Turnbull eyes private spectrum market

Australian Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said he is open to the notion of handing off spectrum sales from ACMA to the private market.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has indicated he is open to the possibility of responsibility for management of spectrum allocation in Australia being taken from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and handed to the private sector.

Government management of spectrum allocation in Australia came under criticism last year when the reserve price set for digital dividend spectrum in the 700MHz spectrum band resulted in Telstra and Optus being the only bidders, and 30MHz of the spectrum band being left over unused.

In response to ACMA's research report released on Thursday that found mobile broadband in Australia added AU$33.8 billion in economic activity in 2013, Turnbull said in a blog post that he supported the report's findings and indicated the government should assess alternate ways of allocating spectrum.

"If there are competing claims on a public asset (such as spectrum licenses), then rigorous analysis of the costs and benefits of the different outcomes should be conducted, to ensure benefit to the whole economy is maximised," he said.

In addition to assessing whether spectrum should be set aside for emergency services, as the emergency services organisations have longed lobbied for, or whether this should be handled by the private sector, Turnbull said the government should assess whether spectrum allocation should be traded in a private market.

"I am eager to explore these ideas and others relating to the management of our spectrum to ensure that we are operating an efficient spectrum management regime and deriving maximum economic and social benefit from our limited spectrum resources," Turnbull said.

"Most mobile operators tend to argue for less government intrusion. Telstra's Covec report, for instance, found consumers benefit from the high intensity of competition in the Australian mobile market, the long-standing light-touch approach to regulation, and strong investment in new mobile technologies.

"The report points out that mobile communication has delivered significant benefit to the economy — and this will only grow with the rapid rollout and adoption of 4G, the fastest and latest variant of wireless connectivity."

The ACMA in its report last week defended its handling of spectrum management.

"In its spectrum management role, the ACMA is constantly seeking to strike a balance between the economic value of the spectrum, the interests of incumbents and their sunk investments, and the pressures of finding practical solutions for other competing and emerging interests," ACMA chairman Chris Chapman said.