By Paul Hemsley and Julian Bajkowski
Leaders in Coalition held states have condemned the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s decision to give police, fire and ambulance services just half of the spectrum allocation they lobbied the federal regulator for.
New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria today all slammed the regulator’s decision, further inflaming the cross-jurisdictional row over whether the Commonwealth’s lucrative sale of valuable analogue TV airwaves will saddle state emergency services with suboptimal bandwidth and big switchover costs.
States had put their hand out for 20MHz of spectrum in the 700MHz range, but instead received 10MHz of spectrum in the 800MHz range. A number of emergency services representatives have argued that 10Mhz is insufficient for a realistic level of traffic generated by modern digital radio systems.
Queensland has hit out the hardest with the northern state’s Minister for Police and Community Safety, Jack Dempsey branding the allocation as an attempt by Canberra to cash in on catastrophes.
“Not only does the Federal Government want to offer limited communication capability, they also want to profit from disasters by charging Queensland access to the frequency,” Mr Dempsey said.
He said the federal government expects Queensland to sign up to the program before being given a price.
“Essentially it’s like going into a car dealership to buy a family sedan only to be given a two door hatch and being asked to sign the contract without knowing the price,” Mr Dempsey said.
Mr Dempsey said the Queensland government wants to ensure the federal government provides frontline officers with free access to “appropriate lifesaving communication spectrum” before anything is signed.
“Queensland along with other States will already have to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to establish hardware for the system,” he said.
Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu similarly wasted no time in tipping a bucket on ACMA’s, labelling the spectrum decision “completely unacceptable”.
“It fails to provide Victoria’s emergency services with the capacity they need,” Mr Baillieu said, adding the Prime Minister should put the Victorian community and the emergency services first and “simply overturn this announcement”.
With NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell overseas, Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner said his government is disappointed at ACMA’s decision to deny state emergency services the spectrum they need and cautioned that there would likely be additional costs on essential life-saving services.
“The NSW Government will now consult with other states before responding in detail,” Mr Stoner said.
The Western Australian state government is yet to respond to Government News’ request for comment, however Premier Colin Barnett was previously a joint signatory to letter to the Prime Minister with his colleagues from NSW, Queensland and Victoria that said that two bandwidth allocations of 10Mhz should be the “absolute minimum”.
However there are few signs of Canberra caving in to the conservative states’ chorus of criticism.
Federal Attorney General Nicola Roxon immediately hit back at the various accusations and said the Mr Dempsey “should roll up his sleeves and get to work on a plan for Queensland’s emergency services” instead of playing politics.
“The Commonwealth is investing more than $100 million through this announcement. Mr Dempsey is yet to commit a single dollar to build the infrastructure required so Queensland can take advantage of this newly allocated spectrum,” Ms Roxon fumed.
Australia’s chief law officer also defended the integrity of the communications regulator, saying that “independent experts at the ACMA have identified a dedicated band of emergency services spectrum that meets the needs of Queensland authorities to respond faster and more effectively to disasters.”
“This capacity can be scaled up so that the emergency services can operate as they need to in the event of a major disaster,” Ms Roxon said.
But behind the bluster, the issue of money – or how much the cash strapped Commonwealth might be prepared to dole out to mollify the states – is increasingly looking like the sticking point.
“The price of the spectrum is still to be negotiated with the states and territories,” Ms Roxon told Government News.
The head of the ACMA, Chris Chapman is also hitting back at the accusations of profiteering from some Premiers.
Mr Chapman told ABC radio that the comments including Mr Baillieu’s were “deeply offensive claims, to the point of being reckless”
“We, as the regulator, have claims put on us for spectrum from all manner of organisations, from all manner of stakeholders. Often, we find that they have sub-optimal knowledge, they're being misinformed by equipment providers, they might be seeking to negotiate elsewhere on matters of price or quantity or what we have offered is agencies the ability to create a deep and layered capability,” Mr Chapman said
Beneficiaries of the spectrum carve-up – namely big mobile carriers like Telstra and Optus – are certainly not complaining.
Mobile carrier lobby group, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, is backing ACMA’s decision and claims it “provides regionally-harmonised spectrum” for emergency services organisations.
Chief executive of AMTA, Chris Althaus, said the allocations also fell within “a spectrum band earmarked by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for public protection and disaster relief in the Asia-Pacific region.”
“AMTA considers the Federal Government’s allocation of 10 MHz of 800MHz spectrum to be adequate, especially considering that Australian carriers have launched national 3G networks based on this level of spectrum allocation,” a statement from the group said.
Mr Althaus has also drawn attention to whether an entirely separate emergency network is the best use of resources and money.
“Following the Federal Government’s spectrum announcement AMTA notes the need for careful cost considerations, given the significant sums of billions of dollars required to build, operate and maintain a standalone public safety network,” he said.
It is understood that some Coalition elements are also deeply ambivalent about funding requirements for a new discreet emergency services network, despite the outcries of the states.
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