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NSW takes the lead on national broadband for emergency services, after years of debate

The New South Wales Telco Authority is taking steps toward the development of a long-discussed nationwide public safety mobile broadband network for the exclusive use of police and emergency services in all jurisdictions.

The authority, which is responsible for “reform and delivery of government operational communications” in NSW and manages the state government’s exclusive radio network, has invited telecommunications companies to submit concepts for an exclusive mobile broadband network that public safety agencies around the country have long desired.

It’s not so much the day-to-day radio communications that are the issue, but the need for exclusive and uncongested mobile internet bandwidth during major disasters, unusually big events and international meetings, when mobile networks may also be crowded with civilian communications.

The need has grown as frontline agencies increasingly rely on modern mobile devices, which require broadband data connections. It’s a simple enough idea but has seen protracted discussions about the best way to go about it for years.

Key actors include the device and telecommunications companies that are keen to be involved, the police and emergency services and their unions, as well as independent federal bodies like the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Productivity Commission.

The emergency service organisations obviously want the most robust, reliable and useful broadband access they can get for the mobile devices they use out in the field, but ACMA has resisted an earlier proposal on the basis that it would cordon off an unnecessarily large slice of the increasingly valuable broadband spectrum.

A bipartisan parliamentary committee mostly recommended going with a gold-plated option proposed by police and emergency services representatives with the backing of device maker Motorola in 2013, but the government rejected it in a response that came after the federal election, and re-asserted ACMA’s role as “the technical expert on spectrum matters” in Australia.

NSW Telco Authority managing director Kate Foy noted such discussions had been going on across state and territory lines for several years, and said the new request for proposals followed earlier market-testing.

“NSW has been working in close collaboration with representatives from the Commonwealth and all the other Australian states and territories in developing the next steps towards a national PSMB capability,” Foy said in a statement this week.

“The delivery model was informed by a national Request for Information that was conducted earlier this year.”

The agency wants proposals to “test the PSMB delivery model across urban, regional and remote locations in Australia over six to twelve months” from early next year.

“By participating in the proof of concept, industry can provide solutions for innovative and cutting-edge equipment that can be integrated by public safety agencies into their missioncritical communications portfolios,” said Foy.

“The RFP also provides an opportunity for carriers and equipment suppliers to have a direct influence on the roadmap for a national PSMB capability in Australia.”

While it moves ahead with its role in the development of robust national mobile broadband for public safety agencies, the state Telco Authority is also running a separate project to upgrade the dedicated government radio network in NSW, which it manages.

The plan is to consolidate “the large number of separate radio networks that are owned and operated by various NSW Government agencies” into a single shared one. While broadband data and traditional radio use different frequencies, the authority says moving to a single government radio network will “support the adoption of future technologies, such as public safety mobile broadband” in the future.

Top image: NSW Police.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is the associate editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.