRA “is not capable of delivering the enhanced data capabilities that are required to enable mobile working for the emergency services… It cannot meet the full user requirement without the addition of mobile broadband services provided either through a public MNO or through a dedicated network”.

The CMA added TETRA’s long-term viability was “questionable” and was approaching end of life although some countries, including Germany, were still rolling out such networks. It said TETRA systems had not been subject to the rapid evolution compared with consumer-based products because the customer base was much smaller and the market was confined to a small number of specialist suppliers. 

The growth in mobile networks across the world means that public safety organisations no longer need to accept the costs – exorbitant in some cases – of legacy radio systems such as TETRA for critical communications. The emergence of push-to-talk over cellular means that emergency services have a robust and reliable alternative with improved features, high availability and low cost of ownership. Control rooms can communicate instantly with individuals and groups in a targeted and coordinated way to improve safety, efficiency and productivity in complex daily operations. And it can use the forthcoming ESN.

We believe it is just a matter of time before the first blue light service makes the switch to Mobile Tornado for critical communications. Indeed, trials are already underway in police and fire services in the Western Hemisphere. The watchdog’s intervention will hasten the transition by helping to highlight the massive burden of legacy radio systems.

* Luke Wilkinson is Global Head of Sales at Mobile Tornado