TETRA: does it work as promised?
What is it, and what are the problems?
Functionality: August 2005 update
Airwave: a 21st century tool to fight 21st century crime: Home Office minister Caroline Flint.
It is August 2005. Coinciding with the G8 Summit in Gleneagles, we have had a major incident in London. Terrorist bombs of whatever origin, exploded almost simultaneously in the London underground and on a London bus on 7 July. There is no need to repeat the circumstances and detail. A second incident occurred one week later, supposedly linked, which thankfully was a complete failure.
What part did Airwave TETRA play?
A vital part of the management of UK security is the Airwave TETRA network and system. It is there to keep us safe, and as we have been told repeatedly, it will protect us all through its superior operation, coverage and capabilities. After all, did it not swing into action and save Boscastle from the floods in 2004? No it didnt; a temporary mast made a local system work during the clean up. Did it not save the day in Madrid, during the train bombings there? No it didnt. One utility that did use a TETRA system described how awful it was, with hundreds of dropped calls.
A year ago, TETRAWatch was fully expecting the usual triumphant press release immediately after the G8, saying on this site that it would be used by O2 Airwave as a demonstration of the superiority of Airwave in protecting the global pretenders from the ravages of those who do not actually want a G8 (unelected group) world. Why the silence?
On the ground
We then reported from separate sources (civilian and police) that during the big day of demonstration, apparently the Airwave radios in Edinburgh and Stirling became inoperable, for perhaps 6 hours. Screens went blank and useless earpieces were removed. Airwave (who monitor this site assiduously) wrote in because they had not heard about any failure. TETRAWatch, whilst having a political dig from time to time, is always open to correction, and would have expected, even welcomed, an early denial and assurance that all had indeed been well. No such assurance, which would need to be backed further by police ranks on the ground of course, has yet been received. But that is as far as we can comment.
In similar vein, TETRAWatch can as yet report no assurances that the reports of Airwave radios not working properly at ground level (ie, below a certain height from the ground) are untrue. What we do hear is that despite complete dependency on Airwave now, there are numerous areas where there is no reliable Airwave signal. O2 Airwave Vice President Jeff Parris maintained in March 2005, in support of the Firelink bid, that no more than 10 further base stations would be required in the UK to achieve coverage far better than any of the commercial mobile networks, even to the remote barn in Wales. (Reported in interview with Land Mobile magazine.)
On 21 August it was reported in the national news [see below] that part of the tragic mistaken killing of Brazillian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes was a failure in radio communication. This was repeated in The Times, saying that the police and army teams could not receive orders in the vital moments. Whilst we need to clarify what this means, and be assured that part of the tragedy was not that it could have been averted if only surface to underground communications had been enabled, we do know a few pertinent facts that ministers must answer to.
In April 2004 we heard: Police lose track of suicide bomber as radios fail on Tube, in which both VHF and Airwave radios became inoperable underground in a critical situation:
They did not want to make an immediate arrest because he was in a busy area and, if a genuine suicide bomber, could have set off the device. As he entered an Underground station, however, uniformed officers lost sight of him and could not radio colleagues to guard the exits at other stations because neither their old radios, nor their recently issued replacements, work underground. The man was later apprehended and turned out not to be a suicide bomber but officers are concerned that if he had been genuine their inability to keep track of him could have had potentially catastrophic consequences.
In other words, Airwave is quite unsuitable for guarding underground transport or responding in an emergency. All the more reason, one supposes, for not allowing suspects to enter underground stations.
Security for whom?
What was not reported in the UK press appears to have been an O2 Airwave public relations news release in the South African Guardian, entitled Technology to the rescue. Perhaps this helps to sell Airwave abroad, but it was a revealing article, making public the fact that the security services can switch off parts of the commercial mobile networks at will, and adopt them for their own mobiles with specially coded SIM cards (so we need TETRA?). And we are told:
Coping with the terrorist attack was a test of years of preparation. Some of the first respondents to the scenes of the explosions across the capital were officers of the British Transport Police, who are responsible for law enforcement on the underground system and the nations railways. They were able to rely on a new communications system, Airwave, which was rolled out late last year.
The years of preparation that we have seen include anxiety that underground communications have not been resolved. Perhaps this is why Ken Livingstone is pressing, or is being pressed, to have ordinary mobile phones enabled in the underground. Can you imagine the microwave radiation reflection and accumulation in metal tube trains, in reinforced or metal tunnels, and what levels that might rise to? And what stress levels might be increased further to, as the radiation affects peoples biological stress-response?
So how did the police cope on 7 July? The South African article tells us that the police deployed Airwave vehicles that dropped devices on wires into the tunnels in order to bring about a 21st century capability: Searchers said it was a massive help to be able to talk to each other.
One might only add that it could have helped CO19 firearms units to talk to each other before firing 11 shots at a restrained man wearing a denim jacket, with no bag, in his underground train seat.
The chief point arising here is that if you want the police to be able to communicate with underground facilities, you cant get in a van and go searching for the right manhole cover, and drop wires down. International political visits are typically accompanied by the welding up of such access points, and this is not a meaningful way to conduct a pursuit. And if you cant communicate underground, it is better not to get that far before acting.
Somewhere between a soldier having a pee at the wrong time, and the tragic end, Airwave could, nay should, have been used to capture an image of the man and positively and instantly identify him. Who was to blame, officers for not using the data capacity of Airwave TETRA, or TETRA for being incapable?
So where are we on security? With all the above to untangle, and the facts to be properly revealed, we still have Airwave insisting that their infrastructure is secure and capable, even secret. Ask Airwave where TETRA masts are, and they will say it is a matter of national security. You can see them, you can trace the frequency easily, you can read the notices on the base stations and look them up on the Sitefinder website. Quite a few people can feel them and spot them that way. There can be no secret. When Jill Evans MEP (Plaid Cymru) asked Airwave where masts were in order to trace health concerns of constituents she was refused and Ofcom, who run the Sitefinder website backed them up!
Sunday Express, 21 August 2005 (extract)
Andrea Perry Crime Editor
Tube victim doomed by shambles of police radios that will not work under ground
The probe into the tragic shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes took a new twist when it emerged that police marksmen would have been unable to receive orders from their commanders because their radios do not work on the Underground. ...
We have also learnt that the anti-terror teams involved have 3 different types of radio and were unable to communicate with each other. ...
What is more, the MetRadio system used by Londons police will not work at 123 stations on the capitals Underground rail system. And our disclosure that Sir Ian Blair is the driving force behind a project to improve radio communications that could end up costing as much as £300 million will increase pressure on the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to sort out the current mess. ...
A police source revealed: It would appear that there was one radio in use for the CO19 firearms officers, one set for the British Transport Police, a third set for the specialised Army group. I don't know which system the surveillance teams would have been using, but in each case, the communications went back to Gold Command and were then relayed to different groups. It seems ludicrous that the various groups of officers involved in the operation to tail de Menezes were not in contact with one another ...
This month the Met signed a new £36million contract to upgrade its radio to a new Airwave digital system but officers still wont be able to communicate underground. ...
London Underground is also upgrading its radio system but it would take a further 140 million and two years to make it compatible with police radios. ...
It has also emerged that the Met£s plans to run a new communication system to run alongside the police Airwave set up is also running late because of technical hitches. ...
The Command, Control and Communication Centre has had to be delayed a further 12 months because of software compatibility problems. That could mean a £300 million bill. ...
The official level of threat to Britain from a terrorist attack has been lowered for the first time since the July 7th bombings, it was reported last night.
Sitefinder shows all masts, eventually. TETRA will all be on there one day. And as you can see, some places have rather a lot of microwave base stations, marked by the blue triangles.