Dedicated mobile broadband for emergency services will cost billions: Report

Productivity Commission report seeks feedback on dedicated or commercial network

Mobile broadband technology represents a significant opportunity to save lives and property but its use is unlikely to increase until a public safety grade service is available, according to a draft Productivity Commission report released today.

A mobile broadband network can allow frontline officers to access high-speed video, images and location tracking, said the report.

The report includes a cost-benefit analysis of the best way to provide mobile broadband to public safety agencies by 2020 including the construction of a dedicated network, a commercial telecommunications backed approach or a hybrid of the two.

The cost of a dedicated network was estimated at $6.1 billion, compared to $2.1 billion for a commercial option. Even the lowest‑cost hybrid option is twice as expensive as a commercial option, said the report.

“Public safety agencies [PSAs] currently rely on their own radio networks for voice communications and some low‑speed data. Mobile broadband use has been modest due to concerns that the quality of commercial services is insufficient to support ‘mission critical’ operations,” stated the report.

A dedicated network would give PSAs access to and control over their own public safety mobile broadband (PSMB) network using their own parcel of spectrum, said the report.

“Any spectrum made available for PSMB should be priced at its opportunity cost to support its efficient use.”

Last year, Police Federation of Australia (PFA) CEO Mark Burgess said that his group is open to spectrum in the 800 MHz band, given challenges taking 700MHz from the telco industry.

However, in either band, he said public safety spectrum must receive a minimum of 20MHz of bandwidth so that first responders can have reliable and interoperable mobile broadband communications in a disaster.

A commercial approach would mean that PSAs obtain PSMB services from one or more of the commercial mobile carriers through a contract for service.

According to the Productivity Commission, commercial carriers are the most cost effective option for deploying a public safety grade mobile broadband capability to public safety agencies.

“A commercial option is lower cost because considerable existing infrastructure could be used or shared, meaning significantly less new investment is required”, said Commissioner Jonathan Coppel.

The report has also looked at risks and the need for protocols for sharing information and network capacity among agencies to get the most out of a public safety mobile broadband capability.

Read more: Government pushes forward with revamp of spectrum licensing, pricing

“Small-scale trials would provide an opportunity for jurisdictions to gain confidence in a commercial approach, gauge the costs and benefits of the capability more precisely and develop a business case for a wider‑scale roll out”, said Coppel.

A dedicated network would likely take longer to deliver and offer less flexibility to scale up network capacity in the short term, relative to other options.

Providing priority services under commercial or hybrid options would be more technically complex than under a dedicated option. There are also commercial risks arising from limited competition and supplier lock‑in.

According to the report, competitive procurement is essential. Splitting up tenders, leveraging infrastructure assets and insisting on open technology standards can help governments secure value for money, it said.

The Productivity Commission is seeking written feedback on the draft report by 28 October. A final report will be provided to the federal government in December this year.

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