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UK police and military 'battling over spectrum'

A new data network for the emergency services won't take off unless the Ministry of Defence starts sharing its spectrum, Motorola claims.

Emergency services are being preventing from making full use of their equipment because the military is denying them access to key radio spectrum, Motorola claimed this week.

The communications equipment manufacturer is a key promoter of the Tetra digital radio system, used by police, ambulance and fire services to communicate instantly and securely.

Tuesday marked the tenth anniversary of the first commercial Tetra radio contract, and Motorola and the Police Information Technology Organisation (PITO) took the opportunity to announce the first commercial contract for a Tetra PDA, the MTC100. The deal is with O2 Airwave, the secure radio network set up by O2.

The MTC100 is the "first Tetra PDA built specifically for mission-critical users", said John Gherghetta, Motorola's vice president, adding that it enables a "far more intensive use" of data pipes.

However, those data pipes currently pose something of a problem. Despite all the useful things the PDA can do--such as helping police check through photo archives or capture and check fingerprints--it cannot harness the potential of the IP core network due to low data speeds.

"The data rates in Tetra are very slow," Gherghetta told ZDNet UK on Wednesday. In fact, despite a theoretical maximum speed of 19.2Kbps, the reality is usually less than 10Kbps, depending on the application being used.

PITO's mobile data project manager, Gary Cairns, said using the PDA was "better than returning to the station and looking through photos", adding that the reduction in paper-based administrative work "keeps [officers] on the street, more visible and accessible to the public". However, although smart compression technology is used to squeeze information through the system, Cairns said data transmission was slow through the narrowband network, which has always been intended as a voice service.

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, more radio spectrum would be the "key enabler" for Tetra 2. Gherghetta 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".

There are two alternatives for Tetra 2's spectrum. One is the range between 410-430MHz, which is being considered for emergency services use in other European countries but which, in the UK, has been partially auctioned off to commercial interests by Ofcom. Cairns pointed out that this strategy means emergency services are forced to "demonstrate a business case in monetary terms as well as the benefits to the public", although a spokesperson for Ofcom told ZDNet UK on Thursday that no further auctions in the 410-430MHz range are scheduled.

It is possible that Arqiva--the company that won parts of the spectrum earlier this year--could resell it to the emergency services. It is worth noting that Motorola was itself one of the unsuccessful bidders for those parts, which are 412-414MHz paired with 422-424MHz.

The second alternative for Tetra 2 is a small 1.5MHz tranch of spectrum closely aligned to the existing Tetra range--which was donated by NATO in 1996--of 380-385MHz paired with 390-395MHz. Because of its proximity to the existing band, the 385-386.5MHz range would allow emergency services to reuse their existing Tetra infrastructure for Tetra 2. However, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) uses this range for its own digital radio communications and, according to Motorola's director of international business relations and Tetra Association vice chairman Jeppe Jepsen, they are refusing to share it.

"The spectrum has to be close to Tetra 1 spectrum. It would be a good idea to share 385-386.5MHz," Jepsen told ZDNet UK on Tuesday. He pointed out that the military and emergency services "are all doing the same thing--protection of society on home ground" and said other European countries enjoyed closer co-operation between the two sectors.

"Tetra 2 is having a bleak future in the UK simply because spectrum is not available to do this", said Jepsen, who blamed both Ofcom and the military for their respective roles in blocking or discouraging emergency service access to spectrum.

Both Jepsen and Gherghetta said the European Commission's proposal to set up a dedicated spectrum agency--with the aim of harmonizing spectrum use across the continent--was a good idea, although Gherghetta admitted it was a "pretty high ambition".

A spokesperson for the MoD told ZDNet UK on Thursday that it "regularly negotiates and shares its spectrum with other users in accordance with Ofcom regulations and recommendations from the Cave Report".