Police radio operator O2 Airwave is to boost the data capabilities of the £2.9bn Tetra system, as it seeks to get utility firms and agencies such as the RSPCA to use its network.
O2 Airwave will launch a GPRS-enabled portal next April, Airwave MAG, built in conjunction with Siemens.
The portal will act as an interface between O2 Airwave's Tetra and GPRS networks, and increase the speed at which data can be transmitted. Currently, Tetra can carry data at around 3Kbps.
Carrying data traffic was a key requirement of the £2.9bn Public Finance Initiative (PFI) to build a new police radio network. At the time, it was thought that data speeds might be up to 200Kbps.
But with Tetra not yet ready for high volume data transmissions, O2 Airwave is under pressure to find a way of carrying data.
Some police forces, such as North Staffordshire, are already using GPRS networks from rival operators to carry data traffic.
And while Tetra had the advantage of comprehensive coverage and secure communications, handling data traffic would be vital in attracting new customers, according to Jeff Parris, vice president of O2 Airwave.
Under the terms of its PFI agreement, O2 Airwave can sell additional capacity on its police network to a limited number of public service agencies.
These include other emergency services, parts of the armed forces, RSPCA inspectors and gas and water suppliers.
"If we just stop with the contract with the police, we would not make the sort of return our shareholders would be delighted with," said Parris.
Work on improving the data carrying capacity of Tetra networks has stalled.
Tetra release II was due to define a standard for data transmission within the 390Mhz frequency, at which Tetra operates, by the end of this year. But the standard is unlikely to appear until the middle of 2004.
There will then be a time-lag between the standard being published and manufacturers delivering products, according to John Cox, chairman of working group the Tetra MoU Association.
"I think people get too caught up in speeds, without thinking of whether they really need to send videos or the like," he said.
"I can see a situation where Tetra is the preferred network, but other networks are used for occasional specialised applications."
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