ACMA refarms spectrum for mobile broadband

With mobile broadband seeing increasing uptake, the ACMA has allocated additional spectrum within the 803-960MHz band to boost coverage.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has announced its long-term plans out to 2020 for spectrum in the 803-960MHz band, with the 850MHz band to be expanded for mobile broadband services.

The decision will also see the 803-820MHz spectrum band, formerly used for analogue television, allocated for usage.

The 803-960MHz spectrum is currently also being used for fixed links, trunked land mobile services, sound outside broadcast and studio-to-transmitter links, with consumer devices also operating within the 915-928MHz band under Low Interference Potential Devices (LIPD) class licences.

The ACMA's decision on Thursday will make additional spectrum in the 928-935MHz band available under the LIPD licence.

"Industry has been reminding us that it wants certainty about arrangements in this band, and the ACMA has considered the long-term impact on incumbents affected by these decisions," said ACMA chairman Chris Chapman.

"To make the transition easier, we're putting in place a careful plan with timelines somewhat longer than we had previously foreshadowed. This will ease the impact on users needing to undertake equipment modifications or buy replacements to comply with the new arrangements."

The ACMA also plans to downshift the 850MHz band by 1MHz in order to maximise the usage of the adjacent 900MHz GSM band, as well as reconfiguring the 900MHz GSM band in the future.

"Further reform of the 900MHz GSM band to optimise it for mobile broadband services will continue to be a key work item for the ACMA, and will be pursued separately from the broader implementation plan set out in this paper," Chapman said.

"In a sense, we're fortunate these issues are largely 'self-contained' to the existing three licensees (Telstra, Optus, and VHA). This makes it possible for the ACMA to deal with these issues in isolation to the implementation of those broader reforms to the 803-960MHz band detailed in the paper. We'll be consulting directly with the relevant industry stakeholders to bring about the desired changes to the 900MHz GSM band."

The ACMA aims to undergo a "general defragmentation" of the 800MHz spectrum band in order to increase efficiency, too.

Vodafone Australia announced on Thursday that it has already refarmed its 850MHz spectrum band to bring coverage to regional and metropolitan Queensland. The low spectrum band penetrates buildings more effectively than higher bands, Vodafone said, working alongside the 4G already provided through the 1800MHz spectrum band.

"L850 will offer a variety of potential improvements, including faster streaming speeds, greater network stability, and, for some customers, 4G access for the first time," Vodafone CTO Benoit Hanssen said.

Vodafone Technology Governance and Strategy general manager Easwaren Siva on Tuesday revealed that Vodafone has also just refarmed its 2100MHz spectrum to active 4G LTE services in the Cairns, Queensland, area.

In May this year, the government announced its plan to auction off the regional 1800MHz spectrum, after the ACMA had recommended an auction be held.

The 1800MHz band is used in metropolitan areas by Telstra, Vodafone, and Optus to deliver their 4G networks, but has been primarily used in remote Australia for point-to-point backhaul services. The reallocation of the spectrum will ensure that it is used to bring faster connection speeds to those living in regional areas.

The ACMA in September then announced that it had begun accepting applications from telecommunications carriers that wished to take part in the auction.

The high-band spectrum, being auctioned off online this month, will improve 4G coverage in regional and remote Australia, bringing high-speed broadband to those living outside of the major cities.

It has been separated into 147 lots, with costs calculated at AU$0.08 per MHz depending on population; spectrum in the 1800MHz band in Darwin starts at AU$106,000, while its starting price in Adelaide is AU$1.13 million.

"Spectrum is a finite natural resource. When demand exceeds supply for spectrum in a band, the ACMA commonly allocates spectrum by auction. This provides a transparent process to establish a market price, ensuring licences are allocated to those who value them most highly," said Chapman.

"The ACMA considers that the price paid by bidders at an auction should provide a reasonably accurate indication of the true market value of the spectrum and identify the highest value use of the band."

The ACMA also recently updated its five-year outlook on spectrum usage, releasing two reports that outline how the telecommunications sector can deal with the growth in mobile broadband usage and technologies.

It said that it is currently focusing on the usage of the 1800MHz band in bringing services to those living in remote regions.

The ACMA also said that mobile broadband traffic is far outstripping previous predictions, with additional spectrum needing to be allocated, and more flexible and responsive planning necessary for the future.

To deal with the growth in traffic and explosion of new technologies, the ACMA put forward strategies to refarm and reallocate broadband spectrum.

"If we are to seriously contemplate the disruption caused by re-farming bands currently used for other purposes -- and we think that is extremely likely -- it is equally vital that existing mobile broadband allocations are optimised to take account of changes in international harmonised arrangements. We all need to sweat existing allocations harder," said Chapman.

The timing and method of allocation for the 850MHz band are still to be determined.

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