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UK spectrum row: What we need is more national disasters

Only that way will there be proper emergency comms

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Future of Wireless The problem with UK radio spectrum policy, apparently, is that we have too much competition and not enough proper disasters, which means our emergency services won't get enough radio spectrum until people start dying.

That's according to Motorola's Jeppe Jepsen, who does have a vested interest as a supplier of kit to emergency networks, but his strident stance during a debate at the Future of Wireless conference seemed to embarrass even the chap from Airwave (which runs the UK's emergency-services network). Jepsen was arguing that all the commercial networks should be merged into one, but that emergency services should operate entirely separately.

That view got short shrift from Vodafone, which was also on the stage, and Ofcom, whose director of spectrum technology, Joe Butler, was on hand to reiterate the regulator's belief that having four competing networks increased coverage and service for all.

But with the UK's four commercial networks already sharing two physical networks (if not radio frequencies) the argument that Airwave needs its own infrastructure is looking decidedly thin, which perhaps accounts for Jepsen's fierce defence of it.

The UK's Airwave network covers most of the UK, and has something in the region of 14MHz of spectrum (compared to Vodafone's 76MHz and Everything Everywhere's 170MHz – even Three has just over 34MHz to play with, though it's all up in the 2.1GHz band). Airwave, on the other hand, operates in low bands – around 400MHz – which increases the range considerably but also means bigger antennas.

The network also uses TETRA rather than GSM, as TETRA offers the point-to-point communications and relaying necessary to stretch coverage, but as the commercial networks move to (4G) LTE, the technology exists to prioritise traffic and provide enough bandwidth to emulate the best features of TETRA, potentially making the separate network redundant.

At what price public safety?

When pushed, Jepsen was prepared to accept this, but he maintained that such a move would only work if the emergency services themselves had control over the priority switch. We suggested that said services would have little incentive to dial back on their priority, and Jepsen agreed that some financial incentive would have to be applied, rather negating his earlier argument that no price could be put on public safety.

The Americans have put a price on public safety, in the form of 20MHz of decent radio spectrum and $7bn in cash to build a stand-alone LTE network for the exclusive use by the 'services – though how many other bodies slip into that definition remains to be seen.

Airwave gets used by traffic wardens, organ transports and stadiums rent-a-cops as well as the uniformed users one would expect. The American money will come from selling off some TV frequencies in a profit-sharing deal with the TV broadcasters, which will have to squeeze their signals a little more.

Vodafone's chap made much of that deal during the debate, as something worth watching, but in fact the British dedication to broadcast TV would make it impractical over here. A small minority of Americans depend entirely on broadcast TV, which remains the dominant transmission medium on this side of the pond.

But operators will always ask for more spectrum, it's what they do, and operators of emergency networks are no different in that regard. UK operators' calls to simplify the UK 4G auction process (perhaps by removing any attempt to redress the historical imbalance which leaves Vodafone with a decent chunk of bandwidth at 900MHz) are as predictable as they are repetitive, but more surprising was the cross-stage support for White Space technologies ... which none of the participants use, or plan to use.

White Space is interesting not because it fills unused TV frequencies with long-range wireless, but because it's a new way of using radio spectrum. A White Space connection only exists at the discretion of the central database, which can deactivate (or, more likely, retune) connections at will, enabling spectrum to be dynamically allocated to users on a second-by-second basis.

The first White Space devices are already on the shelves in the USA, and will be in the UK within a year, and if the model works then everyone in the industry (on the stage at least) agrees it is how radio will be managed in the future, though Jepsen retains his caveat that the emergency services should retain overriding control over that database if they can't be given a network of their own to play in. ®

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