Emergency services have enjoyed control over a range of radio frequencies for their communications — but frequency variations between jurisdictions has compromised their ability to provide disaster response, a NSW Police assistant commissioner and leading government policymaker have warned.
Speaking at the Australian Communications and Media Authority's (ACMA) RadComms08 conference in Melbourne, Tony Gates, chair of the National Coordinating Committee for Government Radiocommunications, highlighted the disparate policies that had seen emergency services scattered across the "400 Band" between 403MHz and 520MHz.
This scattering came over time, despite post-Cyclone Tracy efforts to standardise the use of frequencies in the 450MHz to 470MHz band, to improve coordinated emergency response. Over time, however, piecemeal decisions saw emergency services spread into other frequencies.
Many policymakers allocated radio frequencies for government services based on cost considerations rather than the need for interoperability, Gates said. As a result, key government voice services have been spread across the 400 Band. Police, for example, use different frequencies to communicate in different states — hindering the effectiveness of cross-jurisdiction action.
With the 400MHz Band now undergoing formal review by ACMA, Gates challenged governments to consolidate spectrum holdings.
"Australian agencies simply don't have the big dollars to throw around [on incompatible services]," he said.
"We in government need to be transparent and justify our spectrum requirements; while voice radio is important, so too are a whole range of mobile and data services. We have to review procedures, and determine our requirements now and into the future for both voice and data."
Increasing take-up of wireless data services is also a driver for change, since part of the review will focus on ensuring adequate bandwidth for new data services.
Gates argued that shifting reliance on voice services, which typically use 12.5KHz of radio-frequency spectrum per session, to more efficient data services would free up additional spectrum and support the roll-out of next-generation emergency services.
Consistency among jurisdictions would both improve existing voice communications, he argued, and pave the way for the more readily accessible data services. To this end, he proposed the consolidation of government spectrum with a focus on the 380-400MHz and 403-430MHz bands.
Bob Waites, assistant commissioner within NSW Police's Operational Communications and Information Command, also supported the call for more consistent allocation of spectrum.
"There is increased acknowledgement of the need to use government networks to improve cost-effectiveness," Waites said, "and future decisions on the allocation of spectrum are central to police. But we can't risk repeating decisions from the past, when decisions were made based on cost-effectiveness [rather than interoperability].
"A single band for all nine jurisdictions would be one of our central goals in this process, and would be an enormous accomplishment."