ACMA wants telcos to push 4G in regional Australia

The Australian Communications and Media Authority is looking to facilitate regional rollouts of 4G in Australia by opening up more 1800MHz spectrum to the mobile telcos.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has proposed opening up more of the 1800MHz spectrum to Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone to facilitate larger roll outs of the companies' 4G networks.

Following consultation with industry, the ACMA determined that demand exists for the 1800MHz spectrum band from mobile operators, as well as rail, energy, and mining companies, to deploy long-term evolution (LTE) 4G networks. Currently, most of the 1800MHz licences are restricted to suburban and metropolitan areas, and the ACMA said in a discussion paper (PDF) released on Friday that growth in not only consumer mobile, but also machine-to-machine communication via mobile networks, requires a rethink on how the 1800MHz band is currently allocated.

The ACMA has proposed issuing licences for the 1800MHz spectrum band "as soon as practicable" in 2013. In places where existing fixed services have 1800MHz licences, the ACMA will need to coordinate with the owners of these licences before others are issued. However, this will be limited because in January 2011, the ACMA had introduced an embargo on the 1800MHz spectrum band to restrict the issue of apparatus licences in the band ahead of using the spectrum for other services.

Licences for the spectrum will only be issued for a year at a time to get the short term benefit of freeing up the spectrum band for public use and allow the ACMA to plan for longer term use.

The ACMA has proposed that Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone will be allocated a portion of the 1800MHz spectrum band in line with where they hold spectrum in metropolitan Australia. Depending on how it is broken up, the telcos would each get either 2x 15MHz or 2x 20MHz of spectrum in remote Australia, and 2x 10MHz or 2x 15MHz in regional Australia.

Mining and energy companies would also get at least 2x 20MHz spectrum allocations across the country, and rail services will get at a minimum 2x 5MHz.

The spectrum comes at a price, though, and it would be in line with the cost of re-licensing the 1800MHz spectrum that the companies already hold.

Currently, telcos can get short-term apparatus licences from the ACMA for specific areas where they wish to roll out services in the 1800MHz spectrum band, but the proposal from the ACMA for across-the-board licences would make it easier for the companies to expand their 4G networks without having to acquire specific apparatus licences for the areas where they are upgrading.

The plan comes as Optus last week announced plans to launch a 4G LTE network in the 2.3GHz spectrum band in Canberra, citing a lack of 1800MHz spectrum in the nation's capital as the reason why it was not keeping the Canberra 4G rollout in line with the rest of the company's 4G network.

Vodafone, which has indicated that it may implement 4G services solely in the 1800MHz spectrum instead of acquiring digital dividend spectrum , welcomed the proposal.

"Making more 1800MHz spectrum available could provide an opportunity to improve services in some parts of regional Australia," Vodafone said in a statement. "We have participated in the ACMA's consultation process on this issue to date, and we will read with interest the ACMA's proposals."

Comment has been sought from Optus and Telstra.

The ACMA is accepting submissions on the paper until February 1, 2013.