Vox populi: mission critical voice for ESN

Philip Mason gets an update from both the programme and user organisations on the recent testing of ESN Direct 2 and current expectations around device-to-device

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In the years since the move was first announced, the prospect of swapping from Airwave to the Emergency Services Network has prompted a number of questions among Great Britain’s public safety staff.

Firstly, there have been several, perfectly legitimate, concerns around what might be termed the strategic direction of the programme. There have been delays, missteps in terms of the technology, and so on, all of which – up until relatively recently – have served to influence people’s views of the project.

At the same time, there have also been, potentially even more serious, questions around the network itself, particularly from a frontline perspective. Remembering my initial introduction to the sector in 2016, for instance, it would be fair to say that some contacts were less than convinced of ESN’s value as a technology, or indeed whether it would work at all. If it ain’t broke, ran the vehemently pro-Airwave argument, why fix it?

Drilling down further into those early frontline concerns, the main point of contention at that moment was probably how ESN voice might compare to the excellent service already available via the aforementioned legacy TETRA network. Again, this was a perfectly legitimate question, particularly given the level of commercial 4G coverage available at the time.

With that in mind, it is pleasing to report that as of spring 2021, the ESN voice issue appears to be well on the way to being resolved, both in terms of the EE-enabled coverage piece and the user technology itself. This has been recently made apparent through various user assurance initiatives, the most recent of which involves the Direct 2 product, which provides interworking between ESN and Airwave at the device level.

In this article we are going to speak to the Home Office itself about the direction of the project, as well as the increasing confidence being felt within the programme, particularly when it comes to voice. More importantly, we are going to gauge the opinion of two user organisations, both of which are currently involved with the early deployment and testing of Direct 2.

Optimistic outlook

Duncan Swan is the ESN deployment technical onboarding lead within the Home Office Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme, otherwise known as ESMCP. It is a role which puts him right at the heart of the current testing of the Emergency Services Network devices, as well as their subsequent journey in the field.

Giving an overview of the user onboarding and assurance process so far, he says: “Our most important task is to supply the user community with all the features and functions which they need to stay safe and secure while doing their job. We’ve taken a staged approach in terms of testing, with the aim of getting those features and functions ready for full roll-out.

“Regarding Direct 2 in particular, it provides an important subset of functionalities – using the Samsung devices – allowing for mission-critical PTT, group calls, one-to-one and ESN to Airwave interworking, which is a crucial part of the learning process, providing as it does connections with the legacy TETRA devices. You can pick up a device working on Direct 2 and get a really good feel for what the user experience is going to be.”

He continues: “Getting the devices out there to the users is incredibly important in that it allows people to see what we’re doing, enabling us to get feedback on the equipment that is being used. It allows us to understand what it looks like from a live service perspective, as well as in terms of configuration, the setting up of fleet maps and so on. The idea is to build user confidence, to really figure out what ESN can do for us.”

Beginning last year, the testing and current limited roll-out of Direct 2 has involved various UK public safety user organisations. These include Merseyside and West Yorkshire fire and rescue services, the latter of which we shall be hearing from later on.

What does Swan believe has been achieved so far via the above deployments? More to the point – given that user assurance is such a key priority – what is the feeling on the ground now compared with, say, 2016?

“From what we’ve seen so far, I believe that the users will be reassured when it comes to voice for ESN, and what’s been achieved up until now,” he says.

“So far, everyone involved in the testing has been incredibly complimentary about the speech quality of D2, with people saying that it’s even better than Airwave. That in itself is a major achievement as far as we’re concerned, and something which is only going to improve as we move through the different stages of the programme.

“We still have a lot of work to carry out in the evaluation space, for instance when it comes to more complex deployment at incidents. Thankfully, the planning work hasn’t thrown up any issues thus far, and everyone is incredibly eager to see how this is going to work in practice.”

The user perspective

With all due respect to Swan, it is probably no surprise to hear a representative of the Home Office talking about how well everything is now going, particularly given the issues touched upon at the beginning of the article. Taking him at his word, however – and there is absolutely no reason not to – it is truly heartening to hear how things are proceeding.

But ESN is not about the programme, it is about those on the frontline. It is therefore also crucial to hear what the users themselves have to say, starting with Merseyside FRS, which has been heavily involved in the initial testing of Direct 2.

Discussing the brigade’s involvement with the programme, Merseyside’s ESN operational lead Mark Jones says: “We got asked to be part of the testing around autumn of 2019. We had a couple of meetings about it, agreed an MoU so we could take it to our chief fire officer, and set about agreeing the architecture.

“Merseyside FRS has a history of being very proactive as an organisation, which is why we got involved. The work we’ve done around ESN will also stand us in good stead when it eventually comes time for the final roll-out.”

Fire Engines Photos - Merseyside FRS - Rechassied CPL

He continues: “We’ve essentially already transitioned, at least when it comes to the IT side. There are currently six services – the other ESN assurance partners and us – which have already got managed firewalls, whereas everyone else is further back down the line.

“We understood from the offset that it’d be challenging, so we weren’t under any illusions. At the same time, it’s been really rewarding, if for no other reason that I know what the technology can do, and there’s lots of other people out there who haven’t got a clue.”

The work carried out by Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service has involved testing every aspect of D2 in a non-operational context, from use of the handsets themselves to coverage and the external support process. This culminated at March’s BAPCO Online event, when Jones staged a live, impromptu test, demonstrating interworking between Direct 2 and Airwave handsets. Thankfully for all concerned, it worked first time.

Looping back to the subject of challenges, these first made themselves known during an initial mix-up with the implementation of IP ranges within the aforementioned firewall. In terms of the communication piece itself, meanwhile, there were what Jones refers to as “a couple of areas of concern” when it came to coverage.

Elaborating on this, he says: “There were a couple of areas where the programme had changed the RSRQ [Reference Signal Received Quality] values, from negative 12 to negative 15.

“I went out to check them with one of the handheld devices, and on the whole they were fine. One positive thing we have found is that even where we have found drops [in coverage], the voice quality has still been very good.”

He continues: “Regarding the support we’ve received from the Motorola Solutions helpdesk when it comes to things like raising tickets, I’d say that process has also been relatively smooth. Once we got over the complexities of installing the system architecture, everything else about the technology has been really good. We can definitely say that the Kodiak product works well.”

As discussed, Merseyside Fire and Rescue service has been a key organisation in the testing of Direct 2. With that testing now accomplished, however, the technology has made its way into the hands of West Yorkshire FRS, which is currently rolling it out in an – admittedly limited – operational capacity.

Discussing how the service intends to deploy the devices, the organisation’s area manager for service support, Mat Walker, says: “They’re being issued to a number of our watch managers. They’ll use the ESN handsets as their primary method of communication, while at the same time carrying Airwave handsets as a back-up. From a corporate risk and responsibility perspective, we obviously need to make sure that there are no issues whatsoever.

“In terms of actually using them, staff will essentially be doing everything they normally would with Airwave, such as listening in to talk groups. There will be 11 designated ‘super users’ at the beginning, after which training and deployment will cascade to our other 80 watch managers.”

He continues: “We’re also doing a significant amount of work behind the scenes from the operational side, for instance exploring different ways of working, as well as business change. There’s probably an element of winning hearts and minds as well, but as far as I can tell, our firefighters are generally pretty excited about it.

“There has been a degree of hesitancy, because of the start/stop nature of the project up until this point. But we’re finally in a position where we can give them a handset, and we anticipate big things. We don’t just want to replace Airwave with the new technology, we want to change the whole communications mindset, particularly on the incident ground.”

Device-to-device

During his keynote presentation at BAPCO Online, ESMCP programme director John Black outlined the timescale for the testing and initial deployment of the ESN handheld voice and data products. D2, he said, should be available by the spring, and so it is. The next stage is ESN Beta, followed by Version 1.0 sometime next year. The latter will, according to Black, have “all the functions we need in order to manage mass transition and roll-out”.

Going into greater detail about the immediate future of the programme, the Home Office’s Swan says: “ESN Beta will be available later this year, consisting of a much richer set of features and functions.

“It will also, crucially, bring control rooms into the network, and we’re currently talking to different ICCS suppliers about developing interfaces for Kodiak.

“Version 1.0 is obviously the place we want to get to, but I believe there’s an evolutionary path beyond that as well. There have been some really positive conversations between the programme and stakeholders such as Motorola Solutions about what we start looking at next.

“The move from Direct 2 to Version 1.0 and beyond is going to teach everyone an awful lot, for instance in relation to upgrades – of control rooms, devices and so on. In order to successfully exploit the network, we need an ecosystem which is completely in-step, and we’ll need to bring the suppliers with us.”

With that in mind, it would be remiss not to address an issue which has become somewhat of an elephant in the room: the complexities of device-to-device. Will the functionality be available in-device, given the current status of 3GPP-defined proximity services (ProSe), or are we at a point where some kind of workaround is likely to be necessary?

Discussing this, the programme’s technical lead for devices, Jeremy Kemp, says that “to ensure suitable off-network capability”, ESN will need to leverage DMO (Direct Mode Operation). This has been chosen, he continues, because of the advantage of familiarity to end-users while at the same time offering the potential opportunity to “re-use or re-purpose some existing equipment”.

He adds: “ESMCP is working with users and suppliers on a number of device and accessory solutions to support DMO. [This includes] a custom remote speaker mic with DMO capability, and the repurposing of existing TETRA devices to provide an RSM mode of operation. We are also reviewing the availability and maturity of dual-mode – TETRA-LTE – devices in the market.”

The road to ESN has not been easy, but there would appear to be light at the end of the tunnel. Working on the basis that everything will continue to go to plan, it is going to be fascinating watching it all fall into place.

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Philip Mason

Managing Editor, Critical Communications Portfolio, Mark Allen Exhibitions

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