Emergency service spectrum battle continues

The ongoing dispute between emergency services, state government, and the Australian government over the best spectrum band for emergency service networks has spilled over into a new parliamentary inquiry.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

As state governments, vendors, emergency service agencies, and the federal government continue to battle over the spectrum to be set aside for emergency service networks, the parliament has launched another inquiry into what spectrum would be best suited for those 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 ACMA's announcement was widely criticised by emergency service organisations and then-Victorian Premier Ted Ballieu, who accused the government of putting lives at risk by only giving emergency service organisations half of the spectrum they required.

Late last month, the federal parliamentary joint committee on law enforcement launched a new inquiry to look at exactly how much broadband spectrum emergency service agencies require, and whether the 700MHz or 800MHz bands would be more appropriate.

While at the time of the allocation announcement, emergency services had accepted the notion of moving to the 800MHz band, the fight over 700MHz appears to be back on. In submissions to the inquiry, the emergency service organisations and state governments began to push for the remaining 2x15MHz of spectrum left over in the 700MHz band, following the completion of the digital dividend auction earlier this year.

In a joint submission from the New South Wales, ACT, Northern Territory, Victoria, and Western Australia governments, they said that allocating to the emergency service organisations the 700MHz spectrum not picked up by Telstra or Optus for commercial 4G services would reduce the cost of building new emergency service networks. This is because equipment would already be commercially available, and it would also harmonise the network with other emergency service networks using the 700MHz band, including the US.

Network equipment vendor Motorola Solutions said in its submission that the 800MHz spectrum band would likely not be available until at least 2017, while the 700MHz spectrum band will be free as of the end of 2014. The organisation also said that 4G long-term evolution (LTE) equipment will be much more common in the 700MHz spectrum band, with many countries not looking to refarm spectrum in the 800MHz band "in the foreseeable future".

Telstra, which acquired more of the 700MHz spectrum than Optus, fired back against the push, however, saying that the leftover 700MHz is "inappropriate" for emergency service networks, due to the continuing growth in demand for commercial broadband services.

"The fact that some of the available 700MHz spectrum was not allocated in the ACMA's recent spectrum auction does not mean this spectrum will not be needed to meet the demand from commercial mobile networks in the long term," Telstra said.

The US 700MHz equipment would also not be compatible with the Australian 700MHz spectrum layout.

"The 700MHz frequencies that have been assigned to US public safety agencies for 'uplink' and 'downlink' communications coincide with frequencies that can only be used for 'downlink' mobile communications in the Region 3 plan," Telstra said. "This means that devices designed for operation in the US will not work in Australia without substantial and costly customisation."

The networks would be costly to build, Telstra said, and if state governments were building the networks, it would lead to a focus on metropolitan areas due to funding constraints. Telstra argued that emergency service networks should partner with commercial providers, so that they can gain access to the required capacity on commercial networks in emergency situations.

The Police Federation (PFA), which also advocated for 20MHz of the 700MHz spectrum band to be given to emergency services, was sceptical of using commercial carriers as a fallback for its own networks, stating that Telstra's network only covers 27.3 percent of Australia's land mass. The federation said, however, that the ACMA should be advising the government on what measures can be put in place so that law enforcement agencies can take over carriers' networks in the event of emergencies.

The federation was also highly critical of the ACMA's handling of the emergency service spectrum issue, stating that dealing with the ACMA had been "exceedingly difficult and time consuming".

"The PFA has met resistance at every step of the way," the Police Federation said. "The PFA would, with the greatest respect, characterise the ACMA's stance as arrogant in its treatment of stakeholders and of police operational requirements, and overly influenced by the commercial carriers' views to the detriment of public safety and the national interest."

The ACMA said in its submission that the emergency service networks would first have to be built, and would have to demonstrate that the demand exceeds the current allocation before it would consider a review.

The committee held its first hearing yesterday, with the second hearing scheduled for Monday next week. As next week is the last sitting week before the September 14 federal election, the inquiry will not be completed until well after September.

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