Australian Election Could Jump-Start Public-Safety Communications
By Geoff Spring
Monday, May 16, 2016 | Comments
Australia is moving toward another federal government election 2 July, with political parties wanting to be seen as the “infrastructure” while the Australian public-safety communications community is waiting for government decisions following advice provided by various departments since 2010.

This advice is based on submissions from government agencies, associations, industry and academia in response to discussion papers on the key components of the mission-critical communications’ ecosystem, including smart infrastructure for future Australian cities, a public-safety mobile broadband network, the triple zero services and spectrum access.

The inevitable fact is that the public is now a key component of the ecosystem because of the information that the public can provide to public-safety agencies about emergency events and equally because of the public’s expectations that mobile devices will allow them to communicate during these events.

Leading up to the call for the election, there was a potential win for mission-critical public-safety communications with the Australian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities recommending to the government that it recognize public-safety communications systems as “critical infrastructure” and continue to support the development of these systems, including funding research, promoting implementation and providing national coordination. The committee’s recommendation was made in the context of the central recommendation calling for the formation of a smart infrastructure task force — based on the U.K. model — to provide national coordination among governments, industry and researchers for the development and implementation of smart information communications technology (ICT) in the design, planning and development of infrastructure, and in the maintenance and optimization of existing infrastructure.

In 2010, the Australian government began considering the need for a mobile broadband capability for Australia’s public-safety agencies. Five years later, the Australian government commissioned the Productivity Commission to look at the best way of providing a secure mobile broadband capability to meet the long-term needs of Australia's public-safety agencies. The commission’s research report, released 22 December found that mobile broadband offers significant potential to improve how police, fire, ambulance and other public-safety agencies deliver their services, saving lives and property.

The commission advised the government that the most economical way to deliver a public-safety mobile broadband capability is by relying on commercial mobile networks and spectrum but noted that public-safety agencies have made only modest use of mobile broadband to date because of concerns that the quality of commercial services is insufficient to support mission-critical situations.

However, the commission’s report also noted that the network capacity that public-safety agencies require is uncertain, agencies will seek a higher quality of service than what is available on commercial networks, and the standards required are not specific. In the likelihood that the individual states and territories implement a public-safety mobile broadband capability, the commission identified implementation challenges such as jurisdictions agreeing to common interoperability protocols and arranging for sharing information and network capacity among agencies.

The commission also advised that Australian government intervention in spectrum allocation is not necessary to support a public-safety mobile broadband capability because spectrum should be priced at its opportunity cost to support its efficient use.

In July 2014, the Australian government commissioned the department of communications to review the triple zero service, which began operation in 1961. The current arrangements for the national triple zero operator were established when voice calls from landlines dominated the telecommunications landscape, but now about two-thirds of calls come from mobile phones. The government saw the review as an important step in exploring how the triple zero service could take advantage of telecommunications advances and respond to changing community expectations. These changes are illustrated by the 450 percent increase in mobile data demand by Australians during the past four years, which impacts the emergency service.

Submissions to the review closed in August 2014 with the intention that the review would be completed by March 2015 and a competitive tender issued in 2016. The review report and an implementation strategy were released 4 May and advised that the government support the report’s recommendation to postpone the 2016 tender for the emergency call person for up to two years so that long-term policy and technology objectives, including location-based information capability and timing for transition of triple zero to an IP-based environment, can be resolved first.

The Australian Telecommunications Regulator and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) in October 2012 announced its strategic approach to meet the spectrum needs of Australia’s public-safety agencies into the future. ACMA is now part of the department of communications and the arts, which in March released a consultation paper on the proposed radio communications bill. The bill intends to provide the flexibility to meet the needs of a rapidly changing market based on broadband technologies.

The proposed bill treats Australia’s public-safety agencies under the heading of public or community services, undermining the importance of the role performed by these agencies and eliminating transparency in the process through which “fit for purpose” public-safety spectrum may be provided at any point in time to meet public expectations of service delivery. For years, Australia’s governments considered how its public-safety agencies might best be equipped to protect life and property both as part of day-to-day business and to manage those events that rapidly scale to major emergencies or disasters caused by human intervention and the natural environment. Other projects, such as the U.S. First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), the U.K. Emergency Services Network (ESN) and South Korea’s nationwide public-safety network are progressively undertaking research and making decisions, awarding contracts to provide public-safety mobile broadband networks for their public-safety agencies. There are plenty of decisions related to mission-critical public-safety communications “infrastructure” projects awaiting the next Australian government and the opportunity should be taken to leverage the lessons learned and the experience gained from other countries moving forward at an increasing pace, albeit with different business models.


Geoff Spring is the senior industry adviser to the University of Melbourne Center for Disaster Management and Public Safety. Spring is an editorial adviser to RadioResource International magazine.



 
 
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