Airwave can’t do any of these things. It does carry data but at so slow a speed as to make a dial-up modem embarrassed on its behalf. It is primarily a walkie-talkie service, albeit a very good one. There are upgrades that could have boosted Airwave’s data capabilities, but they were never implemented.
In the meantime, mobile operators have moved from 2G, to 3G to 4G and networks capable of streaming high-definition video.
The second and probably more important reason that the Government wants out of Airwave is that it is very expensive. According to the most recently published accounts, annual revenues, almost all from UK taxpayers, are £414m. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation were £243m. That’s a margin of 59pc, compared with typical mobile operator margins around 25pc.
It is little wonder then that officials turned to the mobile industry to replace Airwave. They have superior data-carrying capabilities and at a fraction of the price. George Osborne, the Chancellor, reckons that as well as offering a host of new services, the £1.2bn replacement for Airwave will save taxpayers £1m per day. The contract for supplying the connectivity, one of three that make up the new system as a whole, has gone to EE.
Airwave and Macquarie have unsurprisingly reacted badly to the news they are soon to have no business. The day after the deal was confirmed as part of the Autumn Statement, they lodged a legal challenge at the High Court that has been months in the planning, ever since Airwave was booted out of the bidding process early on.
Airwave has claimed the bidding process was unfair, which without seeing the detail of its case seems speculative at best and cynical at worst. Unless the company was suddenly able to slash its prices and radically overhaul its technology it is hard to imagine how it could have mounted a competitive bid given what the Government was seeking to achieve under the new contracts.
The cynically minded might wonder whether Airwave is in fact merely hoping to delay the inevitable. Tying plans to replace it up in the courts for even six months could easily be worth £100m to Macquarie. Even the City’s most reassuringly expensive lawyers would struggle to match that in fees.
Either way, Airwave’s action is unwelcome and unhelpful for a project that is too important and has too many potential pitfalls for time and energy to be wasted. There are some major challenges for EE and the other companies to overcome before Airwave can be switched off, and more official focus on that would be better all round.
Not least, 4G mobile networks do not yet offer some of the most vital functions required by the emergency services. Somewhere near the top of the shopping list is a so-called “push to talk” function, allowing a device on the network to act like a walkie-talkie rather than a mobile phone. It is coming, but the timetable is shifting, meaning Airwave or something like it will be needed for a few years yet.
There are more basic problems with mobile networks that also need to be solved. Coverage does not yet match Airwave, particularly in some of the most important environments for the emergency services.
For instance, it took the London bombings of 2005 to convince the Government that the lack of emergency radio coverage on the Tube was a serious safety problem. Airwave was subsequently extended underground but there is still no mobile coverage. The lack of cooperation between operators and TfL’s desire to make money from them is largely to blame, and this will need to be resolved.
Understandably, the plans to replace Airwave with something newer and cheaper have stirred up serious worries among the emergency services, whose focus is rightly the safety of the public and themselves. Many are not optimistic on the basis of the Government’s appalling record on technology projects and fear outages of capacity problems.
The timetable for Airwave’s replacement certainly already looks difficult to meet. Regardless, technology does not stand still and the sooner Airwave is defeated in court the better.