The Productivity Commission has recommended that police, fire, and ambulance services use Telstra, Optus, or Vodafone mobile networks for their emergency mobile networks. But why do they need their own spectrum?

Why don’t emergency services have their own mobile network already?

When the Gillard government began the process of shutting down the analog TV networks to free up the lucrative 700MHz spectrum to be auctioned off for what is now Australia’s 4G networks in 2011, emergency services organisations pushed for a significant  portion of this spectrum — at least 20MHz — to be set aside for dedicated mobile broadband networks for emergency services.

The organisations didn’t get what they wanted in the end, despite 20MHz of the 700MHz spectrum sitting unused because the price was set higher than many of the telcos were expecting, and Vodafone decided to sit out of the auction process. Instead, a section of the 800MHz spectrum band was reserved for emergency networks.

Do emergency services have their own networks anywhere in Australia?

The decision not to give emergency services part of the 700MHz spectrum was slammed by then-Victorian premier Ted Ballieu, who said the decision would “put lives at risk”, but then-federal attorney-general Nicola Roxon said the problem was that the state governments — which were responsible for funding the building of the networks for the emergency services — had yet to put any funding on the table for these networks.

“I think this is really just a bit of political posturing from Mr Baillieu, who hasn’t put any financial commitment on the table to make sure that this dedicated spectrum becomes a reality to improve communications between emergency services personnel,” Roxon said in 2012.

While many of the states have dedicated voice networks in lower spectrum bands, none have yet any dedicated public safety mobile broadband, although the New South Wales and Victorian governments are investigating the possibility.

Why do emergency services need their own networks anyway?

Police, fire and ambulance services want their own networks for mobile broadband because demand on those networks will be infrequent, but critical. Emergency services personnel on the ground need to send and receive pictures, location information, mapping data and other information with little to no lag time.

Historically, using the commercial networks means competing with the rest of the public for bandwidth, and with over 30 million mobile services active in Australia — more than one for every person in the country today. In times of emergency, those commercial networks are often under strain. If you have ever struggled to upload a photo to Instagram or post to Facebook during a packed-out AFL match or concert at the MCG, you have experienced the kind of capacity issue emergency services face using commercial networks during times of crisis.

The problem is that for a population of Australia on a continent the size of Australia, building national mobile networks is expensive. Telstra, Optus and Vodafone have all invested billions in their 4G networks over the past few years alone. When the commercial telecommunications companies talk about the size of their network, they refer to covering upwards of 95% of the population, which is a much smaller percentage of Australia’s landmass.

The federal government’s decision to invest over $100 million in a mobile black spots program to subsidise the commercial telcos to build new towers in regional and remote areas also shows that there are significant gaps in the commercial networks today.

The conundrum facing governments for dedicated mobile broadband networks for emergency services is whether investing billions of dollars in a network that is used infrequently, but during highly critical situations, is worth the investment.

What is the most efficient way to ensure network access?

Elsewhere in the world, the United States, Canada and South Korea intend to build their own networks for emergency services broadband, while the United Kingdom and Belgium are looking to work with existing commercial mobile networks for priority access to their networks

In March then-treasurer Joe Hockey tasked the Productivity Commission to look at the most efficient and effective way to deliver public safety mobile broadband by 2020. The Productivity Commission’s draft report released yesterday found that the network should be a 4G network, and it canvassed four options:

  1. Building a standalone network;
  2. Making use of a hybrid (commercial and dedicated) network, but favouring the dedicated network (aka full hybrid);
  3. Making use of a hybrid network, but favouring the commercial network (aka partial hybrid); and
  4. Emergency services just using the commercial networks.

Building a purely dedicated network would cost a total of $6.1 billion, while using commercial networks would cost $2.1 billion, the commission found. Even the lowest-cost hybrid network would still cost over double the commercial option at $4.3 billion. It would take a long time to roll out the networks on their own, too, and the dedicated option would also not allow the network to scale up as demand grew on the dedicated networks, with commercial networks already upgrading their networks to meet demand, and spreading out that cost across their large customer bases.

The Productivity Commission argued that using the existing networks owned by Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone offered the most efficient, effective, and economical way to offer mobile broadband to emergency services, but said trials of the services should be considered. Telstra, for example, has a product called “LANES” which dedicates a section of its bandwidth for a specific purpose, such as emergency services. This would mean that congestion during times of network strain would be less of a concern for emergency services.

The Productivity Commission is expected to finalise its report by the end of the year.