Emergency services to use commercial networks

Emergency services including fire, police, and ambulance agencies will be forced to use commercial mobile networks, with the government to form a committee to come up with proposals.

The Australian government has acceded to the Productivity Commission's recommendations in its report on public safety mobile broadband (PSMB), forcing emergency agencies to use commercial mobile networks, and has said it will form a committee made up of federal, state, and territory officials to come up with proposals by 2017.

"The government supports in principle the commission's findings and recommendations," Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and Justice Minister Michael Keenan said in a joint statement.

"The commission's study found that commercial mobile networks are the most efficient, effective, and economical way of delivering a public safety mobile broadband capability."

Fifield and Keenan added that using commercial mobile broadband would provide "significant potential" for emergency services to improve their efficiency and safety.

"We are committed to working with all states and territories towards achieving an interoperable PSMB capability, and will establish a committee of Commonwealth, state, and territory officials to consider fully scoped proposals and report to the Council of Australian Governments in 2017," the ministers said.

The Productivity Commission's PSMB research report into allocating spectrum to law-enforcement and emergency services was released in January this year, recommending that public safety agencies (PSAs) use commercial networks and spectrum without government intervention.

The Public Safety Mobile Broadband Productivity Commission Research Report [PDF] 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 -- the commission determined that a commercial solution would work best.

A commercial solution would 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.

Productivity Commissioner Jonathan Coppel in March said that a small-scale pilot will be undertaken in order to explore more precisely the costs, benefits, and risks so as to "develop a stronger business case for a wider-scale rollout".

"Across the benefits, the costs, and the risks associated with delivering PSMB capability, and on a first-principles basis, the commercial approach offers the best way forward," Coppel said.

"It does this because it clearly is the least costly on the community; it is able to most likely deliver a PSMB capability sooner, together with a lower risk of delay; we think it also provides that flexibility to PSAs to scale up in demand in the short term, and because of the lower cost per user of upgrading technology, we think that there is a greater prospect that those upgrades will take place sooner or in a more timely way than they would under a dedicated approach."

PSAs -- which include police agencies, fire service organisations, ambulance services, the State Emergency Service (SES), and the 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, 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.

The Victorian government spoke out against this decision in March, saying that rural emergencies would have little commercial mobile coverage, and that the cost implications are outweighed by public benefit.

"We don't see mobile broadband as the be-all and end-all, but [as] the critical enabler of key requirements for the technologies to assist us with our public safety outcomes, be they bushfires, be they floods, a whole series of other natural hazards and also human interest events that we have to grapple with, which by having telepresence, by having access to data, having access to data in the field, having key responders in key controlled areas, being able to interact; those things are enabled by radio-frequency spectrum," Steven Tsikaris, from the Victorian Department of Treasury and Finance, said at the time.

The Victorian government official pointed out that emergencies could occur in regional areas with sparse commercial mobile coverage, which would inhibit the ability of PSAs to respond and communicate in the field.

"There's a significant difference between the availability of -- let's call it commercial-grade -- mobile broadband services and the areas where a state needs to operate in, Victoria and smaller states like Tasmania and the [Australian] Capital Territory," he argued.

"We [state governments] need to operate on at least 95 percent of our landmass, and that covers about 99 percent of the population coverage. And we're going from highly urbanised areas to peri-urban, to regional, to rural, to remote areas.

"Now that's about 15 percent more landmass than what all of our commercial networks cover. How do we fill that gap? We [could] have a bushfire in the middle of nowhere."

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