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Turnbull proposes shared wireless spectrum market

A new discussion paper released by the Department of Communications is calling for greater sharing of the country's radiofrequency spectrum in a bid to free up space as it approaches a bandwidth shortage in the accommodation of emerging wireless technology.

The Australian Department of Communications has released a consultation paper on Australia's future management of radio frequency spectrum for mobile networks and other wireless telecommunications devices.

Australia's spectrum is currently managed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), with spectrum allocated, licensed, auctioned, and sold off, depending on the requirement.

In addition to being used for mobile telecommunications services, it is also used by defence, transport, mining, and emergency services across the country.

The Spectrum Review Potential Reform Directions paper (PDF), published on November 11, is the next step in the review process by the Department of Communications and the ACMA of the country's spectrum policy and management framework, first announced in May by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Among the document's 11 proposals for discussion is the move to introduce a single licensing framework for spectrum.

The single licensing framework proposal would see the consolidation of the current three licence categories — class, apparatus, and spectrum licences — and is expected to help free up much-needed spectrum for a multitude of uses.

"Under a single licensing framework, the legislative distinctions between licence categories would cease to exist, as would the barriers to sharing outside of the broadcasting bands," the document states.

"A single licensing framework would enable spectrum sharing or exclusive use to be set as a licence parameter. The ACMA would be able to specify in the licence that licences in a particular band are subject to sharing arrangements and the conditions for sharing.

"This would provide flexibility and allow a gradual evolution of spectrum management to support greater spectrum sharing as technology improves," it said.

It is anticipated, according to the document, that the ACMA would specify standard licensing conditions to provide guidance to spectrum users, and consistency of treatment.

The authority would also have the capacity to develop tailored solutions where necessary, with the intention to ensure that the licensing framework is simplified and the number of required legislative instruments kept to a minimum.

A maximum licence term, proposed as 15 years, would be specified in the legislation. This is equivalent to the current maximum term for spectrum licences.

The paper also calls for more flexible spectrum allocation and reallocation processes; a more transparent and flexible approach for spectrum pricing to promote the re-use of spectrum; structuring payment schedules for licenses; and the ACMA to take an "open data" approach to improve the range, availability, and quality of information provided to support a more efficient spectrum market.

Additionally, the document also proposes the payment of compensation for resuming a licence; the facilitation of greater user involvement in spectrum management, allowing the ACMA to delegate spectrum management functions to other entities; developing more principles-based device supply regulation; and improving regulation by extending the suite of enforcement measures available to the ACMA.

The final proposal calls for the ACMA to continually review options for allocating spectrum to alternative or higher value uses and to ensure that barriers to achieving this are reviewed and removed "where appropriate".

"Under the current framework, there are 200 spectrum regulatory instruments in place, and up to a third of these describe the different licence types," said Turnbull at the ACMA-RadComms 2014 conference in September.

"Whilst we have commenced work through the government's deregulation agenda on repealing and winding back various licence conditions, the spectrum review is key to improved processes and reduced regulation in the spectrum management space.

"The economic benefits to the country of having an efficient spectrum management framework are immense," he said. "We can drive further efficiency by encouraging greater trading and leasing of spectrum, facilitating the movement of spectrum for new uses, and by providing the flexibility and incentives for users to upgrade to more efficient technologies."

Spectrum is planned through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) — a dedicated body of the United Nations — with the Australian Radiofrequency Spectrum Plan reflecting these frequency allocations, with a number of Australia-specific variations.

The directions paper suggests that making "internationally harmonised" spectrum allocations limits the potential for interference between services and across international borders, and supports the efficient operation of international activities such as air and sea travel.

Feedback submissions on the paper close on December 2.