Airwaves: reforming one of our most valuable resources

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October 27, 2017

Australians depend on spectrum to keep connected at work, at home and on the go. Every time you check the weather on your phone, watch TV or browse the internet on your tablet, you are using spectrum.  Spectrum is integral to business activities whether it be for remote monitoring of systems or ensuring staff have access to information they need when outside the office.

Spectrum is a key enabler of the digital economy and a critical input for communications services. It is also a significant public resource managed by the Commonwealth. Each year, the ACMA collects over $300 million in licence fees and charges, in addition to spectrum sold at auction. This year, at an April auction of 700 MHz, licences sold for more than $1.5 billion.

The world of spectrum is being reformed, and the ACMA is central to it, as we implement the government’s Spectrum Review. We’re working to give spectrum users greater freedom, confidence and incentive to maximise the value they get from spectrum.

The 1992 Radiocommunications Act toolkit made Australia a world leader in spectrum planning, and set us up for the following 25 years. It was created before key developments, such as 5G or the Internet of Things, were even thought of.

The goal for the new legislation is to provide the ACMA with the regulatory tools to deliver for the next 20 years. The new legislation will support that by: providing opportunities for greater user involvement in spectrum management, removing unnecessary regulator ‘command and control’ simplifying regulatory structures, streamlining operational processes and clarifying the role of government, including the separate roles of the ACMA and the Minister for Communications in spectrum management.

Following the Exposure Draft of the Radiocommunications Bill 2017 (released for public comment in May 2017), the ACMA has started preparations for implementing new spectrum management arrangements.

We are progressing this work consistent with the broad policy directions reflected in the review.

The Bill will provide the ACMA with discretion on designing and implementing the new arrangements. This is a significant task, with many regulatory design choices to be made in a policy context.

The objective of spectrum management will remain directed at maximising or promoting the public interest in, and benefit derived from, how spectrum is used.

In practice, this means that spectrum should be allocated, and encouraged to move to, its highest value use or uses—with ‘value’ including both economic and social value, and ‘use’ encompassing public and private, active and passive uses.

As currently drafted, the Bill provides scope for significant change in the way the ACMA and industry achieve these objectives. The findings of the Spectrum Review express a preference for using market principles and mechanisms in achieving efficient allocation and use of spectrum. They also highlight the advantages of increasing spectrum user and other third-party involvement in spectrum management.

The ACMA has categorised its implementation objectives into two broad categories:

Enhancing market-based activity, through:

  • greater industry-initiated licence trading
  • greater use of spectrum sharing
  • increasing predictability by licence design reforms
  • pricing spectrum to reflect its market value

Better regulatory design and delivery, through:

  • increased use of market principles and mechanisms
  • increased user and third-party management of spectrum
  • faster, more responsive and adaptive regulatory processes,
  • streamlining, simplifying and allowing more user flexibility
  • enhanced transparency in ACMA decision-making.

The ACMA will be adopting a ‘co-design’ approach to the new regulatory framework with industry and other stakeholders, and looks forward to drawing on the expertise of and input from industry to develop a new overall approach to spectrum management.

Further detail will be provided on the ACMA’s website  as it becomes available.

To learn more, join us at RadComms next week, the leading spectrum management conference in Australia.

James Cameron is acting deputy chair at the ACMA.

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