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ACMA updates spectrum outline as mobile broadband usage increases

The government's communications authority has released two new reports on the state of spectrum in Australia in the face of new technologies and increased usage.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has updated its five-year outlook on spectrum usage, releasing two reports on Thursday that outline how the telecommunications sector can deal with the growth in mobile broadband usage and technologies.

The ACMA's Five-year spectrum outlook 2015-19 [PDF] (FYSO) report outlines strategies for how the industry could address the allocation, regulation, and licensing of spectrum within Australia in response to growing demand in the face of new wireless technologies.

"The FYSO is an annual update that the ACMA has been using since 2009, both as a key transparency measure and to solicit feedback from interested parties. Stakeholders can use the FYSO to identify when the ACMA expects a particular work program to start and to understand the priorities it intends applying to particular activities," said ACMA chairman Chris Chapman.

"The challenge of balancing the needs of existing spectrum users with facilitating access for new technologies and for broader applications is an increasing focus for the ACMA, as access to spectrum has become a key driver of productivity in a digitised economy."

The report describes the ACMA's processes for making decisions on allocation and licensing, indicates what the ACMA predicts will occur over the next year, and outlines the ACMA's short- and long-term plans, including responding to 5G, M2M, and the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT).

The ACMA said it is currently focusing in particular on the 800MHz, 900MHz, and 400MHz spectrum bands, and the usage of the 1800MHz band in bringing services to those living in remote regions. It also predicted the continued rise of mobile broadband usage and its contribution to the economy.

"The ACMA engaged the Centre for International Economics to examine the economic benefits of mobile broadband in 2013. It estimated that mobile broadband increased Australia's economic activity (its GDP) by AU$33.8 billion in 2013," the report says.

"With the continuing emergence of technologies that rely on the use of spectrum for purposes such as machine-to-machine communications, the Internet of Things, and digital communications, demand for spectrum continues to grow. Pressures on spectrum access will continue to be particularly intense in the 300MHz to 3GHz range, which is attractive to many current spectrum uses because of its propagation characteristics."

The ACMA is accepting submissions on its FYSO report until December 18.

Towards 2020: Future spectrum requirements for mobile broadband [PDF], also released on Thursday, presents the ACMA's mobile broadband spectrum plans for the future.

"For over a decade, the need to accommodate growth in mobile broadband traffic has been the biggest driver of changes in the use of radiofrequency spectrum," Chapman said.

The ACMA said mobile broadband traffic is far outstripping previous predictions, with additional spectrum needing to be allocated, and more flexible and responsive planning necessary for the future.

"We are signalling a shift towards greater reliance on a contingency planning model, where the regulator plans for a range of potential outcomes in terms of mobile broadband capacity growth, but nonetheless seeks to enable the right spectrum to be made available, at the right time, depending on the scenarios that are unfolding," Chapman explained.

To deal with the growth in traffic and explosion of new technologies, the ACMA has put forward strategies to re-farm and reallocate broadband spectrum.

"If we are to seriously contemplate the disruption caused by re-farming bands currently used for other purposes -- and we think that is extremely likely -- it is equally vital that existing mobile broadband allocations are optimised to take account of changes in international harmonised arrangements. We all need to sweat existing allocations harder," said Chapman.

The ACMA's broadband spectrum paper is open for industry submission until October 23.

The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) has welcomed the reports, agreeing that mobile broadband is growing in popularity and contributing to the economy and social status of the country, and spectrum therefore needs to be closely and transparently monitored.

"The ACMA is flagging the need to stay on the case, and industry strongly supports this call to action. We cannot relax when the future of mobile broadband has so much to offer," said AMTA CEO Chris Althaus.

AMTA also lauded the ACMA's recognition of the need for flexibility in spectrum allocation.

"This is a pragmatic approach that reflects the increasing complexity of estimating future demand for services and translating that to an amount of spectrum," Althaus said.

In May, the ACMA published a list of recommendations in its Spectrum Review Report [PDF]. In that report, the Department of Communications and the ACMA called for a move away from the outdated 23-year-old governing legislation, the Radio Communications Act, to a modern system enabling more market-based activity to allow telcos to share and trade spectrum being used for mobile services.

The government last month confirmed that it will be implementing the ACMA's suggestions, saying that the minister for communications will have direction and oversight in forming policy while consulting with the ACMA. Day-to-day management responsibility of the new regulations would fall to the ACMA, with the industry body to make annual reports on the process.

The core parameters that are expected to be covered by the new regulations include the spectrum's frequency, geographic location, duration, whether a licence can be renewed, conditions where the ACMA would not renew a licence, terms for changing and revoking licences, payment mechanisms, and amounts to be charged.

"This is a win for industry and consumers," deputy ACMA chairman Richard Bean said in August.

"It provides a more responsive regulatory regime -- rather than black-letter law -- that will take away unnecessary barriers; reducing delays and costs of getting new technologies to the market."

The ACMA reported that during the next 15 years, the economic value of spectrum could contribute up to AU$177 billion to Australia's economy.

Earlier on Thursday, the ACMA took action against more than 20 telcos, giving them formal warnings for contravening the Telecommunications Protection (TCP) Code by failing to lodge a statement of code compliance this year.

The formal warnings [PDF] were sent out to 24 telcos, including Amnet, Tele-Talk, Novatel, Infiniti, Blue Telecom, Wire Networks, Supercheap Telco, Telco4u, ReddeNet, and Call Central Communications.

"While this number of warnings may seem high, it actually reflects a trend of increasing compliance within the telecommunications industry, with the number of CommCom warnings down from 39 in 2014 and 95 in 2013," Chapman said.

The TCP Code, which came into effect in July 2012, requires all telcos operating within Australia to lodge a Customer Information Compliance Statement to independent body Communications Compliance every year by April 1.

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