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Coalition govts offer hope for public safety networks: Police Federation

The Police Federation of Australia has said that now there is also a federal Coalition government, state Coalition governments now need to show that their calls for dedicated emergency networks were more than just talk.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

The Police Federation of Australia has high hopes that the new Coalition government's review will play in the favour of giving at least some of the remaining 700MHz or 800MHz spectrum to emergency services, but now it is up to the Coalition state governments to build the networks they have long called for.

Under the previous Labor government, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) announced last year that it would offer 2x5MHz slots in the 800MHz spectrum band for dedicated emergency service networks, along with 50MHz of spectrum in the 4.9GHz spectrum band for the deployment of temporary cells on wheels.

The emergency service groups had lobbied for 2x10MHz spectrum in either the 700MHz or 800MHz bands for their own networks to be used by police, fire, and ambulance organisations in emergency situations.

A parliamentary committee's review of the decision prior to the election recommended to the government that at least 20MHz of the leftover 700MHz spectrum band be given to public safety agencies, and funding for the building of the networks be paid for with some of the AU$1.96 billion secured from the digital dividend auction.

Following the federal election in September and the new Coalition government being sworn in, Police Federation of Australia CEO Mark Burgess told the ACMA's RadComms conference in Sydney yesterday that the Coalition had promised to conduct a cost-benefit analysis into the possibility of providing some of that spectrum for public safety agencies.

"We actually welcomed the Coalition's commitment to conduct a rigorous cost-benefit analysis; we think it'll actually play significantly in the favour of public safety agencies," he said.

"On a cost-benefit basis, it is better to offer 20 or even 30MHz of spectrum to public safety than to auction it to public carriers to achieve additional funds for the federal Budget."

He took aim at governments auctioning off spectrum to improve the Budget bottom line, something the former Labor government had been accused of in setting the reserve price for the spectrum much higher than in the rest of the world.

"I've never heard of anyone who has been faced with an imminent disaster, be it a fire or a flood or some threat to them, their families, or their properties who has been overly concerned about the state of the Budget and whether [Treasurer] Joe Hockey is getting us back into surplus in quick time," he said.

Yesterday, ACMA chairman Chris Chapman rejected a question on the former government's reserve price decision, saying that the discussion had "moved past that".

New South Wales, Western Australia, and Victoria were the three big states calling for dedicated spectrum for emergency services, and Burgess said it is time for them to prove that they are more than just talk.

"Interestingly, the governments that have made the most noise about wanting the network were in fact Coalition state governments around Australia. Well, they've now got a Coalition federal government, so let's see them put their money where their mouth is," he said.

Carriers such as Telstra have argued that the spectrum would be more efficiently used if the public safety agencies used the existing public networks, but Burgess said that dedicated safety networks need an increased focus on uploads, security, and one-to-many communications, something that the public networks can't offer.

He said that in the event of a disaster that results in a Royal Commission, the agencies would be unable to explain why they opted for using public networks.

"Some poor commander sitting there in that poor witness box justifying a decision where a whole family might have lost their lives or all their belongings because they made a decision to commandeer part of the public carriers' network," he said.

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