Labor: ACMA must be resourced for spectrum reform

The Australian government's new spectrum reform consultation package has outlined the changes needed for the regulatory framework but without making provision under the recent Federal Budget, Labor has pointed out.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The federal opposition Labor party has said the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) must be properly resourced in order to carry out the spectrum reform agenda, pointing towards the lack of preparatory work mentioned in the 2017-18 Federal Budget.

The Australian government unveiled its partial draft Radiocommunications Bill 2017 alongside a consultation package on the proposed legislation, spectrum pricing, and Commonwealth spectrum holdings on Thursday after announcing plans to do so back in 2015.

Under Section 4 of the Bill's Exposure Draft, the framework for regulating radiocommunications will be developed and administered by the ACMA.

"Ultimately, the ACMA will be responsible for the important and monumental task of designing and developing new spectrum management arrangements," Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland said on Friday.

"It is concerning that the regulator is expected to prepare for this change on the smell of an oily rag.

"The 2017-18 Budget makes no provision for preparatory work for spectrum review implementation by the ACMA to inform the draft Bill. Without proper funding, spectrum reform may suffer in terms of quality or speed."

Rowland added that in order to achieve its principle of efficiency, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield must ensure "the regulator is properly resourced to realise this significant undertaking".

The legislative changes, if passed, will remove the current "prescriptive process" for spectrum in place of a more flexible framework; integrate and improve the consistency of public sector and broadcasting spectrum; and review the pricing of spectrum.

According to the exposure draft, the key components of the framework are radiofrequency plans; licences and spectrum authorisations; certified operator requirements; interference management and complaint resolution; regulation of equipment; accreditation of persons; and delegation.

The economic value of Australia's spectrum is worth an estimated AU$177 billion over the next 15 years to the national economy as digitisation and the connection of increasing amounts of devices continues, the government said.

"Spectrum is essential to today's digitally networked economy and is a major contributor to Australia's economic and social wellbeing," Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said on Thursday.

"These reforms will simplify the regulatory framework and support new and innovative technologies and services."

However, while recognising that the reform is in response to technological changes and different uses for spectrum since the previous Act was brought in during 1992, the consultation package does not make mention of or provisions for spectrum specifically for Internet of Things use cases, despite the ACMA previously emphasising these as important issues on its 2017 agenda.

"As technology advances, there are increasingly novel ways to use spectrum to communicate and send information," the Radiocommunications Bill 2017: A platform for the future Information paper says.

"This constant development means there is increasing demand for spectrum arising from an expanding array of uses. In addition, Australians as a whole are early adopters of new technologies, typically leading the world in the uptake of the latest technological products and services."

The ACMA noted in its supporting documentation, The licensing system Supporting material for the Exposure Draft of the Radiocommunications Bill 2017, that the new spectrum licensing arrangements would allow "the system be responsive and adaptive to changing circumstances in technology, markets, and use of spectrum", however.

The ACMA is also looking into allowing for wide-area spectrum space licences, which would enable it to be more "technologically flexible" and open to new use cases.

On the topic of spectrum pricing, the government's Spectrum Pricing Consultation paper suggests introducing access to secondary markets allowing for trade between users, along with a resource pricing model in order to improve pricing efficiency.

"Access to secondary markets can help reduce inefficiencies of spectrum prices," the paper explained.

"Secondary markets, where spectrum is traded directly between users, is a vital mechanism in allowing spectrum to move to its highest value use over time ... The proposed Radiocommunications Bill will facilitate this by eliminating hard legislative barriers between different licence systems and types, making all licences freely tradable without approval by the ACMA, and providing greater certainty around end-of-licence arrangements."

The resource pricing model, meanwhile, would tend spectrum towards those who would use it most effectively, with the pricing paper also pointing towards the Canadian government's system whereby it does not conduct spectrum auctions in a bid to raise revenue but rather to "award licences fairly, efficiently, and effectively so as to ensure that the Canadian public derives the maximum possible benefit from the spectrum resource".

"The government should be cautious when setting prices to ensure that unnecessarily high or low prices do not lead to unintended market outcomes," the paper added.

The Commonwealth Held Spectrum Consultation paper concerned itself with adding requirements for public sector agencies that hold spectrum to regularly report the value of their holdings, as well as permitting agencies to lease or sell their spectrum and retain the financial benefit of this.

The largest government user by bandwidth and spectrum access as of February 2017 was the Department of Defence, followed by Airservices Australia, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, the Australian Federal Police, CSIRO, the Department of Regional Australia, the ACMA, and the Australian Institute of Marine Safety.

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