Australia's PSMB is progressing
There is light at the end of the tunnel for the provision of public safety mobile broadband for Australia.
A few days before Christmas 2017, the federal government established a new super-department called the Department of Home Affairs, which took on the responsibility for border protection, security, policing, emergency management and public safety communications at the national level.
Part of its remit is the facilitation of a national public safety mobile broadband (PSMB) communications network with states and territories, a capability that is already being implemented in several other advanced economies and which many have argued is long overdue in Australia.
Attendees at the Comms Connect conference in Sydney last week were given an update on efforts to establish such a network, during a panel session attended by industry and government experts, including Luke Brown, from the Department of Home Affairs. Brown has been given the responsibility for overseeing the body of work that is happening between the states, territories and the Commonwealth, to progress a PSMB capability in Australia.
“What I’ve seen in the six months since the establishment of the Department, has, I think, been very positive for issues like the one we’re talking about today,” said Brown. “There is now a focal point inside the Australian Government, focused in a very direct way… on issues of security and emergency management.”
Brown acknowledged that PSMB has been an issue that has been kicked around within governments in Australia for close to a decade, but said that progress is being made.
“We’ve been through a lot of processes to get to where I think we are now,” he said, adding that “I think in the last 18 months or so, there’s probably been more progress made on public safety mobile broadband in Australia than had been made in the eight or so years leading into that.”
Brown said that a turning point came last year when Australian representatives undertook some overseas fact-finding missions and struck up good relationships with “like-minded partners” in FirstNet in the USA, as well as in the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea and Europe. Brown said that when the Australian delegation returned from Washington last year, “the advice that we were putting to governments at that time, collectively, was, ‘We’re behind the eight ball. Our Five Eyes partners are well and truly ahead of us, so we’ve got to pick up our game.’”
But he went on to say that, having just attended a Public Safety Communication Europe meeting in Brussels, “I’m really pleased to say… that I think, internationally, Australia and its consideration of this issue in government has well and truly caught up.”
Brown said that there is now a national consensus around a set of 10 national objectives for a PSMB capability that has been endorsed at the highest levels — ie, the Council of Australian Governments, or COAG, level — which “is no mean feat at all”.
“We also, with the help of some very learned people in the Bell Laboratories in the US, prepared a set of high-level requirements which for the first time really do describe… what those requirements are that our agencies [need],” he said.
“So we’ve got a set of national objectives, we’ve got a set of high-level requirements.”
Around the same time as the Department of Home Affairs was created, an RFI addressing those objectives and requirements was put out to market. “I personally was remarkably overwhelmed by the response to that request for information,” said Brown. “What came forward were a number of ways the governments could go. It really did become quite clear that, pragmatically, there is an ability within Australia for an end-to-end capability, and there is an ability probably for something that would be akin to some form of what I refer to as a commercial hybrid arrangement, which is a multicarrier arrangement — effectively an MVNO carrier model plus RAN.
“So in that 12 months, we worked out what we want, we described what we want in a way people can understand, we’ve gone to market as a bit of a first phase just to get that information, and we have then started a conversation between governments about how we might [implement PSMB],” he added.
Brown said that the various governments are working very hard behind the scenes to progress the PSMB project, but acknowledged that there hasn’t been a great deal of information forthcoming since the RFI process was put into the market.
“Please don’t in any way read into that that governments have gone quiet on this — they certainly haven’t,” he said. “We are working very hard pulling together options… that deal with, amongst other things, issues around spectrum and other considerations that we need to be factoring in.”
Brown said that the aim within the partner governments is to have some form of national arrangement by the end of 2018.
“I’m relatively confident, based on the really effective relationships that have been forged between the Commonwealth and the states, and certainly those initial interactions with industry, that we’ll get there,” he said.
Brown added that industry should keep an eye out for an imminent approach to market for conducting a ‘proof of concept’ demonstration for a commercial hybrid solution, subject to governments finalising their position for a national model as well as an implementation timetable.
In summarising the situation, Brown said, “We’re now ahead of certain countries that we were well and truly behind. That’s a good thing. We’ve got ourselves organised within governments [and] are all now speaking in very similar language. We’re determined and committed to working very closely with industry to deliver a meaningful outcome.”
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