ESN exclusive: in sight of the finishing line

Philip Mason talks to Emergency Services Network programme director John Black about key learnings from the previously troubled project, as well as his predictions for the future of the critical communications market.

Can you give me an update on the progress of the Emergency Services Network? What’s the current state of play?

Honestly, I’d say that we’re really getting to the sharp end of this project now, particularly over the course of the last year or so. There have been some interesting experiences and technical challenges, as well as some resets, but we are now very focused on getting ESN over the line.

One of the first things I asked the team for when I came on board in July of 2020 was focus. We know what we’ve got to get done, and we’ve got a plan as to how to do it. The job now is to deliver.

Was the scope of the project – what you needed to get done – not clear prior to your arrival?

It was, but we’ve now done an awful lot of work with our user community so that they’re comfortable and confident with that scope too.

I’d say that we’ve still got a bit of work to do in the coverage space, but apart from that, everything’s been agreed in principle and is currently going through users’ governance processes. We’re making really good progress when it comes to the technology.

What progress has been made on the delivery side? You mentioned coverage – could you go into that, as well as devices and the control room piece?

Dealing with coverage first, most of the required 950 additional masts [as distinct from EE’s commercial network] are built and activated. At the same time, there’s still quite a lot of work to do when it comes to rural locations, particularly regarding the acquisition of the sites and connecting them up. We’re well over halfway through that journey, though.

In terms of devices, we now have handheld and fixed vehicle solutions, as well as for ESN Air, which is the air-to-ground element of the project. We’ve also made some really good progress in the control room space over the course of the past year. A big part of that has been figuring out the interworking with the existing Airwave solution.

The handheld devices for the project were procured several years ago. Given the fast-moving nature of the broadband market, is there a danger that those Samsung products are starting to become obsolete?

The device world does move faster than our project timescales, and that is certainly a challenge that we need to address.

The handheld solution that we procured two years ago is indeed coming to the end of its life, meaning that we’ve had to carry out discussions with the suppliers about how we move forward. That in turn has needed to be fed back into communication with the users, because whatever we procure obviously also has to work for them.

What we have currently is a set of devices that work, and which will ultimately allow us to get through testing, which in itself is extremely positive. The other really encouraging thing we’re seeing when it comes to the handheld solution is that price points seem to be coming down significantly, which will, again, stand us in good stead going forward.

The programme is currently engaged with testing the Direct 2 handheld product, which provides interworking between ESN and Airwave. What’s next when it comes to the device piece?

There are several products in our sights at the moment. The first is ESN Connect, which enables emergency services to just access data, without having to use a commercial network. There’s considerable interest in that, for instance from the UK Ambulance Radio Programme (ARP).

On the mission-critical push-to-talk (PTT) side, we’ve got Direct 2, which you mentioned. That is currently with a small number of users for testing and in production. The next two iterations are ESN Beta and ESN Version 1.0, the first of which we’re in the middle of testing at the moment.

Mass transition onto the network will ultimately take place following the roll-out of ESN Version 1.0, built on Kodiak version 12. Beta operates on version 11, which is missing certain critical user features.

What’s the current timeline for rolling out ESN Version 1.0?

Mass transition for the first user organisations is due to start at the beginning of 2024. Between now and then, the programme will be massively focused on testing, as well as integration of the control room side.

To be honest, there really isn’t much more that we need to accomplish when it comes to functionality, so the task now becomes proving the safety which is so critical
to our users. After the testing we’ll have a further year during which operational evaluation will be carried out by the organisations themselves. That will be centred around specific scenarios, large-scale events or incidents and so on.

We’re having to balance carrying the work out as quickly as we can, in order to switch off Airwave, with the absolute need to ensure safety. We won’t take any chances, and we’ve made that very clear to the users.

What’s the situation when it comes to device-to-device? Is the Home Office looking at any kind of workaround?

Device-to-device is interesting, and obviously, there’s currently a lot of speculation around it. From our point of view, we know that it’s a clear requirement from the user side and that we need to pursue it.

That said, we still have the question of what that requirement is ultimately going to look like. My experience with other large technology programmes is that expectations are often driven by the way the current system works rather than by the actual capabilities of the new system, and we need to be mindful of that.

The key to the device-to-device piece will be to try out some solutions, by getting them into users’ hands and finding out what works. At the moment, we’re still looking at a solution in which that component is delivered through TETRA frequencies rather than local LTE. One potential workaround is building that capability into a remote speaker mic sitting on the officer’s vest, with the main device in their pocket.

We’ve actually had a go at procuring a solution in this area, which, frankly, was not very successful. The real challenge – at least in that case – was not so much the technology as finding a supplier willing to make an upfront investment on the basis of future volumes. We’re currently looking to see if there’s a financial model which can get us to the point of putting something in the field.

With that in mind, earlier on in the interview you mentioned that the cost of procuring commercial devices for public safety is starting to drop. Is that also a matter of increased volumes?

There are a couple of factors in play with that, the first being that the cost of the technology overall is coming down, simply in the natural run of things. The same technology comes at a cheaper price point year on year, and we’re seeing a bit of that benefit.

The second significant factor is that the critical communications PTT standards are starting to become absorbed into key manufacturers’ basic device builds as a matter of course. Previously, these standards had required specialised firmware, as well as specialised versions of the Android operating system. That’s increasingly not the case.

Why is that happening now?

It’s primarily a matter of increased volume. In previous procurements, the suppliers we were talking to had no choice but to build their business case according to the volumes that we could offer. By contrast, in a more recent scenario, a supplier came to us and said they had a new device, but also considerable commitment from many other customers around the world.

All of these signs are really encouraging for the sector. We’ve already seen that reflected – subject to contract – in some significantly lower price points for us.

Returning to the timescale for roll-out, could you give some more detail around the Home Office’s current contract with Airwave? Are you now able to simply renew it on a rolling basis?

Yes. Fundamentally, the contract allows us to extend as required, and we’re in constant discussion with Airwave regarding how much longer we’re going to need it for.

This relationship with Airwave allows us to approach things differently than may have been the case earlier in the programme. For instance, there had previously been real fear on the part of the user community that ESN wouldn’t be functional by the time we needed to switch Airwave off. This was essentially because we’d said to them that the Airwave system was going away on a particular date.

What we’re saying now is that Airwave is being replaced as fast as we can do it, but we’ll only switch it off when users are happy with ESN. Driving ESN switch-on to a particular date was a route to introducing potential risk, particularly if the date wasn’t realistic.

We’ve now turned the whole thing on its head. This is not a system that we’re prepared to take risks with.

Changing the subject slightly, how is ESN regarded by the international critical communications community? The UK was one of the first countries to embrace emergency services broadband, so to what degree are people looking to learn from the project?

At this point, pretty much every major country has a plan to move away from TETRA or LMR and onto 4G LTE, and it would be fair to say that they’re all looking at us.

In terms of our engagement with other countries, we have some pretty good forums now, looking in particular at PTT. We’re in contact with a lot of other programmes who are also using Kodiak, and that’s really helpful.

What has been the key learning so far?

It’s actually quite difficult to talk about key learning from an organisational point of view, because the models of adoption are very different depending on where you are in the world.

For instance, FirstNet in the US has done some fantastic work, but they’re essentially based around a ‘pull’ model, where users need to be encouraged onto the system. I’d say that a big focus of that project is actually sales and marketing, alongside a very heavy focus on data rather than voice.

Our world is almost diametrically opposed to that, in that we’re not trying to attract people to a new solution so much as get people off the old one. We have to convince the whole community that ESN is safe to move to, all in one go.

I recently asked [FirstNet CEO] Ed Parkinson what the advantages were of a ‘competition-based’ model. Given what you’ve just said, what would you say are the advantages of a more centralised structure?

I’m not sure whether you’d call this an advantage or not, but I don’t have to go out and convince the users to adopt my system. My target is very clear – provide Airwave equivalence, make it safe and get the users migrated.

Coming back to potential learning, what would you say has been the most important thing from a technological point of view?

Again, I don’t think you can identify one specific thing on the technology side. There will undoubtedly be plenty of operational learning, for instance, rules around point-to-point communication, talk group management and so on.

We have certainly learnt an awful lot already, some of which was admittedly fairly obvious, but you only realise certain things with hindsight. At the moment we’re grappling with questions around rates of user arrival at a major event or incident.

In terms of running the programme itself, for me the learning is all about making sure you stick to the basics of any big technology project.

When I came in last July, the key question I asked was, are people working together? Are we all pulling in the same direction? And if not, why not?

To be honest, the answer at the time was no, not really. Given what we’ve accomplished in the last 12 months, I’d say that the answer would be very different now.

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