Committee waves Australian spectrum reform changes through

In doing so, Labor criticises the long passage of time that was required for the Bills to get this far, with auctions already completed under old 30-year old rules that are in need of updates.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor
Image: Chris Duckett/ZDNet

The Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications handed down its report into the Radiocommunications Legislation Amendment (Reform and Modernisation) Bill 2020 on Wednesday, making a sole recommendation that the Bill be passed.

"The committee considers that it is of the utmost important [sic] that these Bills are passed as soon as practicable in order to ensure certainty for industry and to legislate long-awaited changes to the market," the committee said in its report.

"The Bills are the products of a highly consultative process that represents a best-case example of considered, informed, and collaborative regulatory change."

Despite concerns from industry and the public broadcasters that the Bills give the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) too much power for information gathering, which could potentially force the ABC and SBS to disclose commercially sensitive information related to future spectrum use, as well as calls from industry for the renewal process to begin five years out from the end of the new 20-year licence terms, the committee said that a balance had been struck between "technological realities, industry needs, and regulatory stability".

"The committee is of the view that the proposed expansion of the ACMA's powers will be a significant improvement to the current radiocommunications regime, empowering the ACMA to take civil action where necessary and to manage unintentional spectrum interference in a proportionate manner," it said.

"Given the ACMA's role as a regulatory agency and its exemplary past conduct, it is the committee's view that the ACMA's wider remit of powers is unlikely to pose a risk to the commercial practices of the national broadcasters or broadcasters more generally."

Although the Reform and Modernisation Bill is labelled with the year 2020, it stems from a process that kicked off in 2015.

In additional notes at the end of the report, Labor Senators Nita Green and Catryna Bilyk said that while they backed the changes, they were dissatisfied with the three-week consultation period on the exposure draft and delays in getting to this point.  

"The delay means the ACMA has conducted spectrum auctions without the benefit of the streamlined approach that was identified as a key area in need of reform," the pair said.

"Labor Senators note that despite years of delay, the Bills do not address all of the recommendations of the spectrum review, and that spectrum reform is yet another example of the Liberal National government failing to do what it said it would.

"Labor Senators are concerned the Government has missed an opportunity to ensure sufficient flexibility for the ACMA or the government to de-fragment spectrum licensed holdings where existing configurations represent a very wasteful use of spectrum, an issue that is growing even bigger in future as technical standards evolve."

The pair also called out the government for wanting community TV broadcasters to move solely to streaming without an alternative planned use for the spectrum that would be freed.

Also on Wednesday, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the government would hold a pair of 5G spectrum auctions.

In April, the 26GHz band would be up for sale, followed by the 850/900MHz band in the second half of the year, he said.

Fletcher's department also distributed a quintet of "5G facts" in a mild effort to dissuade people from believing nonsense conspiracy theories related to the technology.

Beyond pointing out that the millimetre-wave frequencies used in 5G small cells can run at lower power than previous mobile generations, and therefore have lower electromagnetic energy (EME) emissions, the factsheet also addressed other sources of EME.

"Natural EME is generated by the sun, earth, atmosphere and even the human body," it said. "Think anything wireless or remote controlled -- TV, radio, radar, weather forecasting, microwaves, laptops, smart devices, mobile phones, and Wi-Fi. Many other everyday items also generate electromagnetic energy -- such as electrical power, light bulbs, fridges, ovens, irons, and vacuum cleaners.

"Telecommunications is part of the electromagnetic spectrum but it is not, and has never been, the only source of EME."

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