Emergency services need 21st-century comms
This is an edited version of a submission made by the Police Federation of Australia to all major political parties in the run-up to the 2 July federal election.
The Police Federation of Australia (PFA) launched its Three Point Plan for Better National Security on October 2, 2015. It was produced in the wake of the terrorist killing of Curtis Cheng outside NSW police headquarters in Parramatta.
At the heart of the issues raised in that PFA document is the concept of collaboration across all jurisdictions.
The plan proposes complementary measures designed to assist all police to deal collectively with the dangers posed by terrorism and other serious and organised crime.
Such measures include upgrading the Australian Criminal Intelligence database and the Australian Law Enforcement Intelligence Network via a new National Criminal Intelligence System (NCIS), and the establishment of a National Case Management System.
The third part of the plan is the allocation of 20 MHz of 700 MHz-band spectrum to public safety agencies for 21st-century mobile broadband communications.
An interoperable public safety mobile broadband capability would clearly benefit our police forces and emergency services. They could move from their last-century radio-only communications to current-century mobile broadband communications across a secure national network.
This would enable them to communicate across state borders and agencies and share:
- Firearms records
- Geographic information
- Weather forecasts
- Other information necessary to deal with mission-critical incidents.
Examples of mission-critical incidents are the Martin Place siege, the Black Saturday bushfires (Victoria), the Queensland floods and in-building emergencies such as multi-storey fires.
The PFA and other emergency-service providers made submissions to the 2011 Senate Committee inquiry into emergency communications.
The committee unanimously recommended that the “Commonwealth Government allocate sufficient spectrum for dedicated broadband public protection and disaster relief (PPDR) radio-communications in Australia”.
Two years later, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Law Enforcement’s Inquiry into Spectrum for Public Safety Mobile Broadband recommended that:
“… an appropriate portion of the proceeds derived from the auction of spectrum to fund the allocation of 20 MHZ of spectrum in the 700 MHZ band for the purposes of a national public safety mobile broadband network.”
And, in the in the lead-up to the 2013 federal election, the Coalition committed to conducting:
“… a rigorous cost-benefit analysis into the question of emergency services wireless communications and consider the most cost effective means of upgrading Australia’s law enforcement and emergency services mobile broadband network.”
This led to the Productivity Commission (PC) study into Public Safety Mobile Broadband, the final report of which was released in January 2016.
The PC report considered the cheapest way to deliver a system working on the assumption that the Public Safety Agencies (PSAs) would build an entirely new network.
This assumption is highly flawed and the PC report has ignored the benefits to public safety agencies and the Australian community.
The government has not yet responded to the report but the PFA intends to move on this issue in order to benefit public safety agencies and the Australian community. The model will make use of the substantial infrastructure the PSAs already have in place.
In regional and remote areas, the two big carriers have more extensive networks, enabling PSAs to leverage off existing carrier networks.
However, as recent outages of major carriers have demonstrated, sole reliance on these networks could put the police, emergency services and the public at risk.
So far, neither major party has articulated how it would deal with the 2012 decision of the Australian Communications and Media Authority to set aside 10 MHz of spectrum from the 800 MHz band.
The PFA calls on the next federal government to progress the public safety mobile broadband issue with an allocation of 20 MHz of 700 MHz band spectrum to public-safety agencies as a priority for 21st-century communications.
The best option
Clearly, a shared spectrum arrangement, working closely with carrier networks, is the best option.
Ownership of the spectrum should be with the PSAs. They would be able to ‘expand’ into other resource blocks within the carrier’s spectrum when needed.
Conversely, in cases in which the PSAs were not using the spectrum, the carrier would have access to it improving their services. This is particularly beneficial in regional areas where PSA use may be intermittent, and it meets ACMA’s requirement for ‘highest value use’.
Other advantages to this model are:
- The use of PSA infrastructure to provide greater regional coverage at lower cost.
- Possible use of the ‘blackspot’ program to build out networks with the PSA’s chosen carrier to enhance emergency and regional coverage.
- Money that would be otherwise spent duplicating a network could be used to ‘harden’ and expand an existing one.
- Carrier aggregation means other bands, such as 1800 MHz, could be used in cases of severe congestion.
However, a recent bid by Vodafone to buy the bulk of the 700 MHZ spectrum left unsold in the 2013 auction could jeopardise this strategy. Such a process taking place at this stage concerns the PFA, and we are aware that the other carriers have raised concerns with government.
Any decision on the Vodafone proposal should be delayed until the critical issue of the allocation of spectrum to states and territories for a national public safety mobile broadband (PSMB) capability is properly considered and resolved before consideration of any other commercial proposals.
Funding for the Three Point Plan for Better National Security is a matter of immediately adopting a national unexplained wealth regime, under which criminals would pay for these state-of-the-art policing technologies.
Intelligence, surveillance, good communications, collaboration, and the effective management of criminal investigations and prosecutions are essential to deal with terrorism and all other serious and organised crime.
To break through the deadlock on these vital measures of national security, Australia needs a united front led by the federal government.
We believe that a federal government has no greater obligation to its citizens than to preserve the values which underpin our open, democratic society.
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