Telco industry officials have indicated support for spectrum policy changes proposed this week by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Yesterday, Turnbull proposed three spectrum policy changes to be considered as part of a review of the regulatory framework for spectrum by the Department of Communications and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The proposals relate to a second Digital Dividend, the role of the communications minister, and movement to a single licensing system.
While seeking more detail, the Communications Alliance and Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) said today at the RadComms conference that they generally support the Turnbull proposals.
The government has commenced the spectrum review in an effort to modernise the current framework, established in 1992 under the Radiocommunications (RadComms) Act. It seeks to reflect changes in technology, markets and consumer preferences, as well as increasing demand for spectrum from all sectors. The framework was last reviewed by the Productivity Commission in 2002.
Consultations are ongoing at the Department of Communications, said Ian Robinson, deputy secretary of the department’s telecommunications group.
Australia cannot be an international leader on wireless unless it updates spectrum regulations, he said. “The framework was put in place in 1992 and a very significant change in technology has happened over that time.”
Community TV spectrum
Turnbull’s headline-getting proposal yesterday was a second Digital Dividend in which spectrum now used by community TV broadcasters in capital cities would be transitioned for use by mobile broadband. He proposed that community TV broadcasters give up the spectrum and move to an over-the-top, Internet-based model.
While the plan is unlikely to be supported by the community TV networks, which will have to give up their spectrum at the end of 2015, the telecom industry appears enthused about the prospect of another spectrum auction.
“The hint of an additional Digital Dividend clearly is sufficient to pique the interest of [the telco] industry,” Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton said today.
“There’s no doubt that we’ll be following the progress of that proposal very closely.”
AMTA welcomes the minister’s proposal, said the wireless group’s CEO Chris Althaus.
“We think that’s a very positive thing, and I’m saying that for an efficiency, overall development reason, not because we have an appetite for a Digital Dividend round two.”
But if there is a second Digital Dividend, he added, “I’m sure we’ll have the requisite level of interest.”
Increased ministerial role
Turnbull had also proposed giving the communications minister a greater role in directing the ACMA. The minister would provide government policy statements to the regulator and have intervention powers to direct major policy initiatives. The ACMA would have to annually submit to the minister and public a work program identifying key priorities over three to five years.
“This should improve, certainty streamline, processes and reduce costs for all parties,” the minister said.
At the RadComms conference today, the Communications Alliance and AMTA officials each supported the idea of the minister providing increased guidance in policy matters.
Ministerial direction is like “apple pie,” said Stanton. “You can’t have too much of a good thing.”
Single licensing regime
Finally, Turnbull had proposed moving to a single licensing framework, explaining that “the current categories of spectrum apparatus and class licensing would be removed and replaced with a single category.”
Turnbull said this would “simplify processes and provide much greater flexibility and choice for users, as well as to improve efficiency. The legislative categories will no longer be an impediment to the innovative new uses of spectrum.”
Stanton said the Communications Alliance supports moving to a single licencing regime if it can simplify the system, but cautioned it must be done with care.
“There is a question in the industry’s mind about how you transition from the current set of licences to a single class of licence, and there will be I expect strong scrutiny around what that transition process means for the rights and financial position of the existing licence holders.”
The transition must be handled with care given all the complicated arrangements currently in place, agreed Althaus. “But the opportunity is there to do it, and do it we will,” he added.
In general, speakers at the RadComms conference supported spectrum reform as a way to keep up with changes in technology. During a panel on Thursday afternoon, the audience was asked if anyone disagreed with the need for reform – no-one argued against it.
Even so, some urged policymakers to step cautiously.
“There’s a tendency to believe that there’s a pace of change that is so great that the regulatory structures … can no longer cope,” said Peter Hilly, director of wireless consultants Spectrum Engineering Australia. “But is that really true? Because I can’t remember a time when we weren’t saying that.
“If we are going to be make fundamental change to the way we do things we really do need to be sure that they’re both necessary and appropriate. Otherwise, we might well be worse off than when we started.”