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Commercial networks to carry emergency calls: Government plans to close dedicated network Experts fear that potential for blackouts risks lives
[March 09, 2014]

Commercial networks to carry emergency calls: Government plans to close dedicated network Experts fear that potential for blackouts risks lives

(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) The coalition is planning to put calls by the emergency services on commercial mobile phone networks, in a move that some fear could put lives at risk by forcing police, fire and ambulance workers to share airwaves with the general public.

The government has its own taxpayer-built network for emergency services and army staff, but faces a large bill to upgrade it for use with super-fast 4G phones.

Concerns have been raised, however, that moving emergency services on to the commercial network comes with the threat of call blackouts during major incidents. During the 2011 riots and the London bombings in 2005, mobile services across the capital crashed under the sheer weight of traffic.

"This is a very big leap of faith for basically unproven technology," said network expert Daryl Schoolar at research firm Ovum. "I would not be rushing to put anything critical over it for quite a while. There is always something that comes along that you don't expect. Capacity is always an issue." The UK's 4G networks are largely untested in major incidents. Vodafone and O2 launched their services last summer and their superfast internet signal covers less than half the population, while EE is further ahead but still building.

The three emergency services, along with 350 organisations including the prison service, army and air force, have dedicated mobile masts and spectrum - called Tetra. It is operated by a company called Airwave, which means that, even when commercial networks collapse, emergency calls can continue.

Some police and fire services are pushing for the Tetra network to be retained while a new service beds in, removing the threat of complete emergency services phone blackouts.

The Home Office is nonetheless pursuing plans to advertise for a new service provider, with a call for bidders expected in April, in a process that could see Airwave's pounds 400m a year in publicly funded contracts handed to one of the UK's commercial networks from 2016.

Airwave's ability to carry data as well as calls is limited, and emergency workers are pushing for faster internet connections. They want the ability to look up online maps, access satellite photos, or files on suspects, and to stream live video from emergencies to control rooms.

Following the shooting of Mark Duggan in an incident that sparked rioting and looting in the capital and spread to other parts of the country, the Metropolitan police has promised that firearms officers will, in future, carry video cameras in order to build trust.

Ambulance crews want fast mobile connections to transmit video and other information to hospitals while in transit, speeding up the treatment of patients. But there are concerns that sharing airspace with the public could be risky. Commercial networks can suffer outages even on ordinary days.

"The capacity of a commercial network, particularly if an incident occurred during a large event, is a concern," according to a briefing paper for the West Yorkshire fire and rescue service.

"Although there is currently a facility in place to prioritise emergency service mobile devices on commercial networks, it does not provide the necessary resilience and exclusivity to carry a dedicated emergency services function." Geographical coverage is also an issue - many rural areas remain mobile blackspots. While the Airwave network covers nearly 98% of the national landmass, no individual mobile network has more than about 85% geographical coverage of the UK.

The Home Office indicated that any supplier would have to ensure that their service was sufficiently resilient.

Captions: Paramedics want to use 4G to send data to A&E doctors Photograph: David Levene (c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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