Turnbull floats sharing of unused spectrum

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Turnbull floats sharing of unused spectrum

But still no solution for emergency services.

Public and private sector bodies could be allowed greater access to spectrum that is reserved but not used under a proposal by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull to address a shortage of wireless capacity.

The Government earlier this year announced it would conduct a review into Australia’s outdated approach to spectrum - in conjunction with the Australian Communications and Media Authority - to bring it up to date with current technologies, markets and consumer preferences.

“The spectrum framework was last formally reviewed by the Productivity Commission in 2002. This was two years before Google went public and five years before the first iPhone was released,” Turnbull said at the time.

“Clearly, the world has changed and it is time to take a comprehensive look at whether Australia's spectrum policy and management framework remains fit for the digital age.”

After spending the last six months hearing from industry on how the Government’s approach to spectrum could be improved, the Communications department today outlined 11 reform proposals [pdf] and asked stakeholders for feedback.

Turnbull and his department want to create an open market for wireless spectrum to free up capacity for services such as faster mobile broadband, proposing to cut down the number of rules governing how spectrum is used to allow for a market-led approach.

The reformed rules would mean decisions by the Government and the ACMA on spectrum use, license renewals and auctions could be made more quickly, and would enable greater access to spectrum that is reserved but not necessarily used - as is the case with the Defence department - by other interested parties.

This “dynamic spectrum access” would ensure capacity does not sit unused. The Government would establish a secondary spectrum market in which the licence holder would be incentivised to rent the spectrum out or sell it to another party.

“Internationally, there is a focus on enabling greater spectrum sharing by taking advantage of smart technologies that can look up databases to find unused spectrum and switch to the unused frequencies in real‐time (these are variously called dynamic spectrum access, cognitive or whitespace technologies),” the discussion paper states [pdf].

“While initially being implemented in the unused spectrum in the broadcasting bands, they can potentially be used throughout the spectrum bands. This would enable spectrum sharing to become a more common approach for maximising spectrum use.  

“Some sharing of spectrum is enabled under the current framework – these types of sharing can and do occur without the use of cognitive technologies but could be made easier with their use.”

No proposal for dedicated emergency services spectrum

However the Government’s latest paper does not address the heated issue of dedicated spectrum for the radio networks of emergency services and police bodies.

The Police Federation of Australia has been engaged in a long-running campaign to allocate emergency services a slice of the 30 MHz spectrum - worth around $1 billion - leftover from the 2013 700 MHz digital dividend auction in order to establish a dedicated national 4G network for emergency services. 

The former Labor Government refused the PFA’s request given the revenue it could reap from a commercial sale of the spectrum, and instead offered 10 MHz of spectrum in the adjacent 800 MHz band and 50 MHz in the 4.9 GHz band - an offer approved by the ACMA as sufficient, but which was knocked back by the PFA as inadequate.

The PFA’s bid has been supported by the WA Government and a Senate Committee investigating the issue, but rejected by Telstra, which wants the unsold spectrum to be kept for commercial use.

The telco has also put forward its own proposal for emergency services to run their communications over Telstra’s existing networks as part of a partitioned approach.

Prior to the 2013 federal election, the Coalition said it would conduct a “rigorous cost-benefit analysis” into emergency services communications.

A spokesperson for Turnbull today told iTnews the department would announce the commencement of the cost-benefit analysis in the next few weeks.

While the terms of reference are yet to be made public, the analysis will evaluate whether the Government should take a purely commercial approach to a national emergency services network - such as Telstra's LANES proposal - or whether spectrum is dedicated to a specific public safety network.

The analysis will not focus on a specific commercial provider, but will investigate the feasbility of entering a managed services arrangement with the likes of Telstra or Optus for an emergency services network.

The study is expected to take between six and 12 months.

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