Market Insight

The United Kingdom’s nationwide TETRA network Airwave will continue to operate beyond 2020

August 14, 2018

Ryan Darrand Ryan Darrand Senior Analyst II, Critical Communications
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Existing Airwave contracts were due for renewal between 2016 and 2019. Once emergency services network (ESN) was announced, the original plan was to switch off Airwave between 2019 and 2020, in line with the renewal point of the network. However, IHS Markit expects this will not be the case. Instead, it will be some time before the UK is able to switch off its trunked-terrestrial radio (TETRA) network. In addition, Motorola CEO, Greg Brown, the owner of the Airwave network, recently shared his expectation that Airwave will continue past 2020.

Our analysis

For some time now, there has been rampant speculation about the future of licensed mobile radio (LMR), given the emergence of Long Term Evolution (LTE) in several parts of the world, including private LTE networks in China, the Middle East and Africa, along with nationwide networks, like Red Compartida in Mexico. Other national LTE networks aim to be deployed soon, including Safenet in South Korea, ESN in the UK and a convergence solution for LTE and TETRA for Angola’s national communications network. The United States has also affirmed its commitment to rolling out its nationwide FirstNet LTE network, as AT&T secured a 25-year contract to build and maintain the network.

Despite the emergence of LTE, LMR procurement continues to rise. The LMR industry reached a milestone in 2017, as digital users exceeded analog users. Deployments of both TETRA and cost-optimized digital technology – which includes digital mobile radio (DMR), next-generation digital narrowband (NXDN), digital private mobile radio (dPMR) and professional digital trunking (PDT) – each increased by 16 percent globally in 2017, and growth is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

LMR provides mission-critical voice communications for public safety and commercial organizations around the world, including emergency services, government agencies and airports, all of which require guaranteed communications, both in times of crisis and during times when it’s business as usual. IHS Markit estimates in 2017 there were approximately 48 million users relying on LMR for mission-critical communications. This vast number of users is not just going to easily relinquish tried and tested communications systems.

The UK, South Korea and US have been pioneers in nationwide LTE communication networks. The UK announced in 2015 that it would build a nationwide LTE ESN, replacing the incumbent nationwide TETRA (Airwave) network – one of the largest private operators of public-safety radio – which was completed in 2005. All first-responder police, fire and ambulance services had migrated to the network by 2010. However, TETRA continued to attract renewal contracts, was opened to other user groups and is now used by the Ministry of Defence (MOD), the Highways Agency, utility repair teams and others. The Airwave network has also been extended to the London Underground.

Shipments of TETRA declined in the UK, after the Home Office announced its intention to build the UKESN network in 2015. Some users delayed their decision to refresh their TETRA equipment, in lieu of the impending LTE network. However, according to the IHS Markit TETRA Terminals Report - 2018, TETRA shipments into the United Kingdom have already begun to increase, because UKESN has experienced delays in its roll out, and many users now correctly expect that Airwave will continue beyond 2020.

IHS Markit expects an incremental rollout of ESN, which will provide supplemental data services to complement critical voice with data, rather than replacing LMR altogether. LTE will become more established as it proves it can meet the specific needs of critical voice communications requirements for emergency services.  Airwave will continue to operate critical voice communications in tandem with UKESN. Since the full transition to LTE could take up to ten years, the complexities faced by the UK could be a guide to other users looking to adopt LTE in the future. 

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