The Coalition victory in the federal election could bode well for Australian police seeking a portion of the 700MHz spectrum that went unsold in the Digital Dividend auction.
A policy position paper released by the Police Federation of Australia shows the Coalition more open than Labor to the police request. In addition, the PFA has a better relationship with Malcolm Turnbull—who is expected to become the new Communications Minister—than Stephen Conroy, who held the position under former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, according to a spokesperson for the organisation.
The 700MHz spectrum in question is considered valuable because it can be used for 4G mobile coverage in regional areas. While a large amount was sold in the recent Digital Dividend auction, 30MHz of it was not sold.
The Labor party under Conroy had planned to return all of the unsold 700MHz spectrum to the mobile industry, and instead give public safety agencies (PSAs) 10MHz of spectrum in the 800MHz band. The position is supported by the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA).
However, the PFA—comprising 58,000 members from police unions and associations—has been campaigning Parliament to give public safety agencies 20MHz of the unsold spectrum so that first responders can have reliable and interoperable mobile broadband communications in a disaster.
In policy position responses sent last week to the PFA, the Coalition appeared more open than Labor to the public safety group’s request.
“If elected, a Coalition Government will conduct a rigorous cost-benefit analysis into the question of emergency services wireless communications and consider the most cost effective means of upgrading Australia’s law enforcement and emergency services mobile broadband network,” the Coalition wrote in a response dated 6 September.
The Coalition added that it “understands the disappointment” of the public safety agencies when Labor decided to allocate 10MHz of spectrum in the 800MHz band.
In a separate response to the Police Federation dated 3 September, the Labor government largely stood by its previous decision.
“The Rudd Labor Government considers the potential allocation of spectrum from the [800MHz] band to be a highly effective and efficient option to meet the communication needs of our public safety agencies,” wrote Labor.
However, Labor said it would examine recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on Law Enforcement, which in July sided with the Police Federation on the 700MHz issue.
“Both sides have quite clearly have left the door ajar for further discussions,” said PFA CEO Mark Burgess. He added that the PFA is pleased to work with Turnbull at the helm of communications.
“We had our problems with Stephen Conroy,” said Burgess. “We never even got to talk to him. Malcolm Turnbull we’ve met on a number of occasions [and] we’ve had some really good dialogue… I’d be very confident that at least he’s going to listen to us.”
“Realistically, we anticipate we will have a far better relationship with Malcolm Turnbull than we ever had with Stephen Conroy.”
Also, the Coalition has supported the PFA in the past on the state level, he said. “Interestingly enough, it’s now Coalition federal government, and the main agitators for the 20MHz of spectrum for public safety broadband have been in fact Coalition state governments,” said Burgess.
Burgess doesn’t believe the switchover in government will significantly delay action on the spectrum issue. “Everybody knows the issue. It’s not a new issue.”
The PFA hasn’t yet had a chance to speak with Turnbull or anyone in Labor about the recommendation of the parliamentary committee, he said. “It was a unanimous decision of the committee, so obviously we’ll be armed with that when we get to sit down with Malcolm Turnbull in the not-too-distant future.”
AMTA is “not expecting any change” in policy for the unsold 700MHz spectrum and expects it to be returned to market as planned, according to the mobile industry association’s CEO, Chris Althaus. “AMTA has seen no deviation from this course from the incoming government.”
Althaus supported the Coalition’s proposal to do a cost-benefit analysis. “One of the concerns that we had with this process all the way along was the absence of cost-benefit analysis, so if that is part of the new focus on this issue, we would certainly be willing to participate in that discussion.”
Althaus added that he doubted the issue is top of mind for the Coalition. “This issue is of interest to everybody, but I think not at the top of the priority pile for an incoming government.”
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