ACMA defends process after police protest spectrum decisions

"Our door remains open," says ACMA chairman Chris Chapman.

The chairman of the Australian Communications and Media Authority has said his agency’s “door remains open” after the Police Federation slammed the agency for its handling of wireless spectrum dedicated to public safety agencies.

The comments by ACMA chairman Chris Chapman came amid an argument with the Police Federation over how much wireless spectrum law enforcement and first responders need for mobile communications during a disaster.

In October 2012, the ACMA announced it would provide 10MHz of spectrum in the 800MHz band to law enforcement and emergency services. But the Police Federation has responded that at least 20MHz is required to provide enough capacity in the event of a terrorism incident in a major CBD or a major natural disaster.

In a submission (PDF) last week to the Parliamentary Joint Statutory Committee on Law Enforcement, the Police Federation said it has found "dealing with the ACMA exceedingly difficult and time consuming."

"We have written by registered mail on at least three occasions to the Chairman of the ACMA and have never had the courtesy of a reply from him," the Federation said on behalf of Australia's first responders including police, fire and rescue, ambulance and state emergency services.

"We have not been consulted by the ACMA in the three years this matter has been under consideration despite the fact that the former Senate inquiry suggested in very direct terms that the ACMA should be consulting the [Police Federation]. We have never had the opportunity to meet with the ACMA to discuss our views."

"The [Police Federation] would, with the greatest respect, characterise the ACMA's stance as arrogant in its treatment of stakeholders and of police operational requirements and overly influenced by the commercial carriers' views to the detriment of public safety and the national interest."

In a statement to Computerworld Australia, ACMA chairman Chris Chapman said his agency “takes the views of all stakeholders in this important matter very seriously.”

“The ACMA is an evidence-based regulator and places a high degree of importance on stakeholder engagement in carrying out its role in managing spectrum in the national interest.”

“The ACMA has worked with the public safety mobile broadband (PSMB) steering committee (PSMBSC) to determine the necessary amount of spectrum, and has made early announcements of this undertaking so as to provide the public safety community with a degree of planning surety that the spectrum will be available for use when a PSMB capability is eventually deployed.”

Chapman added, “Our door remains open.”

Police seek unsold 700MHz spectrum

In its submission last week, the Police Federation asked for 20MHz of the spectrum in the 700MHz band that went unsold to commercial carriers in the recent Digital Dividend auction. The government failed to sell 30MHz of the spectrum in April and currently plans to try bring it to the commercial market again in two to three years.

"Law enforcement, and the other first responders, unquestionably need 21st Century communications tools to do their challenging work, protecting life and ensuring public order in critical situations, safely and effectively," the Police Federation wrote.

"This means they need adequate, dedicated mobile broadband spectrum."

The law enforcement body said that it is “simply unacceptable to fail to provide the necessary communications capacity to deal with such life-threatening situations."

The ACMA has stood by its decision, stating in March that 10MHz is enough spectrum in all but the rarest of situations.

In a speech at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Australasia conference, ACMA authority member Chris Cheah said "the one scenario that we couldn’t provide the recommended amount of spectrum for was considered a worst-case, once-in-a-generation event, requiring a highly concentrated, multi-jurisdiction response to a large-scale inner metro incident."

"In fact, even if we had provided 20 MHz of spectrum, as some have called for, we would still not have met the recommended amount; such was the scale of the event modelled," Cheah said.

The ACMA concluded it would be against national interest to give public safety agencies spectrum that most of the time they would not be using, he said.

"If the ACMA were to provide double the spectrum for the worst-case contingency, the evidence shows that in the absence of such an event occurring, the additional 10 MHz of spectrum would be largely underutilised,” he said.

“Given the rarity of this event occurring, this could mean that 10 MHz of spectrum in the 800 MHz band would effectively lie fallow permanently."

The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, representing the telcos for which the 700MHz spectrum is currently reserved, in previous statements has supported the ACMA’s position to allocate 10MHz from the 800MHz band to public safety agencies.

“AMTA believes that the Government and the ACMA have given exhaustive and rigorous consideration to this issue and its decision in the ACMA’s words ‘delivers a total solution that enables PSAs to respond to emergencies and catastrophes.’”

Fallbacks fail: Police Federation

The ACMA recently assigned 50MHz of spectrum in the 4.9GHz band to public safety agencies, which Chapman said could be used in disasters and other situations when data demand spikes.

However, in its submission the Police Federation said the 4.9GHz spectrum is "of very limited use because it is only useful for stationary, localized incidents like a siege, not a moving bushfire, flood or an incident where criminals or terrorist[s] are on the move."

The Police Federation has also dismissed another option of allowing public safety to roam onto telco networks during emergency situations.

The group pointed to frequent telco outages illustrated in a recent report by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman that showed telcos declared 584 mass service disruptions in 2012. The Federation added that the largest telco, Telstra, covers only 27.3 per cent of the land mass of Australia.

Follow Adam Bender on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

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