ACMA releases mobile broadband spectrum strategy

The ACMA will consider overall network infrastructure and take a more transparent management process when it comes to allocating spectrum for future mobile needs.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has released its strategy for allocating and refarming mobile broadband spectrum, identifying a more flexible and "holistic" approach for allocating spectrum for mobile broadband rather than the previous strictly quantitative process.

While the ACMA found Australia has adequate spectrum for mobile broadband services for the short- and medium-term future, it is "very likely" that additional spectrum will be required in the long term.

As a result, the government agency has outlined five strategies for ensuring mobile broadband capacity into the future: Taking into consideration spectrum, technology, and network infrastructure when addressing mobile broadband capacity growth; determining a transparent spectrum management process for identifying options for mobile broadband spectrum; making use of the lengthy period of time prior to additional spectrum being required so as to minimise the impact on telcos of refarming; examining sharing of spectrum between mobile broadband and other services; and engaging in international discussions on and influencing harmonised spectrum options.

"The need to accommodate growth in mobile broadband traffic has been one of the greatest challenges for the ACMA, and indeed all spectrum regulators worldwide," outgoing ACMA chairman Chris Chapman said.

"The work plan provides an important indication of our forward action plans. This will include immediate work on the 1.5GHz band identified for mobile broadband at last year's World Radiocommunication Conference, as well as pressing on with the reconfiguration of the 900MHz band."

In determining a transparent spectrum management process for identifying options for mobile broadband spectrum, the ACMA justified a less quantitative and more qualitative approach, saying traditional methods of allocating spectrum are no longer helpful.

"Quantitative estimates provide no insight into the frequency band required and do not capture other important qualitative aspects. These aspects include properties such as the desired characteristics of the spectrum (for example, whether high- or low-band spectrum is appropriate), international spectrum harmonisation, and technology standardisation factors," the strategy says.

"Instead, the ACMA will not concentrate its efforts solely on quantity but also quality, and rather than focus on arbitrary and simplistic targets, seek to provide the right spectrum at the right time to address the growth in demand for mobile broadband capacity."

The new method will involve a set of refarming criteria being assessed against possible spectrum bands. The ACMA will also look into spectrum sharing, with emerging technologies making this possibility more likely.

Should the ACMA prove to be successful in influencing international spectrum harmonisation discussions and decisions, it will have a direct effect on costs for consumers worldwide, including cheaper roaming options.

The ACMA also used the report as an opportunity to provide an update on its current spectrum refarming projects.

It is presently monitoring the 600MHz (520-694MHz); the 3.3GHz (3300-3400MHz); the 5150-5350MHz, 5350-5470MHz, 5725-5850MHz and 5850-5925MHz bands; and the 24.25-27.5GHz, 31.8-33.4GHz, 37-40.5GHz, 40.5-42.5GHz, 42.5-43.5GHz, 45.5-47GHz, 47-47.2GHz, 47.2-50.2GHz, 50.4-52.6GHz, 66-76GHz and 81-86GHz bands.

It is conducting initial investigations of the 1.5GHz (1427-1518MHz), 2GHz (1980-2010/2170-2200MHz), and 3.6GHz (3575-3700MHz) spectrum bands.

The ACMA is currently refarming the 850MHz expansion band (809-824/854-869MHz); the 900MHz (890-915/935-960MHz) band; and the 1800MHz regional/remote (1710-1725/1805-1880MHz) band.

The 1800MHz band was earlier this month successfully auctioned off, with a total of AU$543.5 million spent between the four major telecommunications providers. Optus Mobile spent the most, at AU$196 million, followed by Telstra, at AU$191 million; TPG, at AU$88 million; and Vodafone Australia, at AU$68 million.

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

The ACMA said in November that it will also refarm spectrum in the 803-960MHz band, with the 850MHz band to be expanded for mobile broadband services. The decision will 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 LIPD class licences.

The ACMA additionally 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 and undergoing a "general defragmentation" of the 800MHz spectrum band in order to increase efficiency.

Vodafone Australia announced in November that it had 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.

The ACMA published its Towards 2020: Future spectrum requirements for mobile broadband [PDF] and Five-year spectrum outlook 2015-19 [PDF] reports in September last year, updating its five-year outlook on spectrum usage and outlining how the telecommunications sector can deal with the growth in mobile broadband usage and technologies.

The reports said 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.

Chapman also recently told ZDNet that the ACMA is looking towards facilitating the spectrum needs associated with machine-to-machine (M2M) technology and the Internet of Things (IoT).

"This will be a real growth area in the Australian economy in the near future, and the ACMA wants to ensure that spectrum can be effectively used by the users and applications that will emerge," Chapman told ZDNet.

The ACMA in December released a set of proposed changes to spectrum regulations aimed at providing easier access to spectrum for M2M operators utilising spectrum for the IoT, with the ACMA looking at adding new frequency bands for in-ground ultra-wide bandwidth transmitters used in automated parking management systems; radio-determination transmitters used as industrial sensors; and analysis devices used for detecting objects in walls, ceilings, and floors.

More IoT devices will be added to a pre-approved list as they come into widespread use, too.

The ACMA also wants to align the usage of the 22.25-123GHz and 244-246GHz spectrum bands for short-range devices with the European system. Chapman added that the ACMA has plans to use a new band "for low duty cycle, low-power devices -- perfectly suited for MTM applications".

According to the ACMA, these changes will improve Australian companies' ability to technologically innovate and thereby stay ahead of the IoT curve.

The ACMA is also collaborating with the Communications Alliance IoT Alliance Executive Council in order to deal with IoT spectrum issues.

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