The Emergency Services Network (ESN) is an ongoing project to create a truly next-generation communications system for the UK’s police, fire and rescue, and ambulance services. It’s going to be a unified, integrated Long-Term Evolution (LTE) network that can carry critical data applications and broadband services as well as voice communications, and will be more resilient, reliable and secure than the current, disparate networks. It will enable the three emergency services to communicate and collaborate with each other, ultimately working more effectively and saving more lives. In short, it is intended to carry the UK’s emergency services into the future.
It has also been beset with difficulties.
The project is currently running with a nine-month delay, and according to a parliamentary select committee that took place in the autumn, this is expected to get longer over the coming months. Why?
Simple theory, complicated practice
As emphasised during the above committee, the ESN remains a compelling idea. The new functionality and bandwidth it enables will create a truly 21st-century service, whilst its integrated structure will ultimately streamline ongoing management. However, designing a UK-wide LTE network that can support three enormously busy, mission-critical public services is a very different proposition to creating individual, consumer-based LTE services. It requires highly specialist and resilient infrastructure, designed and installed not just by mission-critical communications experts, but experts in engineering networks for particularly challenging and confined environments. Think about the road and rail tunnels that emergency services often have to operate in, for example. Or extremely rural areas, which obviously require the same 25/7 emergency services access as urban locations.
Then there are some unique integrational challenges, such as linking up airborne services with those on the ground. It’s clear that air ambulances, for example, need to be able to communicate clearly and reliably with their road-based counterparts, as well as other emergency services, but actually running those air-to-ground connections is a difficult task. It may be that the existing TETRA system needs be maintained in the air for longer after it has been switched off on the ground, though of course this could introduce further costs and complexity in terms of interoperability.
Furthermore, the ESN needs to be able to deal with surges in capacity at specific times and in multiple locations, when responding to major incidents such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters. Watertight resilience and stretchy scalability is non-negotiable.
The upshot of all of these complications – and the necessity of maintaining the existing emergency services communications network while completing the upgrade – is a project that has already broken its original timescale, and looks likely to stretch it further. There is no doubt that the aims of the ESN are still valid, and that the new functionality and greater cost-efficiency gained by the transition to LTE technology will be worthwhile, but the road ahead looks bumpy.
A tiered approach?
One possible way through these complications will be to use other technologies to support LTE in the initial phases, so that the migration to LTE is not as stark as switching off the legacy system and switching on the ESN. This approach may be particularly valuable when it comes to maintaining those air-to-ground links, enabling air ambulances, police helicopters and other emergency aircraft to continue using TETRA services and legacy datalinks even once the existing AirWave network has been switched off on the ground. The migration to full 4G services in the air would come further down the line. Other technologies that could be used in the initial phases might include Digital Mobile Radio (DMR), which offers the cellular benefits to be gained by the new ESN.
However, no matter which tools and technologies are ultimately chosen, the same conditions apply to the deployment of the ESN as any other project involving the rollout of a new, mission-critical communications network. It is vital that all of the disparate technologies, devices, end users and groups of end users – in this case, the three different emergency services – work together in an integrated and seamless way. This requires a solid understanding of interoperability, holistic visibility of all the physical environments to be covered and the challenges of each, and a forward-looking view in terms of the scale and scope of the network in the future. Mission-critical communications are never simple, let alone on a national scale – but they can undoubtedly be the gateway for smoother working practice and richer, more innovative communications.
ESN and Simoco Wireless Solutions
Simoco Wireless Solutions has a 60 year heritage and vast experience in the design, delivery and management of mission critical communication networks, including those used by the emergency services. Our expertise in all forms of radio engineering as well as our experience in integrating new communication standards, including LTE, into existing networks, can ensure the objectives of ESN are delivered in reality.
For more information contact Simoco Wireless Solutions.