May 31st, 2010

Airwave ripoff?

Posted in The Job - Comment by 200

I was talking the other day to someone with a special interest in the Airwave Radio System which is the current communications system used by the police in the UK.

Previously, for many years, we used a system of VHF&   UHF for our radios. This was subject to problems of clarity as the signal can be affected by various things also anyone with a tuner could listen in.

The new system is securely encrypted &  is based on mobile phone technology.

It was lauded as the antidote to the poor quality of VHF with exceptional clarity  & clear coverage almost everywhere. The reality was somewhat different from the hype; it is also subject to interference & bad reception. It doesn’t like buildings with lots of metal in the roof so we often lose coverage in shopping centres &  hospitals  & officers frequently sound like darleks or as if their radio has been dropped in a bucket of water.

The airwave project runs on the O2 infrastructure. O2, being a commercial outfit, need to make money from the deal. And they do, quite a lot.

Radio coverage is key to an awful lot of police work, particularly the front line work. We use our radios all the time.

Anyway, back to my conversation. The guy who knows about these things told something about the way we pay for our radio coverage. Rather than negotiating a deal much like the mobile phone contracts where you work out what kind of usage you’ll need, as a maximum pay a set fee, we’ve opted for ‘pay-as-you-go’. So every time someone presses the transmit button it costs the tax-payer a pence-per-minute charge. It’s also based on the number of aerials used in the radio transmission. So in a small town the signal might bounce off 2 or 3 O2 radio masts costing, say, 10 pence a minute (note: I have no idea of the actual charges). In a bigger town, the signal might use 6 or 7 masts, costing, say, 16 pence per minute.

If a police unit goes out of their area & uses the radio it will bounce the signal all the way back across several towns, lighting up even more masts & costing even more for the same transmission. It’s even worse if a unit goes into a different force area or maybe to a different part of the country; the signal gets bounced across every mast between them &  their home station, costing loads. And it’s even worse because the unit doesn’t even have to transmit to add big the per minute charges, if their radio is just tuned in to their local radio channel, every time they hear someone talking back home that radio signal has been bounced from their home aerials all the way a across the country to their radio aerials make extra pence per minute for O2.

I can’t, for the life of me, fathom out why the people that brokered the project could think this was a good deal.

I don’t know how much truth there is in it but I was also told that each force negotiated their own deal so while one force might be paying 15 pence a minute, another will be paying 12 while another will be paying 17. Its complete madness.

We’re in a state of massive budget cuts with more about to hit. You can bet that there is someone in an office at every police HQ with a spreadsheet  & a calculator working out just how much can be saved if we cut each transmission by just a few seconds, or did away with certain transmissions altogether. Whilst I know there are officers  & controllers who insist on tying up the radio with the ins outs of a cats arse on every transmission & can talk for England, I can’t help but think the only people to suffer, if  & when changes to protocol do come in, will be the poor bloody infantry on the front line, again.

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