Best of 2020: No room for communications complacency in the 'new normal'

Australian Radio Communications Industry Association

By Ian Miller*
Wednesday, 30 December, 2020

Best of 2020: No room for communications complacency in the 'new normal'

Australia’s public safety communications need to be treated as a single ecosystem, with full spectrum allocations and proper funding.

Australia is going through a time of significant change, brought on by the natural disasters of the past summer and the health crisis that has changed our world. The disruption is expected to remain significant for quite some time. On a personal level and as the Executive Officer for ARCIA, I can see some of the changes on multiple levels. However, when I look at the projections of what will supposedly come from the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, I do have serious concerns.

Although much of the discussion has been around the extent of natural disaster preparation our agencies conduct each year, the overall impact has been that there has been too little done and it has been done too late. One cannot help but wonder what effects successive governments (both Commonwealth and state) have had with their continued press for ‘productivity gains’ being the underlying formula for wage increases. After all, ‘productivity gain’ is just another term for doing the same amount of work with fewer resources — how often can you continue to squeeze the lemon and expect to get more juice?

The end result of continual demands for productivity gains will mean that work is not completed properly. This is true across our forest management and public safety agencies, as well as within government agencies in general, including the ACMA.

From an ARCIA perspective, we worked with the University of Melbourne Centre for Disaster Management and Public Safety (CDMPS), the Australian Critical Communications Forum (ACCF) and the International Centre on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) on a detailed joint submission to the Royal Commission. Geoff Spring, ARCIA Projects Manager and Senior Adviser to CDMPS, was the lead author for the submission. He pointed out that multiple recommendations have been presented over recent years to parliamentary enquiries, ACMA discussion papers and other forums, highlighting the need for emergency communications to be considered as one complete ecosystem.

Geoff has been invited to present to the Royal Commission, so the submission may yet get serious consideration. When you read the submission you suddenly realise that many of the communications issues that are evident today have been discussed at length over many years. In some cases, important recommendations from Commonwealth parliamentary committees have never even been considered due to disruption from frequent political upheavals.

Information presented to the Royal Commission has highlighted the issues that arise with cross-border cooperation — agencies use different radio equipment or frequencies on either side of the border, so working together under disaster conditions can be dangerous.

If we look back to the 9/11 tragedies in the US, they had similar interoperability problems. Introducing a national mobile broadband network was how they planned to overcome those issues, and so out of that disaster FirstNet was created — a mobile data system that is now operating across the nation. A very large number of individual public safety agencies are using it and gaining the dual benefits of better interoperability and increased efficiency through mobile data use. Maybe the Royal Commission can, to some extent, help send Australia along the same path as FirstNet — we certainly need some national leadership and direction to make it happen.

Learning from experience

Back around 2013, ARCIA was invited to attend some of the early meetings for discussions on setting up a public safety mobile broadband (PSMB) system for Australia. Present at those meetings were representatives from all states and territories, as well as representatives from the ACMA and Commonwealth agencies. That was a significant year — as well as having meetings to discuss their needs, the ACMA had surveyed the public safety agencies across all jurisdictions prior to that time to seek information on how they projected they would utilise mobile data, along with estimates of how much data traffic there might be.

In the seven years since then, I do not think that there have been any further surveys done on the amount of data that might be involved. But anecdotal indications from the USA indicate that agencies who first signed up to use FirstNet are now seeing data use significantly higher than expected, and they signed up within the past two years — so imagine the changes since 2013. More on that shortly.

Since 2013, ARCIA has been an active contributor to the information pool for the PSMB working groups, and we believe very strongly that having international input and advice is essential. In 2017 the ARCIA committee was invited to send a representative to the inaugural FirstNet International Forum in Washington, DC. ARCIA was, in fact, the only non-government organisation initially invited to attend.

The decision was made to send a representative to the forum at the Association’s expense, and I was fortunate enough to be selected. To achieve better outcomes, we were able to encourage some Australian Government staff to also attend, and the forum was an eye-opener for us all.

Since then Comms Connect and ARCIA have combined to foster international input from jurisdictions including the USA, Canada, South Korea, Finland, the United Kingdom and the European Commission. We believe that only by adopting recognised standards — or, where required, working with international bodies to help create public safety standards — can Australia get the real benefits of an integrated public safety ecosystem.

In conjunction with Comms Connect, ARCIA has worked to bring international speakers to the conferences in Melbourne and Sydney each year, to incorporate as much knowledge and international experience into the local discussions as possible. The Comms Connect organisers are to be commended for the efforts (and expense) involved in doing this on multiple occasions. We can only assume these efforts are having some effect on the discussions led by the local working groups — very little information is made available to industry in general, and we suspect that the information flow to our frontline first responders is probably also as scant.

Of course, there has been progress on the PSMB front — we just don’t hear a lot about it. We have to have faith in those involved, even though we may be disappointed at the lack of feedback on our efforts.

Following on from the Productivity Commission enquiry in 2014, the recommendation was that the proposed PSMB system be operated over the top of the public carriers’ mobile data networks — a reasonable suggestion given the size of our country and our sparse population. It should be kept in mind, though, that the expected utilisation of the system was based on the ACMA data traffic forecast, already over two years old at that stage.

Spectrum problems

There are a couple of things about the whole PSMB process that are of concern. The first is that the process has, to a large extent, been run on a part-time basis — there has not been a dedicated team of personnel whose primary role is implementation of the planning and who can drive the process. This is almost shades of the ‘productivity gains’ concept again; trying to get more done without more resources.

The second concern is that back in late 2018, the NSW Telco Authority released a request for proposal (RFP) for a pilot system for PSMB evaluation. To date there has still been no public release of the results of that RFP, and more than 18 months later nothing seems to have happened — ‘secret bureaucrats’ business’ maybe?

As well as the recommendation from the Productivity Commission, the ACMA as part of its spectrum planning role had decided that the data survey done on the projected usage of mobile data would reflect a need for an allocation of only 3 MHz of spectrum for PSMB operation. However, they decided to set aside 5 MHz (in dual-mode format of 2 x 5 MHz segments) in the 800 MHz band. That allocation still exists in theory today, and is part of the 850 MHz band that is presently being reviewed prior to allocation by auction to the public carriers (supposedly later this year). Whenever the PSMB working group (which represents all public safety agencies around our nation) has suggested to the Commonwealth that it would perhaps be wise to reserve a full LTE segment of 2 x 10 MHz of spectrum to cater for future usage, the response has been along the lines of ‘only if you are prepared to pay for it’.

Yes, you read that correctly. At a time when we are having a Royal Commission into what needs to be done to try to ensure that we don’t have any repeats of the disasters of this past year, the Commonwealth is putting the future needs of our public safety agencies behind the need to generate funds for the Commonwealth Treasury.

This is being done with little or no consideration of the changes in operating format or advances in technology that have occurred since 2013. Has there been any realistic recent review of the projected demand or usage of mobile data by our public safety agencies? Have the Commonwealth or the PSMB working group sought updated information from any of the many organisations now using FirstNet in the USA to validate future planning?

Protecting the ecosystem

Since 2013, ARCIA has been working to help develop the best possible PSMB service for Australia … which has been our only reason for being involved to such an extent. When we talk with our international contacts, the general consensus is that having industry involved in the information loop has been an advantage; with FirstNet it was a very public process and conducted very much in the public domain. Yet for the past couple of years we have found that the information supply with governments in Australia has been a one-way street.

Alas, our various governments seem to think that by talking to industry they might give someone an advantage over others in the supply chain — they hide behind ‘probity’ claims — and the process is basically being done in secret. Yet maybe the recent issues we have seen with politicians in several layers of government might be an indication that having processes open to public scrutiny, and seeking information from every source, might be a better way to go about things?

As an association, and also as individual citizens of our lucky country, ARCIA hopes and expects that the findings of the Royal Commission will begin to address the existing shortcomings of the communications ecosystem — even to recognise that it is actually an ecosystem would be a start. We would then also sincerely hope that the Commonwealth would take a serious look at what the future might be for public safety communications in Australia and reserve a proper segment of spectrum for public safety use … and that should be at least 2 x 10 MHz segments.

Our children, and the young adults of today, will expect our future public safety agencies and first responders to have equipment and facilities at least in line with what the general public uses every day. To do that they will need spectrum. If it isn’t reserved or allocated now it will be gone for at least 15 years, or probably more.

In summary, we expect — no, we actually need — to have our public safety communications (including two-way radio, mobile data, the Triple Zero service and the Internet of Life Saving Things) treated as a single ecosystem. And we also need as a matter of priority for the Commonwealth to reserve suitable spectrum for PSMB, at no cost to the user agencies.

If we don’t do these things now will we still be talking about them in another seven years, and possibly after many more lives are lost than has already happened this past summer? As the Nike catchphrase goes, let’s just do it.

*Ian Miller is Executive Officer of the Australian Radio Communications Industry Association.

Image credit: ©

This article was first published on 29 June 2020

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