Australian govt eyes emergency mobile broadband network

The Australian government has asked the Productivity Commission to conduct a cost-benefit analysis into a dedicated national mobile broadband network for emergency services.

Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and Justice Minister Michael Keenan have tasked the Productivity Commission with scoping out the possibility of building a national mobile broadband network exclusively for emergency services.

The Productivity Commission will have nine months to assess the feasibility of a dedicated mobile network for public safety agencies such as police, fire, and ambulance services, with an eye to develop the network by 2020.

The network would be a combined voice and data network.

The commission must assess the costs, benefits, and risks of the network; the most cost-effective way to deploy the network in combination with private mobile networks operated by Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone; how the network will work across state lines and across agencies; and what spectrum may be required.

The announcement on Wednesday is the next step in the process the ministers already tasked the commission with in November last year.

There are a number of state-based emergency networks, including those in Victoria and Queensland.

In the lead up to and following the digital dividend spectrum auctions for the 700MHz band, which both Optus and Telstra are now using for 4G services, the emergency services argued that they should be allocated a portion of the spectrum for their own dedicated networks.

It is understood the review will not seek to decide what spectrum the emergency services agencies should use, but whether a public network is feasible, or if emergency services can leverage existing commercial networks.

In 2013, the New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory, Victoria, and Western Australia governments argued that allocating the emergency service organisations the 700MHz spectrum not picked up by Telstra or Optus for commercial 4G services would reduce the cost of building new emergency service networks. This was because equipment would already be commercially available, and it would also harmonise the network with other emergency service networks using the 700MHz band, including those in the US.

The telcos argued against any spectrum being allocated for emergency services, instead offering alternatives on the commercial networks, including traffic prioritisation on 4G for emergency services. Telstra tested this feature of its 4G network in Brisbane during the G20 last year.

The government tasking the Productivity Commission to conduct a cost-benefit analysis into a national mobile broadband network comes in stark contrast to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull's decision to appoint a separate panel external to the commission to conduct a cost-benefit analysis into the National Broadband Network (NBN).

Turnbull defended his decision when the Vertigan panel cost-benefit analysis was released and sided with the Coalition's multi-technology mix model in 2014, saying that there would have been issues with the commission conducting the analysis.

"We did look at getting the Productivity Commission to do it, that would have been the more traditional route, but they had a very busy schedule and of course the chairman of the Productivity Commission, Peter Harris, had been the head of the Communications Department at the time the Labor broadband policy was put in place, so there are obviously issues with the PC doing it," he said at the time.

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