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Emergency fast LANES overtake spectrum debate

Police and emergency services want the benefit of modern digital mobile devices without having to compete for bandwidth in crowded places, and governments want to give it to them. The only question is how, but after years of consultation and debate we are still far from a settled answer.

A separate nationwide public safety mobile broadband (PSMB) network is a relatively simple concept with clear public value, given normal mobile cells can become clogged with traffic during major disaster events, large protests, at crowded music festivals or in city centres during big events like New Year’s Eve.

But the pros and cons of various options for achieving that end have for several years been mired in a complex argument around spectrum allocations, where the line between technical expertise and lobbying from vested interests is hard to discern. There are hopes that a long-promised cost-benefit analysis by the Productivity Commission, which finally received terms of reference in late March, will reach a sensible conclusion and allow a concrete plan to be formed.

[pullquote] ” … great use of LTE technology for the public good [and] an important example of how to deliver essential services with an approach that can work in all markets.” [/pullquote]

The commission is charged with determining “the most efficient, effective and economical way of delivering this capability by 2020” — by which time the Council of Australian Governments hopes to have in place a national framework for government communications interoperability. The commission’s independence will be crucial here, given the political perils of disagreeing with public safety agencies — who have formed very specific views in this case — and the difficulty of picking between conflicting technical advice.

One newer option on the table could be the circuit-breaker that’s required — a proven way to give public safety agencies exclusive bandwidth on existing mobile broadband networks — although questions remain for the commission around what mix of public and private elements should comprise a PSMB network.

Communications breakdown: Cops challenge ACMA

The main disagreement is between the politically sensitive police and emergency services lobby and the Australian Communications and Media Authority. With the peak body for police unions leading the charge and technical support from US-based device-maker Motorola, the rapid responders who would use a PSMB network have long campaigned to have a 20MHz slice of spectrum reserved for public protection and disaster relief (PPDR).

Their co-ordinated arguments against ACMA’s position persuaded state and territory governments as well as members of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement, which ran an inquiry and issued five oddly specific recommendations in July 2013, aligning strongly with Motorola’s position.

Based on information provided to COAG’s Public Safety Mobile Broadband Steering Committee about PPDR broadband requirements back in 2011, ACMA could not see why it needed more than 10MHz at most. There is also debate over where the PPDR band should carved out — the 700MHz or 800MHz range — centred around international standards and the relative value of different parts of the spectrum for other commercial uses.

The federal election separated the joint committee’s recommendations from the government’s response, in which the new Coalition team accepted none of the committee’s findings and twice reasserted the role of the communications regulator:

“The ACMA was established as an independent regulator to make independent decisions, and is the technical expert on spectrum matters. The Minister for Communications may direct that the ACMA make suitable provision for public safety agencies, but determining technical planning, location and size of that provision is the ACMA’’ decision.”

Private sector co-operation

Interestingly, while device maker Motorola and network operator Telstra have been on opposite sides of ACMA’s position in the spectrum debate, they signed a memorandum of understanding last October to work together developing Telstra’s LANES technology, which could start building the required capacity right away using existing mobile networks.

LANES — LTE Advanced Network for Emergency Services — provides a dedicated bandwidth “lane” for PPDR applications using Telstra’s existing network infrastruture and is already in limited use in Queensland following successful trials at the Woodford Festival, and the Brisbane G20 meeting last year.

Alex Stefan
Alex Stefan

Alex Stefan, Telstra’s national manager for government, public safety and security, says the trials also demonstrated LANES working in combination with a future national PSMB network, simulated by Telstra using part of its own allocation in the 900Mhz range.

“Modelling by the ACMA has suggested that in a catastrophic event, for example a 9-11 type event, there may be a need for over 50MHz of spectrum,” Stefan told The Mandarin. “What we’ve advocated is that we can actually also make available our LTE spectrum bands to augment any [publicly owned network] so that if you do have a once-in-a-generation catastrophic event, then you do have a capacity to scale up to meet the needs of the police, the ambos and the firies.”

Queensland Police Service were “quite elated” with the technology after the successful Woodford trial, according to Stefan, and the G20 presented an golden opportunity to try it out again. Telstra was already building Queensland a new digital radio network for emergency services, starting with the parts of the Brisbane CBD that would be tightly secured for the international forum.

“Then, on our own undertaking, we elected to enable LANES around the broader CBD area of Brisbane, focused around the primary hubs where the world dignitaries would be housed and the Brisbane Convention centre … where they were meeting,” Stefan explained. “We made that service available for the Queensland police officers and we’ve actually retained it, so it continues to operate there today in Brisbane.”

He adds that he was surprised to find “tremendous interest” in the reliable mobile broadband setup from covert agencies whose officers prowled the city’s streets during the G20.

The tussle over each little sliver of the increasingly valuable radio spectrum will likely continue as the PC does its work, possibly with Telstra and Motorola making different arguments as they have before. But regardless of how it all plays out, LANES could well be part of the solution. The judges at the recent Global Mobile Awards praised it as:

” … a great use of LTE technology for the public good [and] an important example of how to deliver essential services with an approach that can work in all markets.”

As Stefan rightly points out, the main issue behind the years of debate and complicated tech-talk is simply network congestion, which only happens in crowded places.

“So what I would suggest is that if you were to allocate a dedicated spectrum partition, you would most probably only need to do it in those areas where you would have a prospect of congestion, and outside those areas you could look to preferential treatment on pre-existing carrier assets,” he said.

“That provides, we believe, a more cost-effective model, because as you’d expect, spectrum is a very scarce and expensive commodity.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

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