As telcos and emergency services continue their fierce debate over access to spectrum in the digital dividend, a parliamentary committee has been unable to determine what spectrum would work best for emergency services.
The committee was not able to reach a complete conclusion in its report investigating the capacity of communication networks and emergency warning systems to deal with emergencies and natural disasters, which was released on Friday and chaired by Liberal Senator Mary Jo Fisher. Fisher said that while the government should ensure that emergency services are allocated sufficient spectrum in bands that align with other emergency service organisations both in Australia and overseas, she was unable to say whether this should be in the 700MHz, 800MHz or 900MHz spectrum bands.
"[T]he committee does not have the technical expertise to recommend whether this spectrum should be in the 700MHz band or 800 and 900MHz bands," Fisher stated in the report. "The committee strongly encourages stakeholders participating in the Public Safety Mobile Broadband Steering Committee and the ACMA's review of the 900MHz band to critically examine the benefits and weaknesses of using spectrum in the 800 and 900MHz bands for broadband PPDR radiocommunications in Australia."
While the Federal Government is keen for emergency services to be allocated spectrum in the 800MHz band, keeping the digital dividend spectrum for auction to telcos in 2012 for 4G mobile services, emergency service organisations such as the Police Federation of Australia are against using the 800MHz or 900MHz spectrum bands for emergency communications. They argue that other countries are putting emergency communications in the 700MHz spectrum, meaning equipment used overseas would not be compatible in Australia.
The committee has recommended that the commonwealth, state and territory governments should work with the emergency services organisations to identify weaknesses in going down the path of using the 800MHz or 900MHz spectrum, and the additional costs that would be associated with procuring compatible equipment. In the meantime, it recommended that the emergency service organisations should work to get narrowband communications — typically in the 400MHz spectrum band — to be harmonised to ensure a common communications platform is available to all emergency services.
Motorola has estimated that the government would miss out on $220 million in revenue if parts of the 700MHz spectrum band are dedicated to emergency services and not auctioned off. Telstra has stated that it believes that its long-term evolution (LTE) 4G network would be ideal to provide dedicated communication services to emergency organisations.
The committee has also recommended that more frequent updates provided to media outlets from emergency service organisations in the event of a natural disaster, as well as giving priority of fuel to public broadcasters such as the ABC in times when power is unavailable.
The committee praised Telstra's efforts in establishing temporary infrastructure in the recent floods and cyclones, and warned that the National Broadband Network (NBN) would also need to be adequately prepared for potential disasters.
"With respect to the NBN, the committee notes that NBN infrastructure will face similar challenges to existing networks when it comes to withstanding natural disasters. The NBN will, therefore, be susceptible to damage and failure during an emergency in much the same way as existing telecommunications infrastructure."