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NSW government pledges AU$63m to emergency services radio comms

The NSW government is investing in a more reliable radio network with better coverage for its emergency and law-enforcement services.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The New South Wales government's Telco Authority will be designing a new state-wide radio network for more than 70 emergency, law-enforcement, and essential services agencies thanks to a AU$63 million investment as part of the government's Critical Communication Enhancement Program (CCEP).

The government's network investment, announced on Tuesday by NSW Minister for Finance, Services, and Property Dominic Perrottet, will see the agencies share a more reliable radio network with greater coverage than that currently in use for handheld and in-vehicle voice radio and paging systems.

"Our law-enforcement and emergency services personnel depend on fast and accurate information to protect the lives and property of NSW citizens," Perrottet said.

"Today's announcement shows we are getting on with the job, delivering a smarter, more reliable, more resilient critical communications network that will increase the safety of citizens and front-line personnel in NSW."

The more than 70 agencies would be condensed into one portfolio under an integrated operating model once they share the same infrastructure, with the current combined opex and capex costs associated with running 1,972 voice radio sites to also decrease, with just 732 voice radio sites required under the new plan.

The network design will also lay the foundation for future services, including tablets, smartphones, GPS, and drones.

According to Perrottet, the network -- which received a AU$2.8 million upgrade in February last year -- should almost triple the State Emergency Service's (SES) hand-held radio coverage, with the design pilot to feature a AU$9.2 million trial of services for 10 agencies in north-western NSW. In this region alone, it is hoped the network coverage for the SES, Rural Fire Service, and Fire and Rescue units will be increased by 3,314 square kilometres.

"Radio communications are our lifeline. Better availability means a safer and more responsive service," said NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

The pilot is due to be completed in January 2017, with the state government slated to approve the Telco Authority's network design sometime in 2017. After this, construction will commence across NSW in a staged approach.

In terms of a mobile broadband network, the Australian government's Productivity Commission recommended earlier this year that law-enforcement and emergency agencies use commercial networks and spectrum rather than a dedicated public safety agency (PSA) network with allocated spectrum.

"Our study has found that, on first principles, the most efficient, effective, and economical way of delivering a public safety mobile broadband capability is by relying on commercial mobile networks and spectrum," presiding commissioner Jonathan Coppel said in the report, released in January.

A commercial solution will see PSAs sign individual contracts for mobile network services and capacity with telecommunications providers, an approach that would only cost AU$2.2 billion over a 20-year period.

By comparison, building a dedicated network for PSAs was estimated by the commission to cost almost three times as much, at AU$6.2 billion, with the full-coverage hybrid solution projected to cost AU$5.1 billion and the targeted-coverage hybrid solution AU$2.9 billion.

PSAs -- which include police agencies, fire service organisations, ambulance services, the SES, and marine rescue and coast guard -- have been pushing for their own spectrum and network for years, saying they need to be able to access high-speed video, high-quality images, geolocation tools, and biometric capabilities wherever they are working.

Under the commercial approach recommended by the Productivity Commission, PSAs will be forced to share network capacity when jurisdictions overlap, with a jurisdiction-wide implementation entity recommended to be formed in order to minimise duplication, improve economies of scale, and offer opportunities to piggyback off other PSMB government investments, such as the mobile blackspot program.

The Victorian government spoke out against this recommendation in March, arguing that rural emergencies would have little coverage, with cost implications outweighed by public benefit.

Steven Tsikaris, from the Victorian Department of Treasury and Finance, pointed out that emergencies could occur in regional areas with sparse commercial mobile coverage, which would inhibit the ability of PSAs to respond and communicate in the field.

"We don't see mobile broadband as the be-all and end-all, but [as] the critical enabler of key requirements for the technologies to assist us with our public safety outcomes, be they bushfires, be they floods, a whole series of other natural hazards and also human interest events that we have to grapple with, which by having telepresence, by having access to data, having access to data in the field, having key responders in key controlled areas, being able to interact; those things are enabled by radio-frequency spectrum," Tsikaris said during a speech at the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) RadComms event.

"There's a significant difference between the availability of -- let's call it commercial-grade -- mobile broadband services and the areas where a state needs to operate in, Victoria and smaller states like Tasmania and the [Australian] Capital Territory.

"How do we maximise the outcome of the state's limited constrained resources? How do we provide a level of equity across our community -- urban and rural and regional? There are different challenges in all those spaces, and different risks that are faced."

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