At the conclusion of his 10-year tenure as chairman of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), Chris Chapman has identified several key issues in spectrum management that the ACMA will need to focus on: Machine-to-machine (M2M) technology, a move towards the Internet of Things (IoT), and continuing allocation for 4G services.
"This will be a real growth area in the Australian economy in the near future, and the ACMA wants to ensure that spectrum can be effectively used by the users and applications that will emerge," Chapman explained in an interview with ZDNet on Tuesday.
"The ACMA actually has a number of live consultations that relate to machine-to-machine communications and the Internet of Things."
The ACMA in December released a set of proposed changes to spectrum regulations aimed at providing easier access to spectrum for M2M operators utilising spectrum for the IoT.
Currently, IoT and M2M operators access spectrum under the ACMA's class licensing regime. The ACMA's alterations to the system would eliminate the barrier preventing them from readily accessing narrowband, low-powered networks in the 900MHz, 2.4GHz, and 5.8GHz spectrum bands for applications such as machine data and monitoring, data telemetry, smart metering, security systems, sensor networks, and industrial control.
The IoT changes would be made to the Radiocommunications Low Potential Interference Devices (LIPD) Class Licence 2015, which pre-approves usage of the radio-frequency spectrum for certain radio-communications devices that have a low potential to cause interference with other devices.
Included in the pre-approved list already are garage door openers, Bluetooth devices, anti-theft devices, e-tag systems, wireless microphones, and WLAN devices. Should the ACMA's proposal go through, more IoT devices will be added to the list as they come into widespread use.
The ACMA is looking at adding new frequency bands for in-ground ultra-wide bandwidth transmitters used in automated parking management systems; radio-determination transmitters used as industrial sensors; and analysis devices used for detecting objects in walls, ceilings, and floors.
"These proposed changes build on the already extensive arrangements in the LIPD that support a huge variety of spectrum uses in an unobtrusive way with no cost to users," Chapman said.
"In many ways, the LIPD is the 'unsung hero' of Australia's spectrum management framework that supports the everyday use of a diverse range of devices, from Wi-Fi to baby monitors, and everything in between."
While no formal responses have been received prior to consultation closing later this month, Chapman said several industry representatives have expressed support for these changes.
The ACMA also wants to align the usage of the 22.25-123GHz and 244-246GHz spectrum bands for short-range devices with the European system. Chapman added on Tuesday that the ACMA has plans to use a new band "for low duty cycle, low-power devices -- perfectly suited for MTM applications".
According to the ACMA, these changes will improve Australian companies' ability to technologically innovate and thereby stay ahead of the IoT curve.
The ACMA is also collaborating with the Communications Alliance IoT Alliance Executive Council in order to deal with IoT spectrum issues.
There has been some debate about what networks should form the backbone of the IoT, with the CEO of Australian startup National Narrowband Network (NNN) Rob Zagarella saying in November that the biggest barrier to establishing the IoT is the inherent expense in connecting so many things.
Zagarella said Australia's current mobile networks "aren't necessarily ideal to meet some of these IoT challenges", as they were set up with high average-revenue-per-user (ARPU) in mind, with consequent significant costs and investments in spectrum.
Instead of cellular networks, narrowband low-power, long-range wide-area networks such as LoRa that use available, unlicensed radio spectrum should be rolled out, Zagarella said.
The NNN began trialling its technology on Sydney's North Shore in August across 10 base stations covering 50-100 square kilometres, with the company aiming to roll out its wireless network nationwide. In Australia, the LoRa technology operates across the 918MHz-928MHz spectrum band.
Incumbent telecommunications provider Telstra likewise announced a trial of LoRaWAN technology in Melbourne with unknown suppliers, which took place between November 28 and December 3 last year.
"This trial will help inform our view on the role for the technology," a Telstra spokesperson told ZDNet.
"The IoT challenge will help Telstra understand applications that operate within the constraints of a low rate, highly efficient wireless data service of which there are several solutions available."
In regards to spectrum allocation, the ACMA earlier this month announced the success of its 1800MHz auction, with a total of AU$543.5 million spent between the four major telecommunications providers. Optus spent the most, at AU$196 million, followed by Telstra, at AU$191 million; TPG, at AU$88 million; and Vodafone Australia, at AU$68 million.
The high-band spectrum will improve 4G coverage in regional and remote Australia, bringing high-speed broadband to those living outside of the major cities.
"The ACMA confidently expects that this most recent release of the 1800MHz band, along with existing spectrum available in these areas -- including the 700MHz and 2.5GHz spectrum previously made available by the ACMA through the digital dividend auction several years ago -- will serve to increase the network capacity and speeds available to users in these areas," Chapman said on Tuesday.
The 1800MHz band is currently used in metropolitan areas by Telstra, Vodafone, and Optus to deliver their 4G networks, but has been primarily used in remote Australia for point-to-point backhaul services. The reallocation of the spectrum will ensure that it is used to bring faster connection speeds to those living in regional areas.
"The 1800MHz band is particularly attractive for 4G services due to the large number of devices that support LTE in the band," Chapman said.
"The ACMA is also committed to making the benefits of 1800MHz spectrum available for those in remote Australia. In these areas, the ACMA is using an administrative, 'over the counter'-type allocation method, rather than an auction process."
The ACMA said in November that it will additionally refarm spectrum in the 803-960MHz band, with the 850MHz band to be expanded for mobile broadband services.
The decision will see the 803-820MHz spectrum band, formerly used for analogue television, allocated for usage.
The 803-960MHz spectrum is currently also being used for fixed links, trunked land mobile services, sound outside broadcast, and studio-to-transmitter links, with consumer devices also operating within the 915-928MHz band under LIPD class licences.
The timing for allocating this spectrum has yet to be determined, with Chapman saying it is unlikely to occur "before the end of this decade". However, he added that this, too, would be subject to an auction prior to 2024.
"The ACMA's long-term strategy for the 803-960MHz band has flagged that the transition of existing users out of the 850MHz expansion bands would continue to mid-2024, though options exist that could see parts of this spectrum available sooner," he said.
"This time frame provides an indication of when the spectrum would be available for use by mobile broadband services. However, the planning and allocation of the spectrum would occur prior to this so that we deliver no 'dead time' between clearance of existing users and the use of the band by mobile broadband."
The ACMA's decision will also make additional spectrum in the 928-935MHz band available under the LIPD licence.
The ACMA additionally plans to downshift the 850MHz band by 1MHz in order to maximise the usage of the adjacent 900MHz GSM band, as well as reconfiguring the 900MHz GSM band in the future and undergoing a "general defragmentation" of the 800MHz spectrum band in order to increase efficiency.
Vodafone Australia announced in November that it had already refarmed its 850MHz spectrum band to bring coverage to regional and metropolitan Queensland. The low spectrum band penetrates buildings more effectively than higher bands, Vodafone said, working alongside the 4G already provided through the 1800MHz spectrum band.
"L850 will offer a variety of potential improvements, including faster streaming speeds, greater network stability, and, for some customers, 4G access for the first time," Vodafone CTO Benoit Hanssen said at the time.
During his interview with ZDNet, Chapman also said that the ACMA will need to determine how best to continue regulating telecommunications services and protecting consumer interests.
The ACMA's Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code, which first came into effect in July 2012, serves the primary purposes of requiring telcos to provide consumers with clear information about what their mobile phone plans offer, including a two-page critical information summary of every plan; notifying customers about how much voice and data they have used under their plan; and suggesting spend-management tools to prevent future overuse and subsequent bill shock.
The TCP Code drove a fall in consumer complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) of 35.8 percent since 2012, from 193,702 in 2011-12 down to 124,417 in 2014-15. The code has also resulted in generating AU$545 million in savings for customers per year thanks to consumers being better able to make informed contract choices, and a reduction in unanticipated high bills.
In order to properly guage the positive effects of introducing the TCP Code, the ACMA offered a AU$154,000 tender in January for a company to conduct research into its impact.
In particular, the ACMA is seeking information on spend-management tools and alerts and customers' experiences with telecommunications services and providers.
The successful tenderer will conduct research into and collect data on customer satisfaction with telco services; customer satisfaction with carriage service providers' complaints-handling processes; bill shock occurrence, extent, and reasoning; consumer understanding of offers; consumer understanding of critical information summaries; and consumer awareness and usefulness of spend-management tools.
The ACMA also wants information on the use of media-streaming services.
Tender applications were due last week, with the contract expected to be executed in late February and the work to be completed by November 30. The report presented will be used by the ACMA to determine its education and compliance activities, and will be used during the ACMA's 2017 review of the TCP Code.
According to Chapman, the ACMA received 13 tenders, which it is now assessing.
"One purpose of the research is to provide an additional and complementary data source to TIO stats. We know that TIO complaints are substantially lower, while service numbers continue to grow. But the research proposed will also assess customer satisfaction with the telcos' internal complaints-handling and customer service, the ease of understanding information about plans, and the extent of unexpected high bills among all customers, not just those customers who seek the TIO's assistance," Chapman explained.
"It's the second in a series of tracking research, so it will also allow us to compare the state of play in 2016 with the previous round of research in 2013."
The ACMA last updated the TCP Code in December, saying the latest changes have simplified how telcos provide information, removed duplication under Australian Consumer Law and the Privacy Act, and cut down on repetition of obligations throughout the code.
However, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) expressed dissatisfaction with the TCP Code revisions, saying critical information summaries on services and plans would be less clear for consumers.
"In a backward step, changes introduced today mean telcos will no longer be obliged to publish important information on their websites, such as coverage maps, international roaming information, and contact details for financial hardship staff," ACCAN CEO Teresa Corbin said.
"It's now up to the telco how they provide this information, and we are concerned that this will particularly harm consumers who face accessibility barriers, and are reliant on web-based information. It may affect consumers' ability to make informed purchasing decisions."
While Chapman said it is still too early to assess the impacts of the changes in the code, he denied that telcos would stop publishing such information.
"When more flexibility is enabled, there is necessarily a reduction in prescription," he said.
"With mobile coverage, it is theoretically possible that coverage maps may not be used or published on websites, but then telcos would have to find another way of describing geographical coverage to everyone. The new code obliges suppliers to 'make available' information including 'the network coverage in Australia for the Telecommunications Services, which may include a map or diagram of mobile coverage'.
"Frankly, we are not anticipating that coverage maps will be discontinued or removed from websites, and the three mobile networks definitely still have coverage maps on their websites now."
For roaming costs, he said publishing universal information online is less valuable than customer-specific information being provided by telcos.
"For many telco customers, the requirements for the general information provision about roaming on websites has been superseded by the requirement to send more targeted information to travelling customers under our International Mobile Roaming Standard," he argued.
"The carriers appear keen to tell customers about their latest mobile roaming offers, which do seem to be delivering much better customer outcomes.
"In any event, the new code obliges suppliers to 'make available' information with respect to roaming, and we've not seen any material change to the type of roaming information being provided on websites."
As for where the ACMA will be heading over the next year under the guidance of its new chairman, Chapman pointed towards the federal government's upcoming review of spectrum management legislation.
"This fundamental review of the spectrum management in Australia is something that the ACMA has strongly supported, and I am looking forward to new legislation that will serve Australia well for the next decades," he said.
"The ACMA must and will continue to deliver on its 'day job' of managing the spectrum for the benefit of all Australians."