Will Emergency Service Communication Move to 4G?

The UK is planning to move emergency services communications onto 4G mobile phone networks from 2016, scrapping the current dedicated emergency services radio spectrum and using 4G networks that are faster and allow data transfer.

Emergency services on 4G

The Home Office insists that the emergency services need a “modernised communications network” in the interest of public health and safety. It plans to award a £1.2 billion contract before the election in May 2015, and to begin the migration to the new network in 2016/17. While the 4G networks will be in place to connect the first police forces during 2016, it will take some time to roll out to the whole country, meaning that the two systems will run side by side for several months.

Bidders include Arqiva, Telefónica UK, Vodafone, and EE, as well as Airwave who currently provides the Tetra radio service for the emergency services. The mobile operators involved suggest that they will be able to offer a service that is as reliable as Tetra radio at considerably less cost.  The Home Office says “Interest in providing the new Emergency Services Network and its supporting elements is strong. The tenders are currently being evaluated and the resulting communications network will be among the best in the world.”

Concerns over emergency services shift to 4G

The main concern over shifting emergency services communication to 4G is that – instead of having a dedicated network – the emergency services would be sharing the network with private subscribers. The argument is that during a major incident operators would give priority to the police, fire services, and ambulance services which could mean a mobile blackout for private subscribers. However mobile operators assert that they can guarantee priority for emergency services communications without impacting private users, saying that “having 300,000 people guaranteed access is not going to affect a network built for 30m.”

Other concerns expressed over the proposed migration are largely political, with the shadow policing minister suggesting that the rush to award the contracts before the election will leave no time for testing and will put public safety at risk. Some are concerned about the bidding being opened to companies that have no experience in co-ordinating emergency services communications, and also about the cost of updating hardware and systems at a time of severe budget cuts in the emergency services.

International plans for emergency services 4G

Some other countries have also considered moving their emergency services communications to mobile networks, and the reactions to these plans have varied. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Germany has considered moving its first-responder services to 3G and 4G but has decided that the technology is not yet ready. Germany’s interior minister predicts that the necessary broadband voice plus data networks will not be available before 2025.
  • The USA is pressing ahead with plans to move the emergency services to mobile networks, but has decided not to use shared commercial networks. Instead the country is building a dedicated 4G spectrum for exclusive use by the emergency services.