TETRA: can it work as promised?
What is it, and what are the problems?
‘Everyone is aware of the shortcomings of Airwave ...’. Bearer independence for data matters, but TETRA isn’t well suited: ‘Bearer independence is really the solution and as an industry it should be incumbent upon us all to provide advice to this nature. Everyone is aware of the short comings of Airwave for certain applications yet it is understandable that many forces will want to use the service for data transmission due to the investment levied on the network. There is also a level of fear and intrepidation [sic] since it isn’t clear what the costs will be for using the Airwave network for data. I do believe it is right to look at using the service, but users should also consider complimentary networks too, hence the desire to be bearer independent.’
Emergency radios cause for concern, says terror attack report: ‘The Airwave digital radio system was never contracted to work in buildings or on the Underground, according to a London Assembly report into the 7 July London bomb attack.’
Police’s Airwave radio system ‘unreliable’, says committee: ‘Richard Barnes, chair of the committee, said the original contract to provide UK police forces with digital radio communications was flawed from the outset and produced a service unfit for police and emergency use in a metropolitan environment.’
£3bn emergency service radios ‘seriously flawed’. Weaknesses found in new system two years after 7/7; Devices won’t work in some police stations. Part of the problem is the low carrier frequency chosen for emergency services.
The original TETRA promise glowed with visions of Police National Computer data zipping down the aether to police handsets with pictures and information about criminals in real time. Has reality struck home at last? Rohill, a supplier of TETRA into Europe, takes a pragmatic view. TETRA, they say in their TETRA Notes news advertorial (Feb 2006) is about radio. Joining TETRA networks into other networks makes it part of the grand scheme of things: let it do the radio, let other infrastructures handle the IP (Internet Protocol) stuff. Which is why we are now paying for TETRA + PDAs, vehicle displays, commercial (privileged) network access rental (end-to-end encryption? did I hear you ask?) etc. It’s an expensive business, this, but never mind, we can keep on paying more for it... And so to TETRA 2.
‘TETRA Release 2 improves data rates at the cost of much more infrastructure [masts, to you and me]. TETRA 2’s modulation scheme differs from the original TETRA and when high rates of data are required, a mobile or portable receiver’s signal strength must be much higher than in the case of original TETRA networks. ... TETRA networks [like Airwave] are designed for mission-critical wireless communications. Both voice and data services are focused on secure transfer, availability and quality, rather than mass transport.’
‘The solution seems to be Tetra 2, an as-yet-unratified follow-up specification, which would offer a higher data throughput (up to 150kbps) and an overlaid network dedicated to data. According to Cairns (PITO’s mobile data project manager), more radio spectrum would be the “key enabler” for Tetra 2. Gherghetta (Motorola’s vice president) agreed, pointing out that Motorola's latest Tetra base-stations are already Tetra 2-ready and complaining that “currently there is not enough spectrum for any of the technologies to progress”.’ (Nov. 2006)
Compare this with the capabilities of your 3G phone (which could easily be made more secure, and indeed will have to be to avoid unwanted intrusion anyway.) Value for money? Fully featured? Let that one rest awhile. Just realise that we could be in for a substantial expansion of the antenna network for Airwave, despite the corporate puff.
Improved effectiveness and response times for the Emergency Services ... from BT! Where is TETRA, if commercial services are needed for fast reliable ‘mission critical’ data transmission? We are paying twice again.
Where, oh where, is Airwave? West Yorkshire Police are using commercially available Blackberry devices to access police data: local, and Police National Computer. It works. TETRA doesn’t. We are paying for both.
TETRA Airwave has now been ‘awarded’ for the fire and ambulance services of the UK. As at April 2006, the national infrastructure is complete (again: well, except for some highlands and islands). In support of these contracts, O2 Airwave V-P Jeff Parris proclaimed in February 2005, better coverage than any of the mobile networks, even down to the remote barn in Welsh countryside. The police disagree. Poor coverage zones are constantly discovered. As soon as ambulance crews and fire appliances start to enter the low-crime zones orginally considered less important, they too will find the black spots. Are 3,700 masts in the UK enough? For capacity to sustain the economic factors of developing Airwave, and credible coverage this might be justifiable, after all nothing new is perfect, we all make mistakes, and new masts can be added. But we suspect that the power has had to be turned up more than Airwave would have liked in some placed to achieve credible coverage. So we have a balancing act between the effects people feel versus the operational requirement.
We really could not have believed it, it sounded so bizarre. There seems to be a problem with some Airwave handsets, when used less than 1 metre from the ground. Sources include military TETRA and Airwave TETRA users, and it seems at least some TETRA handsets need therefore to be worn at shoulder height, rather than at the waist. If, as a result of low level deployment (crouching in a doorway?) they stop working, they must be held aloft to restore synchronisation with a base station. This might be regarded as compromising safety and effectiveness.
From Police Aviation News: There are renewed claims that Airwave a countrywide scheme to replace police radio networks with a digital system is turning into a white elephant. Although it is delivering the secure voice communications across a digital network it was always designed to provide additional features related to data transmission. It is in the extended field that the system is not meeting the aspirations of the police.
The latest allegations stemming from the Police Information Technology Organisation [PITO] and the Northumbria Police Authority suggest that Airwave is not delivering anywhere near the capability that police forces expected. The system, set to cost £2 billion pounds, would face upgrading costing hundreds of millions more.
The Home Office says that forces are already supplementing the system to meet the required standard. [Financial Mail]
Police shun £2.9bn network for mobile data (2003). And in March 2005 the police in Staffordshire were supporting a planning appeal by Orange, against planning refusal, because Orange is massively important to the manner in which modern policing is to be provided to the public of Staffordshire er, not Airwave?
Jan 2005: Lancashire Constabulary starts mobile data trial. Where TETRA fails, buy the police a pocket computer each, so they can exchange data after all! And they are claiming it as a TETRA success!! They could have done this already for a fraction of the cost, added encryption... Note what this article says:
The trial is being run by supplier O2 Airwave, the company responsible for rolling out to all UK police forces, using both the £2.9bn tetra-based radio network, and the O2 GPRS network, depending on which application is being accessed by the user.
Whos paying for the extra equipment and O2 access time? Ever bought a new car, only to find...?
Emergency services face network delays 17 November 2004
Questions remain over the future of Airwave 30 June 2004
Mail on Sunday, 20 June 2004: £2bn police radio out of date already
The Times, 17 June 2004: £2.9bn police radio link ineffective
Computing Magazine, 17 June 2004: Concerns grow over Airwave emergency services radio
Computing Magazine, 16 June 2004: Concerns grow over police radio system
Computer Weekly, 27 April 2004: The Met future-proofs with Tetra handsets (ie, they buy handsets that the network cannot provide for!)
There are several key doubts about whether TETRA will live up to its specification for police requirements. There are doubts about software compatibility between Police Forces allowing them to communicate with each other. There are more serious doubts about the promise to transmit data, without dramatically increasing the power output of base stations, perhaps requiring a new operating licence. Without full interoperability and data transfer, Airwave lacks two of the main reasons for which it was purchased. These and other questions were raised by the National Audit Office Public Accounts Committee in November 2002.
Before we get into the detail though, what we have paid for is TETRA 1. What the police need, it seems, is TETRA 2! This is the official promise (Powerpoint presentation, 1.5Mb). The standard (ie concept) is being finalised, but the equipment will only be developed if there is a demand. And that means re-equipping the UK police with new infrastructure upgrades, and new handsets! This is how the news was broken to Norway. Already, by 2005 it will be illegal to use the first generation of handsets because of interference compliance issues.
Ever felt you made the wrong decision? Read our little allegory about a new car.
If as widely reported, police handsets interfere with medical equipment in an emergency situation, they cannot be used. Police will use the transmit inhibit facility. (This is so that the officer cannot be contacted, thus waking up the handset.) Does it interfere? This is important now that Airwave is the be the national communications system for ambulance trusts. This is the initial Medical Devices Agency report. Judge for yourself from the results table whether TETRA causes the same or worse interference than GSM mobiles. Not quite what the Agency concludes, is it?
TETRA base stations, handsets and vehicle units also interfere with some vehicle electronics (as in Weston Super Mare, Chichester, Normanton, Eastbourne and many other areas). They are not guaranteed safe to be used in motorway patrols. Vehicles can be prevented from starting, or stopped, or their power steering or brakes affected. This just has to be an unacceptable additional risk, especially since neither mmO2 nor the Home Office will warn you about this. Did you know, for example, that there are currently over 80 incidents of Dennis Dart and Volvo buses that have crashed, many with fatal consequences, as a result of engine power surges? Proximity to commercial Dolphin TETRA is still in the frame, and no other explanation is satisfactory. So are you surprised that:
Police radio system disables black taxis in Edinburgh. The O2 reply? As long as the mast was operating within its licence it would be up to the taxi companies to change their equipment to solve the problem.
Normanton (Leeds) mast stops cars. Of course its the fault of the car manufacturers, not O2.
This problem has been known about TETRA for a long time, and the AA is all too familiar with it: The AA was called out to 114,000 key-related problems last year  and the RAC dealt with 70,000 similar security problems, many believed to have been caused by mobile phone masts.
Similar problems occur with automatic garage doors. Is this a case of the police opening up garages with expensive cars inside, for criminals to enter? Of course, it will be the owners responsibility for buying defective equipment, nothing to do with TETRA!
Likewise, if police handsets or vehicle units interfere with electronics, they cannot be used in situations of suspected booby trap or remote controlled explosive devices, lest they actually cause a detonation.
See also this New Scientist article.
Suitability for emergencies
If the handsets or the system fails in potentially dangerous public locations, such as the London Underground, then they cannot provide safe coverage against terrorist threats.
Does what it says on the tin?
If the handsets are inadequate for data transfer, they will remain a very expensive inferior alternative to other, existing mobile technologies.
How secure and resilient?
Wherever base station coverage is thin, transmissions become single channel and far less secure and resilient to jamming. Just the situation that could fail against the sort of terrorist threat it is supposed to protect us from. Consider this:
In the April 2004 edition of Land Mobile (European magazine for people in the mobile communications business), Paul Turner of Hampshire Fire and Rescue expresses his alarm about O2s fallback arrangements. At present, the fallback is not that successful, according to reports, and presents serious problems. Why, Paul Turner asks, are we only thinking about it now? And why are we only just learning about its resilience?
As an example, I can lose 100 per cent of the linking infrastructure and still have county-wide radio coverage, with our control room still in control of all our mobiles. Mobiles within coverage of a base station (10-15 miles radius) can still talk to one another. I can also lose 56 per cent of my hilltop sites and still maintain coverage, albeit limited. I can also lose 100 per cent of the linking infrastructure with 56 per cent of the hilltop sites and still have reasonable coverage with out control room still working. None of this goes over BT lines.
What it seems the police have accepted is a system inferior to what they have at the moment and they are paying dearly for it. I understand on the grapevine that costs for police radio have gone up by 400 per cent. And to what benefit, if it cannot operate in a simple fallback system?
I have asked on many occasions what happens if the radio system fails, but every time I have been fobbed off. The last time it was to a senior representative from PITO whilst I was at Easingwold. His reply was that they were working on it. My answer to that: Its a bit bloody late!
So if anyone of importance reads this, please take note: small area coverage in fallback in not acceptable!
Motorolas eventual answer (August 2005)? National Fallback Service Introduced to Ensure Seamless Backup for Airwave Network.
End-to-end encryption makes transmissions safe from interception by criminals, but is only true when communicating via base stations, and not even between base stations. Police stake-outs also, for example, will rely on handsets talking to each other in a group call.
Heres another assessment by BWCS, a leading wireless communications consultancy, on how well TETRA would cope in the event of a major disaster.
It is also salutory to note that even in July 2001, Nokia was announcing interoperability as a breakthrough.
And in November 2002 Nokia was introducing vehicle mounted TETRA. So soon? What was the Home Office buying in the 1990s? a promise!