The conduct of the inquiry
On 3 March 2011, the Senate referred the following matter to the
Environment and Communications References Committee (the committee) for inquiry
and report by 2 November 2011:
The capacity of communication networks and emergency warning
systems to deal with emergencies and natural disasters, with particular
a) the effectiveness of communication networks, including radio, telephone,
Internet and other alert systems (in particular drawing on the spate of
emergencies and natural disasters of the 2010/2011 Australian summer):
i. in warning of the imminent threat of an impending emergency,
ii. to function in a coordinated manner during an emergency, and
iii. to assist in recovery after an emergency;
b) the impact of extended power blackouts on warning systems for state
emergency services, including country fire brigades and landholders or home
c) the impact of emergencies and natural disasters on, and implications
for, future communication technologies such as the National Broadband Network;
d) the scope for better educating people in high-risk regions about the use
of communications equipment to prepare for and respond to a potential emergency
or natural disaster;
e) new and emerging technologies including digital spectrum that could
improve preparation for, responses to and recovery from, an emergency or
natural disaster; and
f) any other relevant matters.
On 2 November 2011, the Senate agreed to an extension of time to report
until 23 November 2011.
In accordance with its usual practice, the committee advertised details
of the inquiry in The Australian and on the internet. The committee also
contacted a range of organisations inviting submissions. The committee received
47 submissions, listed at Appendix 1.
The committee held two public hearings in Canberra on 8 and 9 August
2011. Details of these public hearings are shown at Appendix 2. The committee
thanks all those organisations and individuals who contributed to the inquiry.
Recent natural disasters in Australia
As a result of various natural disasters around Australia during the
last decade, several state and territory governments have conducted, or are
currently conducting, inquiries to examine ways in which the devastating
effects of similar events could be avoided or minimised in the future.
Recent inquiries into natural disasters in Australia include the Australian
Capital Territory (ACT) Coroner's inquests and inquiry into the Canberra
firestorm in January 2003 and the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission
(the Royal Commission) examining the deadly fires in that state on
7 February 2009. At present, the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry
is examining the floods that occurred during December 2010 and January 2011.
In their final reports, both the ACT Coroner and the Royal Commission
made recommendations regarding emergency communications and warning systems.
The interim report of the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry,
released on 1 August 2011, also made numerous recommendations pertinent to
The reports handed down in the ACT, Victoria and Queensland shared
common themes about the use and effectiveness of emergency communications. All
of the reports emphasised the need for interoperability of emergency service
organisation telecommunication systems, and recommended improvements to the way
in which the public is warned about an impending emergency (including the
timeliness of and information contained within these warnings). These issues
are discussed in subsequent chapters of this report.
A more detailed summary of the inquiries into these recent natural
disasters is at Appendix 3.
Radiocommunications in Australia
The Radiocommunications Act 1992
The legislative framework for the management of radiofrequency spectrum in
Australia, including spectrum plans and frequency band plans, spectrum
licensing and apparatus licences, is provided by the Radiocommunications Act
1992 (the Act).
The objects of the Act, relevant to emergency communications and the
current inquiry, are as follows:
...to provide for management of the radiofrequency spectrum
in order to:
(a) maximise, by ensuring the
efficient allocation and use of the spectrum, the overall public benefit
derived from using the radiofrequency spectrum;
(b) make adequate provision of the
for use by agencies involved in
the defence or national security of Australia, law enforcement or the provision
of emergency services; and
(ii) for use by other public or
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (the ACMA) is responsible
for the regulation of broadcasting, the internet, radiocommunications and
With respect to radiocommunications, the ACMA plans and manages radiofrequency
spectrum in Australia. It is also responsible for compliance with licensing
requirements and investigating complaints of interference to services.
ESOs' reliance on radiocommunications
Emergency Service Organisations (ESOs) rely on radiocommunications for
their voice and data communication needs. ESOs use narrowband radiofrequency
spectrum for voice (for example two-way radio) communication systems, while
broadband radiofrequency spectrum is needed for data communication such as
mobile internet to send photographs, videos and maps. Due to the growing range
of technologies, capabilities and services available via broadband, ESOs are
becoming increasingly reliant on data communications. ESOs particularly rely on
radiocommunications during emergency situations.
Interoperability of ESO voice radiocommunications
At its meeting on 7 December 2009, the Council of Australian Governments
(COAG) endorsed the National Framework to Improve Government
The framework provides a set of guiding principles and key areas of work to
enhance the interoperability of ESO voice radiocommunications over the period
The framework defines radiocommunications as 'mobile radio networks' that:
- allow one user to simultaneously talk to many other users, which
is critical in broadcasting warnings such as the need to evacuate a collapsing
- have a restricted number of users, which makes radio networks
less likely to congest in emergency conditions; and
- transmit at relatively high power, which provides a wider area of
coverage per cell and which makes radio networks less impacted by power
The framework states:
Mobile radio is the fundamental basis for communications in
emergency situations, a situation that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable
However, agencies responding to emergencies are often
hampered by low levels of radiocommunications interoperability to effectively communicate
with other agencies within their jurisdiction or other jurisdictions.
This Framework provides a basis to use current and future
opportunities, including the current review of government spectrum allocation
to address shortfalls in emergency communications that have existed for over 35
The National Framework suggests an indicative ten-year
timeframe to allow jurisdictions sufficient time to align technical requirements
with their procurement cycles and thus significantly mitigate any cost of
change. Most jurisdictions are already either implementing or planning their
next technology refresh and all jurisdictions will most likely do so in the
Possible future spectrum allocations
A note on spectrum nomenclature
Different nomenclature for spectrum was used by submitters during the
course of the inquiry. In particular, submitters frequently referred to 800 MHz
spectrum. This 800 MHz spectrum is currently being considered by the ACMA as
part of its review of the "900 MHz band".
This report uses "700 MHz band" to refer to 694–803 MHz
spectrum and "800 and 900 MHz bands" to refer to 803–890 MHz together
with 890–960 MHz spectrum.
The "digital dividend"
The switchover from analog to digital free-to-air television in
Australia (due to be completed by 31 December 2013) will result in
radiofrequency spectrum previously used for analogue television becoming vacant.
This spectrum, from 694 to 820 MHz, is referred to as the "digital
dividend" and falls largely within the 700 MHz band.
Following public consultation in response to a green paper, the Federal
Government announced on 24 June 2010 that '126 MHz of contiguous spectrum in
the frequency range 694 to 820 MHz inclusive' would be released.
The government plans to auction the digital dividend spectrum during the second
half of 2012 'allowing successful bidders ample time to plan and deploy the
next generation networks that are likely to utilise the spectrum'.
The process for releasing the digital dividend spectrum involves:
- switchover—converting free-to-air television services from
analogue to digital signals. Once this conversion is complete, the analogue
signals will be switched off and the parts of the spectrum formerly used for
analogue transmissions will become available for alternative uses.
- re-stack—clearing digital broadcasting services from the digital
dividend frequency range and reorganising them more efficiently in the
remaining broadcasting spectrum below 694 MHz. This will enable the 694–820 MHz
spectrum to be made available to new users. The restack is expected to be
completed by the end of 2014.
- re-allocation—packaging and auctioning of the digital dividend
spectrum for new services.
The ACMA is responsible for allocating the digital dividend spectrum. As
part of this process, the ACMA conducted consultation on the configuration and
allocation of the digital dividend spectrum between October and December 2010.
The purpose of this consultation 'was to obtain input from stakeholders on
issues that would influence the ACMA's approach to the configuration and allocation
of the band'.
The draft recommendations in the ACMA's Draft spectrum reallocation
recommendations for the 700 MHz digital dividend and 2.5 GHz bands: information
paper stated '[t]wo 45 MHz blocks of spectrum, with frequency boundaries
703–803 MHz' would be reallocated between 2 November 2011 and 31 December 2014.
The digital dividend spectrum from 806–820 MHz would 'be considered under [the
ACMA's] 900 MHz review'.
On 27 May 2011, the ACMA announced it would proceed with an auction of
new spectrum licences in the 700 MHz band (and the 2.5 GHz band) in late 2012.
The ACMA has not yet announced the exact date for the auction, or the number of
allocations to be auctioned.
The ACMA's 900 MHz band review
In May 2011, the ACMA commenced the public part of its review of the
900 MHz band. The review will examine spectrum from 806 to 960 MHz excluding
825–845 paired with 870–890 MHz (these segments are currently allocated to the
cellular mobile telephone service (CMTS) under spectrum licensing).
This is known as the "900 MHz band review" even though it includes
consideration of portions of the 800 MHz band.
Current spectrum allocations in the 800 and 900 MHz bands in Australia are
shown in Figure 1.
1—Assignments in the 800 and 900 MHz bands (September 2010)
Source: courtesy of the ACMA.
According to the ACMA, the purpose of the review is threefold:
...parts of the band are unused or
lightly used due to allocations to outmoded technologies. The [800 and 900 MHz
bands are] ‘prime spectrum’ because of its ability to carry signals over long
distances, penetrate buildings and carry large amounts of data. It is therefore
important to make it possible for the band to transition to its highest value
use to achieve the maximum public benefit.
- This band sits just above the
broadcasting services bands historically used for high powered television
services. Recent Australian Government decisions to put to market the so-called
"digital dividend" spectrum (694–820 MHz) raises issues around the
manner in which the adjoining spectrum is currently used and allocated. This is
particularly the case because...the current draft plan for a harmonised [International
Telecommunication Union] Region 3
digital dividend arrangement only extends to 803 MHz with a 3 MHz guard band
extending to 806 MHz, where as the Australian digital dividend extends to
820 MHz. This arrangement provides a unique opportunity to consider
expanding the [800 and 900 MHz bands] to facilitate new services.
- The 890–915
MHz paired with 935–960 MHz segments are currently allocated to the digital
cellular mobile telephone service (CMTS). The bands are currently planned for
[global system for mobile], whereas internationally there is a move to
"refarm" this spectrum to better facilitate 3G and 4G technologies.
Domestically, current users of the band are already implementing 3G
technologies in these segments. Therefore, it is timely to review whether
current arrangements are still appropriate as services migrate towards newer
As part of the review of 800 and 900 MHz bands, the ACMA is considering
'the possibility of using the 900 MHz expansion band [between 806–820 MHz] for
public protection and disaster relief (PPDR) radiocommunication systems'. The ACMA explains:
Through the [Asia-Pacific Telecommunity Wireless Group (AWG)],
the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity [(APT)] is currently investigating possible harmonisation
of frequency bands for PPDR radiocommunication systems in [ultra high
frequency] bands. In particular, the APT is considering the 806–824 MHz paired
with 851– 869 MHz bands for harmonised PPDR across some countries in Region 3.
These segments are already allocated for PPDR systems in some Region 3 countries,
including Korea. The PPDR systems currently used internationally in this
segment are based on narrowband technologies. It has been proposed that the AWG
also consider developing harmonised plans to enable broadband technologies
based on work currently underway in [the Third Generation Partnership Project].
Parts of the band are also used for PPDR systems in the US.
The 806–809 MHz paired with 851–854 MHz segments are designated for use by
local, regional and state public safety agencies under guidelines developed by
the National Public Safety Planning Advisory Committee (NPSPAC). The 809–815
MHz paired with 854–860 MHz segments and the 815–816 paired with 860–861 MHz
segments are designated for public safety using non-cellular specialised mobile
Should the expansion of two-frequency services using the 900
MHz expansion band be pursued, there is potential for PPDR systems to use the
band. An allocation to PPDR in this band would be particularly attractive if it
is designated as a harmonised frequency band for PPDR radiocommunications
across other Region 3 countries.
The future use of the digital dividend (700 MHz band) or spectrum in the
800 and 900 MHz bands for PPDR radiocommunications was explored at length
during the inquiry. This issue is discussed in Chapter 2.
Public Safety Mobile Broadband
The Public Safety Mobile Broadband Steering Committee was established in
May 2011 by the Attorney-General's Department and the Department of Broadband,
Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) to:
- report to commonwealth, state and territory ministers and the
Standing Council for Police and Emergency Management (SCPEM) on the most
effective and efficient way for Australia's public safety agencies to obtain a
reliable and robust mobile broadband capability that meets the operational
requirements of ESOs, and the potential for allocation of radio-frequency in
this regard; and
- work with the Australian Communications and Media Authority
(ACMA) as part of its review of the 805–890 MHz frequency range to identify a
suitable amount of spectrum necessary to meet foreseeable operational needs.
The Steering Committee is co-chaired by deputy secretaries from the
Attorney-General’s Department and DBCDE. Membership comprises senior
representatives from these departments, the ACMA and state and territory public
safety agencies including (but not limited to) the:
- Australia New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency (ANZPAA);
- Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council
- Council of Ambulance Authorities;
- National Counter-Terrorism Committee; and
- National Emergency Management Committee.
The Steering Committee will report to COAG through SCPEM by
29 February 2012.
Issues raised during the inquiry
Various issues were raised during the course of the inquiry, including:
- the availability of spectrum for use by emergency service
organisations (ESOs) for dedicated broadband PPDR radiocommunications,
specifically spectrum in the 700 MHz band versus the 800 and 900 MHz bands;
- the use and effectiveness of warnings in emergency situations,
including the role of television and radio broadcasters, and community
preparedness and responsibility; and
- the resilience and redundancy of communications infrastructure in
Each of these issues is discussed in greater detail in the following chapters
of this report.
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