Emergency services to use commercial networks, spectrum: Productivity Commission

The Productivity Commission has determined that PSAs should not be allocated spectrum, with emergency services to use existing commercial networks for mobile broadband.

The Australian government has released its Public Safety Mobile Broadband (PSMB) research report into allocating spectrum to law-enforcement and emergency services, recommending that public safety agencies (PSAs) use commercial networks and spectrum without government intervention.

In the Public Safety Mobile Broadband Productivity Commission Research Report [PDF], published in December and released on Tuesday, the commission stated that after researching four options -- constructing a dedicated PSA network with allocated spectrum, a purely commercial approach, a full-coverage hybrid approach, and a targeted-coverage hybrid approach -- it has determined that the commercial solution would work best.

"Our study has found that, on first principles, the most efficient, effective, and economical way of delivering a public safety mobile broadband capability is by relying on commercial mobile networks and spectrum," Presiding Commissioner Jonathan Coppel said in the report.

A commercial solution will see PSAs sign individual contracts for mobile network services and capacity with telecommunications providers, an approach that would only cost AU$2.2 billion over a 20-year period.

By comparison, building a dedicated network for PSAs was estimated by the commission to cost almost three times as much, at AU$6.2 billion, with the full-coverage hybrid solution projected to cost AU$5.1 billion and the targeted-coverage hybrid solution AU$2.9 billion.

The substantial cost saving in choosing a commercial solution would be due to the PSAs being able to leverage and share existing infrastructure. A dedicated network also runs the risk of taking longer to build out and deploy, and would provide less flexibility and scalability for the short term.

The commercial solution is forecast to cost AU$135 million for spectrum; AU$516 for user equipment; AU$171 million for mobile carrier network augmentation; AU$117 for site hardening; AU$45 million for core network and add-ons; AU$1.1 billion for site backhaul leasing costs; and AU$150 million for network operating costs.

It will, however, cost nothing for new site building, new radio access network equipment, and site leasing costs, while these amount to hundreds of millions of dollars for the hybrid options and over AU$2.5 billion for a dedicated network.

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(Image: Screenshot by Corinne Reichert/ZDNet)

Leveraging the already existing commercial networks also means PSAs will have 99 percent coverage of the Australian population immediately for 3G and 4G mobile broadband services.

The commission pointed towards small-scale pilots to begin with, as well as implementing competitive procurement practices such as tenders to ensure competition, value for money, and an avoidance of single-supplier lock-in.

PSAs -- which include police agencies, fire service organisations, ambulance services, the State Emergency Service, and marine rescue and coast guard -- have been pushing for their own spectrum and network for years, saying they need to be able to access high-speed video, high-quality images, geolocation tools, and biometric capabilities wherever they are working.

Under the commercial approach recommended by the Productivity Commission, PSAs will be forced to share network capacity when jurisdictions overlap, with a jurisdiction-wide implementation entity recommended to be formed in order to minimise duplication, improve economies of scale, and offer opportunities to piggyback off other PSMB government investments, such as the mobile blackspot program.

"Achieving interoperability will require jurisdictions to agree on common protocols covering matters such as network technology, spectrum, end-user devices, and applications," the report says.

"And to make the most of PSMB, PSAs within each jurisdiction will need to agree on protocols for sharing information and -- where a PSMB capability is shared -- network capacity."

The commission has also advised against the government supplying dedicated spectrum to PSAs.

"Regardless of how and to whom spectrum is made available, it should be priced at its opportunity cost: The value of the next best use for the spectrum. This would give purchasers a strong incentive to use spectrum in an efficient way, including potentially leasing or selling spectrum access rights to a third party when it is not needed," the report says.

"The commission has not been presented with evidence that state and territory governments face unnecessary regulatory impediments to accessing spectrum, or that government agencies are on an unequal footing with other potential buyers.

"Accordingly, the commission does not consider that Australian government intervention in spectrum allocation processes is necessary to facilitate a PSMB capability or for state and territory governments to access spectrum. Intervention in these processes to improve certain users' access to spectrum would have costs that would need to be weighed against the benefits."

The government had been considering emergency services spectrum allocation for years, with the ACMA announcing in 2012 that it would designate 2x 5MHz slots in the 800MHz spectrum band, along with 50MHz of spectrum in the 4.9GHz spectrum band for the deployment of temporary cells on wheels.

The emergency services groups had wanted double this -- 2x 10MHz spectrum in either the 700MHz or 800MHz band -- and the government was consequently accused of risking lives by providing only half the spectrum necessary for PSAs to respond to emergencies.

The federal parliamentary joint committee on law enforcement launched a fresh inquiry the following year to examine how much broadband spectrum PSAs require, and whether the 700MHz or 800MHz band would be more suitable.

The PSAs and state governments made submissions to this inquiry, with all recommending being given the leftover 2x 15MHz spectrum from the 700MHz band, following the completion of the digital dividend auction in May 2013. This would circumvent the cost of building out a new network, as well as harmonising Australia's emergency services network with those from other countries that make use of the 700MHz band, such as the United States, Canada, and South Korea.

While Tuesday's report ruled against the government setting aside spectrum for PSAs, it did note that "PSAs are not precluded from purchasing access to a specific band of spectrum or applying to ACMA for an administrative allocation".

The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) has welcomed the Productivity Commission's report, calling it a "common-sense approach" that will save billions of dollars in costs as well as driving competition in the sector.

"The Productivity Commission has clearly judged the cost/benefit in favour of partnerships with commercial operators. This option allows public safety agencies to do what they do best while leaving the innovation, investment, and infrastructure associated with mobile networks to operators to be leveraged in a public safety context," said AMTA CEO Chris Althaus.

"In reality, partnerships with network operators already exist and have been a major part of public safety mobile broadband deployment in recent years. The industry stands ready to build on these existing relationships with public safety agencies as recommended by the Productivity Commission to pilot latest-generation mobile broadband technologies and services for use in public safety."

AMTA also applauded the report's recommendation that PSAs should not be allocated spectrum.

Conversely, the Police Federation of Australia (PFA) had called the Productivity Commission's draft report, which was published in September and also leaned towards the commercial approach, "short sighted".

PFA CEO Mark Burgess told ZDNet that the report was based solely on economics without taking into consideration public safety.

"Historically, every incident that has arisen where there's been some form of either coronial inquiry or other inquiry or a royal commission into natural disasters in particular, but a whole range of things in that space, every one of them has found a problem with communications. And this is just condemning us to have the same problem over and over and over again," Burgess said at the time.

"It's very, very short-sighted on the part of the Productivity Commission, but understandably, they're not experts in this area; they're basically economists. They're looking at the costs aspect of it. Our key concern is the safety of the public."

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