The Police Federation of Australia believes the departure of communications minister Stephen Conroy bodes well for the police union’s effort to snag 20MHz of the unsold spectrum in the 700MHz band, said Police Federation CEO Mark Burgess.
The Police Federation is fighting with mobile operators over who should have the remaining “waterfront” spectrum after 30MHz of it went unsold in the Digital Dividend auction. Conroy had taken the view that the spectrum should be returned to the commercial market.
“Conroy was a stumbling block for us,” Burgess told Computerworld Australia. “He has been lobbied very heavily by the telcos and we believe that he’d already agreed that he was going to set it aside for commercial interests and not public safety.”
Burgess said he was particularly irked when, earlier this week, Conroy issued a draft directive to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to return the 700MHz spectrum to market only days after ACMA and the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) gave testimony to the Parliamentary committee considering the public safety issue.
“It smacks of him trying to pre-empt the committee’s decision,” he said. “We think his departure opens up that whole debate again now.”
The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, representing mobile telcos, rejected the Police Federation’s view.
“AMTA certainly doesn’t expect any uncertainty at all around the change of minister in relation to the remaining 700MHz spectrum,” said AMTA president Chris Althaus.
“Senator Conroy took advice as a minister should from his department and relevant agencies such as the ACMA. I think it’s frankly disturbing the have the Police Federation wanting to cast aspersions around the ACMA’s capacity to manage and plan Australia’s spectrum resources.”
“I find it perplexing that the Police Federation who have very little expertise in this area would be second guessing the ACMA or the minister to whom they provide advice,” Althaus added.
The Police Federation does not have a preference on who should replace Conroy, but hopes the new minister will listen to the views of public safety and reverse Conroy’s draft decision on the Digital Dividend spectrum, Burgess said.
“We just hope that whoever comes in has a fresh set of ears and eyes, and they will listen to reason.”
AMTA expects no reversal regardless of who becomes the new communications minister, said Althaus. “It’s entirely appropriate that it does continue, given the fact that—as was pointed out ad nauseum at the Senate inquiry this week—that the 700MHz is an internationally harmonised band for mobile telecommunications.”
Althaus noted that it will be difficult to replace Conroy, given his extensive knowledge of the mobile sector.
Telecom analyst Chris Coughlan said he doubts a new minister would reverse Conroy, but cautioned that it’s difficult to speculate without knowing who will be selected for the job.
“At this time I don't think that any new minister would take a differing view to the PSAs, and instruct the ACMA to change course, not after they had reviewed all the work done in the past.
While the mobile operators didn’t buy all available 700MHz spectrum in the recent auction, Coughlan said they will have demand for it in the future and stopped short of buying all of it due to its high price.
“There is a capacity issue looming with mobile broadband and the 700MHz spectrum will still be needed by mobile carriers,” he said. “The ACMA will no doubt be able to sell the remaining spectrum in 2015-17 and extract further value for the Australian people.”
However, Coughlan added that for public safety, using 700MHz spectrum would mean lower costs compared to the ACMA’s recommendation to use 800MHz spectrum.
“The 700MHz spectrum is more attractive than other spectrum” for public safety agencies because “at this stage it is more likely to generate economies of scale in devices and infrastructure,” he said. “The 800MHz allocation will require customised low volume ASICs in devices and retuned Enode Bs, thus the solution is likely to cost more, and the number of vendors willing to support it will reduce.”
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