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Australian government slammed for public safety broadband inaction

The current and former Australian governments have come under fire from the Police Federation of Australia for delaying a decision on whether to build out a public safety mobile broadband network.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Both the Coalition and former Labor governments have been slammed by the Police Federation of Australia for delaying making a decision on whether to dedicate spectrum and provide funding for public safety mobile broadband networks.

The Australian government has tasked the Productivity Commission to scope out the possibility of building a national mobile broadband network exclusively for use by emergency service agencies, as one of three potential options to address the growing data needs of police, fire, and ambulance services out in the field.

In a submission to the commission from the Police Federation of Australia (PFA), the organisation said it had lobbied governments for the past five years for public safety spectrum to be allocated without any decisive action from either the former Rudd-Gillard governments, or the Abbott government.

"It seems clear that governments are simply delaying action to resolve this issue in order to put off allocating funds to deliver mobile broadband communications for public safety," PFA CEO Mark Burgess stated (PDF).

"Why else would public safety agencies be the only sector which is now required to undergo a cost-benefit analysis before securing spectrum for this purpose. No cost-benefit analysis has been required for the mining sector, the rail operators, defence, the telecommunications sector, or radio and television broadcasters to name a few."

Burgess said it was "disgraceful" and against the public interest for the government to set a deadline of 2020 for public safety mobile broadband.

The organisation said it preferred a network owned by the agencies, but said it was open to a hybrid approach where commercial networks provide spill-over capacity when the dedicated network is at full capacity.

Burgess said that PFA would prefer emergency services to be allocated 20MHz of 700MHz or 800MHz spectrum.

This is likely to face opposition from the commercial mobile network operators. Vodafone Australia, which didn't bid for 700MHz spectrum when it was first auctioned off, said it was "strongly opposed" to public safety agencies getting access to the lucrative left-over spectrum.

"This spectrum will be required by Australia's mobile networks in the future. It will be critical to meet the future data demands of mobile consumers," Vodafone stated (PDF).

"Given the array of spectrum options available for a public safety mobile broadband network, and international standardisation of the 800MHz band for public protection and disaster relief, we do not consider there is any merit in exploring the use of the 700MHz band by public safety agencies."

Vodafone also warned that if the government decides a hybrid public-private network would work best, then public safety agencies should go with multiple carriers, and not just the largest -- Telstra.

If other operators are left out, it will affect competition in the mobile network market, the company argued.

"Telstra is widely recognised as delivering superior geographic coverage and enterprise solutions. It is unlikely that other mobile network operators can effectively compete with Telstra to deliver public safety mobile broadband services if geographic coverage is a relevant consideration," Vodafone said.

"Any cost-benefit analysis must consider the unintended flow-on impacts, the award of such a contract (and possibly additional spectrum) to a single mobile network operator will have on competition in the mobile services market."

Submissions from Optus and Telstra have yet to be released.

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