The Department of Broadband has defended the resiliency of commercial telco services in natural disasters amid mounting pressure to allow emergency services to build their own dedicated communications network.
In a senate submission [pdf], the DBCDE argued that carriers had become more adept at staying lit during times of crisis, pointing to the use of portable towers as an example.
“The department commends the telecommunications and broadcasting infrastructure providers in their rapid response to the recent emergencies and restoration of infrastructure and services,” the department wrote.
However, the department’s support was not shared by the Police Federation of Australia, which was seeking a free block of 700 MHz digital dividend spectrum in which to build a next-generation mobile network.
The need for a dedicated solution that bypassed commercial networks was underlined by difficulties emergency services personnel had when they relied on carriers for disaster communications, the Federation said.
"Unfortunately, bitter experience has shown that commercial communications services almost always fail the police and emergency services," it stated.
"They are not set up to provide the kind of guaranteed, failsafe, secure system these emergency services must have. Their networks are not built to 'importance level 1' that police require.
“A 16‐year old with a Smartphone has a more advanced communications capability than many first responder police officers or emergency services personnel, which is a disgrace in a technologically savvy country like Australia."
Other emergency service and public safety organisations shared the Federation's concerns.
WA Fire and Emergency Services Authority chief executive Frank Pasquale pointed to repeated telecommunications failures in remote parts of the state leaving citizens unable to contact emergency services, and without an equivalent service for satellite phones.
“The transition to a de-regulated telecommunications industry and broadband telephone services can largely be characterised as unmanaged and without input from emergency services,” he wrote.
“This is considered a serious impediment to the ability of emergency services to effectively identify, and then respond, to an event."
Other submissions to the senate inquiry pointed to the potential for commercial networks to be flooded with personal messages to loved ones, at times when emergency services needed to establish communications.
Submissions to the senate inquiry also reveal that the Police Federation's push for free digital dividend spectrum had the backing of at least two current and former state premiers.
Letters from former NSW Premier Kristina Kenneally and current Queensland Premier Anna Bligh were appended to the Federation's senate submission.
The issue has so far been met with a lukewarm response in Canberra with attempts to offer emergency services a slice of 800MHz spectrum instead.