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ACMA focuses on future of mobile broadband spectrum

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Australia’s spectrum regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, has refreshed its strategy for addressing the growth in mobile broadband capacity in a discussion paper released today, Beyond 2020 – A spectrum management strategy to address the growth in mobile broadband capacity (‘Beyond 2020’).

The paper seeks industry feedback on the ACMA’s medium and longer term planning approaches to address rising demand for mobile broadband services. Following ACMA research commissioned last year identifying a $33.8 billion increase in Australia’s economic activity in 2013 resulting from mobile broadband, Beyond 2020 overhauls the ACMA’s overall strategy on mobile broadband planning, last articulated in its 2011 strategic document Towards 2020—Future spectrum requirements for mobile broadband (‘Towards 2020’).

‘For over a decade, the need to accommodate growth in mobile broadband traffic has been the biggest driver of changes in the use of radiofrequency spectrum,’ said ACMA Chairman, Chris Chapman. ‘And because mobile broadband often favours bands that are heavily encumbered due to a range of reasons (including favourable propagation characteristics), how we continue to accommodate future growth will be of vital interest to other industry sectors and users that also critically depend on continuing access to fit-for-purpose spectrum.’

Although there is considerable continuity between the 2011 and 2015 papers in so far as Beyond 2020 asserts the need to use improved technologies and increased infrastructure, as well as additional spectrum, to address the persistent growth in demand for mobile broadband, it signals a number of changes in approach. ‘Our experience at the coalface since 2011 has suggested that the ACMA’s earlier focus on explicit, quantitative targets for additional spectrum should be revisited,’ said Mr Chapman. ‘Experience has shown that the setting of targets—a common approach overseas, as well as locally—fails to take adequate account of the considerable uncertainty inherent in such forecasts. While the trend line is crystal clear, projections of traffic growth have proven to be unreliable, and the relationship between growth rates and the need for additional spectrum (as opposed to the better use of existing allocations) is also complex and uncertain.

‘We are signalling a shift towards greater reliance on a contingency planning model, where the regulator plans for a range of potential outcomes in terms of mobile broadband capacity growth, but nonetheless seeks to enable the right spectrum to be made available, at the right time, depending on the scenarios that are unfolding. The key to such a contingency planning approach is the ability of the regulator to work with industry and the international community, more generally, on a range of potential candidate bands at the same time, often over the very extended periods that are required for the development of new, harmonised spectrum uses and subsequent changes in the highest value use of those bands domestically,’ Mr Chapman said.

This change in approach should allow the ACMA to be more flexible and responsive to the rapidly-changing spectrum environment. In place of rigid quantitative targets, the approach offers more regular updates, in consultation with industry, of the planning status of all candidate bands.

Significantly, Beyond 2020 further elevates the reconfiguration and optimisation of existing mobile broadband allocations onto an equal footing with the re-farming of new bands.

‘If we are to seriously contemplate the disruption caused by re-farming bands currently used for other purposes, and we think that is extremely likely, it is equally vital that existing mobile broadband allocations are optimised to take account of changes in international harmonised arrangements. We all need to sweat existing allocations harder,’ said Mr Chapman.

Beyond 2020 contains detailed commentary on the current status of bands that are potentially affected by the rising demand for mobile broadband, which the ACMA will keep up-to-date in future editions of the annual Five Year Spectrum Outlook (FYSO).

The ACMA is inviting industry comment on the report, with submissions closing on 23 October 2015.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact: Blake Murdoch, on (02) 9334 7817, 0434 567 391 or media@acma.gov.au.

Media release 44/2015 - 10 Sept

Backgrounder

The spectrum management implications of the growth in demand for mobile broadband capacity continue to be critical issues for the ACMA. Mobile broadband spectrum management is one area where the ACMA has, for a number of years, provided very detailed public guidance on its associated strategy and work plan. The ACMA’s last substantial publication on this issue was in May 2011 with the release of Towards 2020.

In the four years that have passed since the publication of Towards 2020, a number of developments have occurred, making it timely for the ACMA to review and rearticulate its strategies for addressing the growth in mobile broadband capacity. Some of these developments have included:

  • completion of the digital dividend auction (in the 700 MHz band) and the resulting unsold lots
  • commissioned research undertaken by the ACMA on demand for wireless access services and the economic benefits of mobile broadband
  • developments internationally and domestically on bands identified in previous ACMA papers, such as the 850 and 900 MHz bands, the 1.5 GHz band and the 3.5 GHz band
  • knowledge gained during preparations for the International Telecommunication Union Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-15), which is considering the identification of additional spectrum for IMT and mobile broadband under its Agenda item 1.1
  • preparations for WRC-15, which will likely consider a possible future WRC-19 Agenda item on IMT in bands above 6 GHz under its Agenda item 10
  • current studies showing that mobile traffic growth will continue into the future, more than likely at an increasing rate - at least in the medium term
  • evidence that estimates of future mobile broadband traffic prior to the ACMA’s 2011 report tended to over-estimate actual traffic growth and consequently tended to overstate the short- to medium-term requirement for additional spectrum. 

Overall, the evidence suggests that Australia currently has sufficient spectrum available for mobile broadband services in the short to medium term. However, long lead times for making additional spectrum available and the importance of international harmonisation compel the ACMA, as Australia’s spectrum regulator, to press ahead with work in this area if it is to have options available in the very likely scenario that future demand for additional spectrum eventuates.

In the Beyond 2020 paper, the ACMA proposes five key strategies that it will pursue in addressing future mobile broadband demand, including a four-staged process for consideration of additional spectrum for mobile broadband services. This is illustrated in Figure 1. It is proposed that the ACMA will identify, and potentially keep current in future versions of the FYSO, a list (or ‘pool’) of potential spectrum options that are at varying stages of consideration. These are also noted in Figure 1. This approach will provide the ACMA with capacity to react to demand requirements on a contingency basis if and when needed and when the evidence suggests that mobile broadband is, or is becoming, the highest value use of a particular band. Consistent with the idea of contingency planning, the appearance of a band at the ‘monitoring’ stage (Stage 0) does not necessarily imply the eventual re-farming of that band (Stage 3).

Figure 1:    Stages of the process for consideration of additional spectrum for mobile broadband services and the position of current mobile broadband spectrum planning projects

figure 1- spectrum mobile broadband services png

In essence, the transparent ‘stages’ approach proposed in the Beyond 2020 paper for addressing the growth in mobile broadband capacity recognises both the long timeframes (and significant domestic and international engagement) entailed in identification of suitable frequency bands for mobile broadband, the sheer uncertainty surrounding demand projections and the precise role new spectrum releases should play in meeting eventual demand.

The ‘stages’ approach can be seen as a long term plan for addressing the full range of contingencies that might arise in relation to future broadband demand. Actual re-planning of bands will only occur if and when the need arises, but the long-term goal is to ensure that sound options to meet any contingency will be available in good time. 

The ACMA seeks comment on the issues discussed and the solutions proposed in the Beyond 2020 paper by 23 October 2015. Following consideration of responses, the ACMA expects to release its updated mobile broadband strategy and associated work programs in early 2016.

The ACMA will host a Spectrum Tune-Up on mobile broadband spectrum management on Thursday 24 September 2015. Spectrum tune-up: Beyond 2020 will be held at the ACMA Canberra offices with videoconference links to the ACMA Melbourne and Sydney offices. Registrations close on Monday 21 September 2015. 

Last updated: 10 September 2015

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