The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has dismissed a number of claims by the Police Federation of Australia that the 800MHz spectrum band would be unsuitable for use by emergency service organisations.
The Police Federation of Australia wants the government to provide emergency services organisations with spectrum in the 700MHz band instead, but this spectrum is being eyed by mobile carriers for their long term evolution (LTE) networks, and would be a substantial source of revenue for the government, which plans to hold an auction for the spectrum at the end of 2012. The government has suggested spectrum in the 800MHz band for emergency services use.
In a supplementary submission to a Senate inquiry into the capacity of communication networks and emergency warning systems to deal with emergencies and natural disasters, the Police Federation of Australia said that emergency organisations couldn't use 800MHz spectrum because it was narrowband and couldn't accommodate enough data for the organisations' needs.
However, speaking at a Senate hearing yesterday, the ACMA rebuffed this claim.
"The propagation characteristics between 700 and 800 are exactly the same. The slight difference between them comes to actually issues around network design," Maureen Cahill, general manager for the communications infrastructure division of the ACMA, told the inquiry yesterday.
"They're both very suitable for broadband, mobile broadband technologies. It is a miniscule difference that would be negated by network design," she said.
The ACMA's executive manager of spectrum infrastructure, Dr Andrew Kerans, agreed.
"The actual mathematical difference between the 700 and 800 band is so small that when you look at penetration losses through concrete, through glass, even through the metal films people put on their windows, the difference would be absolutely negligible and would be offset by the system," he said.
The Police Federation has also claimed that by allocating 800MHz spectrum for use by emergency service organisations instead of 700MHz, the government would isolate those organisations from others around the world that are moving to the 700MHz band. However, the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy said that using the 800MHz spectrum band would be in line with that used in China, India, Korea and Japan, and warned that if Australia was to go down the 700MHz path like the United States, then it would face higher costs for equipment.
"We could purchase proprietary equipment from the United States, but we would be bound to a single manufacturer and the price that they're offering, so we wouldn't be operating in a competitive market," Andrew Maurer, DBCDE's assistant secretary of spectrum and wireless services, said. "Because we are using a proprietary system, we would basically be cutting ourselves off from our neighbours in terms of the interoperability of the systems there."
That technology would also have to be modified in order to work with international emergency service organisations, ACMA's Cahill added.
"If we did get equipment that was based on a proprietary system, it doesn't follow international harmonisation bands, and there would be a cost to have that modified for harmonisation and interoperability in our region. So it's an additional cost on top of what might already be a high cost, because it's a proprietary system," she said.
This would be in addition to the costs for emergency services to build their own networks, which Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association chief executive director Chris Althaus told the inquiry would be akin to "emergency service organisations wanting their own road network so they could drive free of traffic".
"It's simply a very difficult thing to observe, particularly in this economic climate — the notion that a separate, standalone network would be built out to the extremities of Australia, to provide the service, to provide the connectivity that is currently achievable by use of partnerships with industry," he said.
Althaus suggested that the cost of constructing and running the network would run into billions of dollars, but if the emergency service organisations were set on going down this path, then spectrum in the 800 band was internationally harmonised and would be suitable for mobile broadband use.
Deputy chair of the inquiry, Labor Senator Doug Cameron, asked the officials whether it would be easier to reach a compromise and simply auction off 800MHz to commercial operators instead. Cahill said that this would require the ACMA to replan the whole 800MHz band.
"Planning in the 700MHz would potentially provide 2x45MHz of spectrum to 90MHz of spectrum, so you might potentially have two, perhaps more, networks," she said. This wouldn't be enough for the telcos' mobile needs, but would be enough for the emergency services needs."
"It wouldn't be just a case of swapping, and then assuming you'd get the same return to the economy overall."