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Public safety broadband a 'critical enabler': Vic government

Law-enforcement and emergency services need their own mobile broadband spectrum, because commercial networks don't have enough remote reach, the Victorian government has said.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The Victorian government has spoken out against the Productivity Commission's recommendation that public safety agencies (PSAs) utilise commercial networks and spectrum, saying that rural emergencies would have little coverage, and that cost implications are outweighed by public benefit.

The commission's Public Safety Mobile Broadband Productivity Commission Research Report [PDF], released in January, recommended that instead of specifically allocating Public Safety Mobile Broadband (PSMB) spectrum to law-enforcement and emergency services, they should simply strike individual contracts with telecommunications providers themselves.

Steven Tsikaris, from the Victorian Department of Treasury and Finance, called mobile broadband a "critical enabler" for PSAs during a speech at the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) RadComms event on Wednesday.

"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.

The Victorian government official 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.

"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," he argued.

"We [state governments] need to operate on at least 95 percent of our landmass, and that covers about 99 percent of the population coverage. And we're going from highly urbanised areas to peri-urban, to regional, to rural, to remote areas.

"Now that's about 15 percent more landmass than what all of our commercial networks cover. How do we fill that gap? We [could] have a bushfire in the middle of nowhere."

The Productivity Commission had researched four options: Constructing a dedicated PSA network with allocated spectrum; a purely commercial approach; a full-coverage hybrid approach; and a targeted-coverage hybrid approach.

Productivity Commissioner Jonathan Coppel justified the decision by describing the disparity in costs between the options.

"We found that a dedicated network would be nearly three times more expensive than a fully commercial option," Coppel explained at RadComms.

"The reasons for this essentially relate to the quantum of the new investment that would be required to deliver the capability, and the extent of the infrastructure sharing among a wider set of users."

Even the lowest-costing hybrid option was 1.3 times more expensive than the commercial option, he pointed out -- although he did recognise that there is a risk of supplier lock-in under commercial contracts.

A commercial solution would only cost AU$2.2 billion over a 20-year period, the commission said.

By comparison, building a dedicated network for PSAs was estimated by the commission to cost 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.

Tsikaris argued, however, that all of these solutions have their own challenges associated, and the decision should come down to something more important than a simple costing analysis.

"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," Tsikaris said.

"Overlaying the opportunity cost analysis of the Productivity Commission [is] to understand what is the public value that is being delivered, if any, to actually get those outcomes?"

Coppel said that a small-scale pilot will be undertaken of the commercial solution in order to explore more precisely the costs, benefits, and risks so as to "develop a stronger business case for a wider-scale rollout".

"Across the benefits, the costs, and the risks associated with delivering PSMB capability, and on a first-principles basis, the commercial approach offers the best way forward," Coppel concluded.

"It does this because it clearly is the least costly on the community; it is able to most likely deliver a PSMB capability sooner, together with a lower risk of delay; we think it also provides that flexibility to PSAs to scale up in demand in the short term, and because of the lower cost per user of upgrading technology, we think that there is a greater prospect that those upgrades will take place sooner or in a more timely way than they would under a dedicated approach."

Tsikaris, meanwhile, pointed out that the Australian government has yet to advise of its own perspective on the matter. He also identified "commercial leverage" as a driving force in the state governments wanting their own spectrum.

"Governments tend to be perjoratively price takers. We don't have commercial leverage," he explained.

"We want to go from being a price taker to a price setter, and I think that's probably nearly impossible, but that's my challenge."

PSAs -- which include police agencies, fire service organisations, ambulance services, the State Emergency Service, 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 a commercial approach, PSAs would 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 commission also advised against the government supplying dedicated spectrum to PSAs.

Police Federation of Australia (PFA) CEO Mark Burgess had previously called the commercial approach "short sighted", saying the report was based solely on economics without taking into consideration public safety.

"Historically, every incident that has arisen where there's been some form of either coronial inquiry or other inquiry or a royal commission into natural disasters in particular, but a whole range of things in that space, every one of them has found a problem with communications. And this is just condemning us to have the same problem over and over and over again," Burgess told ZDNet in September.

"It's very, very short-sighted on the part of the Productivity Commission, but understandably, they're not experts in this area; they're basically economists. They're looking at the costs aspect of it. Our key concern is the safety of the public."

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