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Carriers vs cops: Australia's spectrum conundrum

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Emergency services' position: we need more than voice

The position of the emergency services is simply that their existing radio networks support almost nothing but voice communications.

Perusing the Australian Communications and Media Authority's radio licence database supports this view. NSW Police, for example, has mostly 10 kHz and 16 kHz chunks of spectrum in the 400 MHz band. Whether it's important or not, it's certainly accurate for them to say that this spectrum doesn’t support any kind of high-speed data.

That spectrum constrains the applications and the content they're able to use: computer apps have to be able to live with very low data rates, and video just can't happen.

Without new spectrum, emergency services have only two options: abandon any ambition to deploy high-bandwidth applications, or gain access to spectrum held by carriers.

Can't we share?

The industry answer – one that's supported by much of the tech press in Australia – is the second: as proposed by John Stanton, emergency services should simply negotiate spectrum access with the carriers, perhaps under some kind of regulatory regime.

There are, however, problems with this proposal – more, perhaps, than are immediately obvious.

First, let's look at the modes of communication emergency services use. While it's true that all three arms – police, fire, and ambulance services – are heavy users of mobile phones, these only provide one-to-one communications. Emergency services also need broadcasts over (moderately) open channels.

While mobile technologies support broadcast modes, emergency services would vastly prefer that their broadcasts weren't over a public network. I would suppose that carriers would also prefer not to have to worry about whether they could support the broadcast requirements of Australia’s various state police, fire and ambulance agencies, along with federal agencies.

There's also the question of access arrangements: under what circumstances would the emergency services be able to require that carrier networks are turned over to them to cope with an emergency?

At one end of severity, I can easily imagine that using an LTE device to transmit video to a coordination centre is sufficient for police and ambulance to handle the fallout of a bad road accident. However, what level network access would suffice for (say) a major cyclone, bushfire or flood?

At some point, emergency services would argue – probably reasonably – that their operations take precedence over private communications, and that they therefore require exclusive network access.

Exclusivity has its problems, though. Drawing the line between minor and major emergencies is just one. There's also the question of what communications individual citizens need in an emergency.

The combination of personal communications and social media, while perhaps less important than the massing of emergency resources, has proven powerful in emergencies, both to help disseminate real information about conditions on the ground, and to help people cope with emergencies (for instance, by checking on friends and family without needing to wait for central authorities to find and report on missing persons).

If an entire network were turned over to emergency services, the citizens' interpersonal communications is lost; yet that seems a more-than-likely scenario if spectrum is only available to the telcos.

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