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Carriers vs cops: Australia's spectrum conundrum

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Finally, there’s a much simpler question of the infrastructure itself.

The media was astonished at how well mobile infrastructure can survive some kinds of emergencies – the recent Brisbane floods and North Queensland cyclone, for example – but resilience is relative.

From an emergency services point of view, a mobile base station looks very interdependent and fragile: it can't survive long without mains power, and it can't communicate at all without backhaul.

If a disaster knocks out some base stations, others nearby can take up the load – but at the cost of bandwidth (since speed falls with increasing distance) and congestion (since more users are crowded onto the same tower).

The emergency services' preference for managing their own networks is both prudent and comprehensible. Their need would likely be for fewer base stations than a mobile network, each covering a greater area. Even sub-megabit network speeds would look lavish by comparison to today's voice-only networks, and they know how many personnel any given base station needs to support.

So if I ignore what looks, from my vantage point, to be media barracking for the telecoms industry because that's the point of view we most readily recognise, the debate appears almost irreconcilable. Emergency services can't compete with telcos in an open auction, and even if those carrier networks could serve all their purposes, citizens would probably object to emergency services' requirements, even if carriers didn't.

If it weren't for the fact that I don't know enough about the constraints of spectrum allocation, I would argue that the problem is administrative. Why was Australia's TV spectrum redrawn so that the digital dividend has an odd-man-out at the tail of the spectrum?

This, however, ignores the complexities of spectrum policy. The ACMA has to reconcile engineering, budget and political demands of various powerful lobbies (broadcasters as well as carriers).

Which leads to a question: did the government make too many concessions to TV broadcasters in the digital TV changeover? In the era of "new media", people are watching less TV than they did formerly, yet part of the digital TV tradeoff has been to give the broadcasters extra channels.

Those extra channels increasingly seem like dead ducks. Instead of exciting new content, they seem to be turning into rerun channels or the home of programmes that don't suit the "flagship" channels.

Perhaps the emergency services' needs would be better served by a rethink of the needs of broadcasters rather than a stoush with carriers. ®

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