NSW Bushfire Inquiry Recommends Bigger Allocation of Spectrum to Public-Safety Broadband
Friday, September 11, 2020 | Comments

An inquiry on the 2019-2020 bushfire season in New South Wales recommended that Australia’s government allocate 10 + 10 megahertz of dedicated spectrum for public-safety mobile broadband (PSMB) at no cost to the states or territories.

Following a brutal bushfire season that ran from 1 July 2019 to 31 March 2020, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian created the inquiry to examine the causes of the bushfires and make recommendations in relation to bush fire preparedness and response.

The inquiry’s report covered a variety of areas surrounding fire preparedness and offered recommendations in many areas including several focused on communications. Chief among these was dedicated spectrum for PSMB.

The report noted that in 2018, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed to develop a national PSMB capability. A national project to develop a PSMB capability is waiting for the results of a proof of concept request for proposal (RFP).

“As a national capability, states and territories believe that the commonwealth should make a significant investment to enable the urgent delivery of the program,” the report said. “States and territories are in ongoing negotiations with the commonwealth government on the allocation of dedicated spectrum for PSMB.”

The report noted that the commonwealth government has set aside 5 + 5 megahertz of spectrum for PSMB and offered it to states and territories at below market value. However, during the inquiry New South Wales agencies said that the 5 + 5 megahertz allocation is only sufficient for “business-as-usual” activities and would require them to rely heavily on commercial spectrum for emergencies, such as bushfires.

“NSW agencies support provision of 10 + 10 MHz of dedicated spectrum to reduce reliance on carrier spectrum and allow for streaming of real-time data from multiple, concurrent sources,” the report said. “In addition, given that the PSMB is solely for communications that support community protection and safety, the dedicated spectrum should be provided at no cost to states and territories.”

The inquiry also supported continued funding and completion of the New South Wales Telco Authority Critical Communications Enhancement Program (CCEP), which is expanding the state’s voice-only Public-Safety Network (PSN) to increase land coverage from less than 35% to 85% of the state. That expansion will cover 98% of the state’s population.

“In addition to reducing the duplication of radio infrastructure and operating costs, the expanded PSN will enable contiguous coverage along and within large geographic areas and roads, and larger cross-agency and coordinated responses to localized emergency events,” the report said. “CCEP will enable a single network, allowing ESOs to communicate with each other through specific talkgroups. The inquiry heard that in the recent fire season, the expansion enabled a small number of new radio sites to be brought online in to provide radio coverage in some of the fire areas.”

In March 2020, the NSW government committed additional funding of $217 million in 2021-2022 to enable fast completion of the next phase of the CCEP.

“The inquiry endorses the continued funding and completion of the CCEP as an immediate priority to enable an effective operational response by ESOs and, pending development and implementation of public-safety mobile broadband, a more sophisticated mission-critical data transfer and communications system that will promote interoperability for NSW agencies and across borders,” the report said.

Other communications related recommendations in the report included:
• That all memorandums of understanding (MoU) for cross-border communications between state and territorial agencies include an agreed-upon protocol about how agencies will communicate across borders and that this protocol is included in incident action plans.
• The NSW Rural Fire Service ensure its integrated dispatch system is implemented before the start of the 2020-2021 fire season in order to improve response times to Triple Zero calls.

Find the full report here.

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