Public safety agencies would be best served by commercial carriers when it comes to a national mobile capability for emergency services, the Productivity Commission has recommended, in a report that provoked a fierce backlash from police around the country.
The commission today released its draft report into the most cost-effective way to deploy such a network, following a directive from the government last November. The terms of reference for the report were released in March.
The Productivity Commission was asked to undertake a ‘first principles’ analysis of the most efficient and effective way of delivering mobile broadband capability for public safety agencies by 2020.
Police, fire and ambulance services currently use their own land mobile radio networks for the majority of their communications.
The networks deliver voice and some data services, but don't allow for high-speed data transfer and also for the most part are not interoperable across agencies.
A dedicated mobile broadband capability would allow such agencies to access more information while in the field, result in better ability to save lives and property and improve officer safety, the Productivity Commission said.
It recognised that the use of mobile broadband in emergency services agencies was unlikely to increase until a network that supports what they need is available.
The commission was told to study commercial approaches - such as such as Telstra's LANES proposal - or whether the government should dedicate spectrum to a public safety network.
In its draft report, released today, the Productivity Commission said a commercial option would be significantly lower cost than a dedicated network or a hybrid of the two.
It put the cost of a dedicated network at $6.1 billion, compared to $2.1 billion for a commercial option. The lowest-cost hybrid option was twice as expensive as a commercial option, it said.
A commercial approach would mean public safety agencies obtain mobile broadband services from commercial carriers, such as with Telstra's LANES service.
LANES consists of a dedicated network using a dedicated spectrum channel that can only be accessed by users from public safety agencies.
When public service agencies need to scale up their data usage, they can shift onto Telstra’s commercial network and receive guaranteed priority over other network users.
Telstra has trialled LANES in Queensland and Western Australia in 2013, and more recently for the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane. It said it found agencies could be given preferential data treament over a shared network, and they did not experience service disruption when bursting.
“A commercial option is lower cost because considerable existing infrastructure could be used or shared, meaning significantly less new investment is required," commissioner Jonathan Coppel said.
"Mobile network infrastructure is extensive, costly and in many cases long lived. There will be significant economies of scale and scope in using existing commercial infrastructure to deliver a [public safety mobile broadband] PSMB capability, where this is technically and economically feasible," the report stated.
"Mobile carriers also have considerable skills and expertise in network design and operation that could be brought to bear on a PSMB capability."
The commission said the benefits of each option would likely be very similar, and therefore the best guide to community benefit would be cost.
It similarly said a dedicated network would take longer to deliver and offer less flexibility to quickly scale up network capacity.
However, it did identify that risks in taking a commercial approach could result in limited competition and supplier lock-in.
The commission therefore advised splitting up tenders, leveraging infrastructure assets and insisting on open technology standards to help secure value for money.
“Small-scale trials would provide an opportunity for jurisdictions to gain confidence in a commercial approach, gauge the costs and benefits of the capability more precisely and develop a business case for a wider‑scale rollout," Coppel said.
The governments of Canada, the US and South Korea have all allocated spectrum to a public safety network.
The UK, Belgium and New Zealand all opted for a commercial approach.
The commission has asked for feedback on the report and will take submissions until October 28. Its final report will be handed to the government in December.
Police hit back at proposal
But the draft report was received with anger by police representative body the Police Federation of Australia, which has long argued for 20MHz of 700MHz spectrum to be set aside for a 4G emergency services network.
But its bid was rejected by the then-Labor government, which was keen to sell the spectrum to a commercial bidder, despite the PFA's argument receiving the support of a senate committee investigating the issue.
PFA CEO Mark Burgess today lashed out at the Productivity Commission's report, accusing it of putting the interests of telcos ahead of public safety and the general community.
He said handing control to telcos would mean coverage would only be available in commercially viable areas of the nation - making it difficult for police, fire and ambulance to provide services right across the country.
"Basically what they're doing is condemning public safety to be at the mercy of the major telcos," Burgess told iTnews.
"In every commission of inquiry, every royal commission we've had in Australia around natural disasters, the first thing that always gets brought up is problems with communications.
"They're condemning us to have the same problems forever.
"The difference between public safety systems and telcos is ours are hardened to withstand these sorts of issues. I suspect telcos aren't going to harden their systems in areas like far north Queensland."
He said the proposal would put public safety agencies at the mercy of telcos.
"By not giving public safety the dedicated spectrum, it puts telcos in the driving seat. Public safety would have to go cap in hand to the telcos and try to strike the best deal," he said.
"The community's not going to wear that."
Burgess said the PFA would keep up the fight to be allocated spectrum for a national emergency services network.
"If they think that we're going to go away, they should think again. We will be putting absolute pressure on the government to come up with something that's in the best interests of public safety and the community, not the telcos," he said.
"I'd find it very difficult to believe the government would endorse a report that left out large parts of the country for coverage."