A parliamentary committee chaired by former Attorney-General Robert McClelland has called on Communications Minister Anthony Albanese to dedicate at least 20MHz of spectrum in the 700MHz band to emergency services, and fund the building of their networks with some of the AU$1.96 billion from the digital dividend auction.
The committee was tasked in May to investigate how much spectrum emergency service organisations in Australia would require to implement dedicated mobile networks capable of meeting the increasingly data-intensive applications and services used by law enforcement, fire and ambulance officers use out in the field on a daily basis. The committee was also specifically tasked to look at whether the 700MHz band or the 800MHz band would be more appropriate for these networks.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) announced last year that it would offer 2x5MHz slots in the 800MHz spectrum band for dedicated emergency service networks, along with 50MHz of spectrum in the 4.9GHz spectrum band for the deployment of temporary cells on wheels.
The emergency service groups had lobbied for 2x10MHz spectrum in either the 700MHz or 800MHz bands for their own networks to be used by police, fire, and ambulance organisations in emergency situations.
The fractured relationship between the emergency service organisations and the ACMA was on full display during the inquiry, with the former telling the committee that the ACMA had been "arrogant" in its treatment of the stakeholders and in its view of police operational requirements. The Police Federation stated that the ACMA had been "overly influenced" by the commercial mobile operators' views on spectrum allocation.
The ACMA disagreed, stating that its views on the spectrum needs of emergency service organisations was formed through "structured evidence" and engineering analysis that had determined that the full 20MHz of spectrum would be unlikely to be used in almost all disaster or emergency situations.
In the committee's report, McClelland acknowledged the work that the ACMA had done, but said that its own evidence had found that 10MHz was inadequate and 20MHz was the "absolute minimum required", and given the public service agencies had a preference for the 700MHz band to align with the emergency service organisations in the US and parts of Asia, it made sense to allocate.
McClelland said the 30MHz of spectrum available in the 700MHz band left over from the digital dividend auction would be ideal for the emergency service networks, and recommended at least 20MHz of contiguous spectrum be provided with a view to potentially handing over the remaining 10MHz to emergency services as well.
If the government rejected this, the committee recommended increasing the current allocation of 800MHz spectrum from 10MHz to 20MHz.
One of the major criticisms from the ACMA and others against allocating more spectrum to the emergency service organisations was that the state governments and agencies have yet to allocate specific funding to the construction of the networks, and they have warned that the construction of the networks to cover the entire country could be incredibly costly.
The committee recommended that Australia follow in the footsteps of the US government and finance the emergency service networks through the funds from the spectrum auction.
"The costs involved in the development and management of an effective and interoperable national [emergency service mobile network] will be considerable. Costs stretch to updating applications, utilisation of regular software releases and application of patches and enhancements which require modelling and testing before deployment into live networks," McClelland said.
"The committee appreciates that the operational costs involved in what will be a live and highly dynamic network represent a significant investment for operators. However, the auctioning of spectrum in the 700 MHz band realised a significant financial dividend. The committee supports the view that this dividend should contribute to meeting the costs of securing a national [emergency mobile] network and recommends that the Australian Government finance the provision of spectrum for public safety agencies through the proceeds of the auction."
A spokesperson for Albanese told ZDNet that the ACMA is still reviewing spectrum allocation for emergency services and the government will wait until that has been completed before responding to the recommendations.
"The committee's recommendations will further inform the work of the ACMA. The government will respond to the committee report after it has received further advice from the ACMA," he said.
The committee's recommendation to hand over the remaining 700Mhz spectrum to emergency services is likely to receive pushback from the commercial carriers. Both Telstra and Optus, who secured spectrum in the 700MHz band at the auction, had both previously welcomed the government's commitment to not sell the remaining 30MHz of spectrum for less than the reserve price.