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Govt calls for emergency services wireless spectrum review

The Australian government is calling on the Productivity Commission to work out how best to deliver mobile broadband capability for the country's law enforcement and emergency services.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor

The Department of Communications has called on the Productivity Commission to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of the best way to deliver a mobile broadband capability for Australia's law enforcement and emergency services.

On November 21, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Justice Minister Michael Keenan released a joint statement saying that the government would ask the Productivity Commission to undertake a "first principles" analysis of the most efficient and effective way of delivering such a capability by 2020, including the most cost-effective combination of private and public inputs, services, and expertise.

"The commonwealth, state, and territory governments all recognise the potential benefits of an effective national public safety mobile broadband (PSMB) capability for agencies such as police, fire, and ambulance services," the joint release said. "A mobile broadband capability for public safety agencies would allow for an improved response to emergency events and enable better communication within and between jurisdictions."

The move follows years of lobbying by representatives of the country's emergency services, with the Police Federation of Australia pushing for a minimum 20MHz of dedicated radio frequency spectrum for emergency services' telecommunications infrastructure.

In May last year, the federal parliamentary joint committee on law enforcement launched a new inquiry to look at exactly how much broadband spectrum emergency service agencies require, and whether the 700MHz or 800MHz bands would be more appropriate.

In 2012, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) said that it would offer two 5MHz 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.

However, Police Federation of Australia CEO Mark Burgess believes that the spectrum allocation offered by the ACMA is not enough to adequately serve the needs of the country's emergency and public safety agencies, indicating that the 4.9GHz spectrum offer was meant for smaller-scale wireless hotspot coverage.

"We want 20MHz," Burgess told ZDNet. "In every major disaster that has had some sort of inquiry into it, the one thing that has consistently been criticised has been the communications, which can fail. If you want a hardened broadband capability, that's not being built by the telcos."

At present, the emergency services utilise bandwidth covered by Australia's commercial telecommunications players, notably Telstra.

However, with lower spectrum licences in the 700MHz and 800MHz bands being snapped up and incorporated into the 4G networks by the likes of Telstra and Optus, and the government looking at the possibility of greater sharing of the country's radio spectrum, there has been a continued push for some of this bandwidth to be for dedicated emergency services use.

A joint submission last year from the New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory, Victoria, and Western Australia governments said that allocating to the emergency service organisations the 700MHz spectrum not picked up by Telstra or Optus for commercial 4G services would reduce the cost of building new emergency services networks.

Some telecommunications companies have argued against such a move, however, with Telstra suggesting as early as 2011 that its own 4G network could be used for emergency services, with the possibility of capacity being dedicated to emergency services.

In October, Telstra and Motorola signed a deal that the companies said would further the development of Telstra's LTE Advanced Network for Emergency Services (LANES) capability, which was trialled during the G20 Leaders Summit in Brisbane in November.

The LANES capability was expected to be "enhanced" by Motorola Solutions' dynamic prioritisation, smart public safety applications, interoperability solutions, and public safety-optimised devices.

Burgess said that far from taking business away from telcos such as Telstra, a dedicated spectrum allotment to the emergency services would provide companies and contractors with an opportunity to help build dedicated telecommunications infrastructure for public entities.

"In essence, public safety has already got a significant amount of infrastructure in place," he said. "Once an allocation is made, then it would be up to a dedicated body to determine how best to roll it out.

"A lot of that would be done in conjunction with the private sector and the telcos. All of those people could be involved," he said.

The government expects the cost-benefit analysis to draw on the work done to date by the commonwealth, state, and territory governments through the Council of Australian Governments, and will include close consultation with industry.

The ministers said that they would shortly write to their state and territory counterparts, seeking their comments on the draft Terms of Reference for the cost-benefit analysis.

The Productivity Commission will then consult broadly with government and non-government stakeholders following the commission's receipt of the Terms of Reference.

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