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Speech by Linda Caruso, General Manager Communications Infrastructure, CommsDay Congress 2022

Good afternoon everyone

Thanks to CommsDay, as it is great to be able to meet together again in person after such a long hiatus and in a forum focused on discussing the latest in communications sector developments.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples attending this Summit.

In keeping with the theme of wireless innovation, today I am going to highlight a few elements from our draft spectrum work program (released today for consultation). It focuses on the spectrum planning and allocation priorities that support technology innovation in the communications industry.

Each year, we produce an annual work program, setting out our priorities for the financial year ahead. It also includes a longer-term view of the domestic and international environment influencing future demand for spectrum – that is the five-year spectrum outlook.

On the domestic front, our work program is informed by the policy environment in which we operate and is intended to support new and ongoing government initiatives centred on the development and take-up of critical technologies.

Particular policy initiatives include the government’s Digital Economy Strategy 2030. This sets out the government’s aims over the next 5 years to expand high-speed internet and mobile coverage in regional Australia, supported by future government investments, new technologies and the Regional Telecommunications Reviews.

The strategy also recognises the capacity of critical and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), 5G and next G communications, and increased penetration of the Internet of Things (IoT) to significantly enhance Australia’s national interests.

Launched in early 2021, the Australian 5G Innovation Initiative funds projects that engage productivity-boosting 5G applications using technologies such as AI, autonomous robots, vehicles and drones, IoT, and augmented and virtual reality.

We continue to support this initiative by providing information to prospective applicants on bands where suitable spectrum might be available ‘over the counter’.

For us, another important source of advice for our work program is the consultation we conduct. This is invaluable in providing us with information about the global technology environment and we get to test our views about the demand for spectrum and the investment environment for communications infrastructure.

Many of the speakers at the conference yesterday and today have provided great insights into what they see as the pressures and the opportunities that face the Australian communications industry and the consumers of their services.

Today I will give you a regulator’s perspective on some of those pressures and how we respond to competing interests for spectrum under our regulatory responsibilities.

Our starting point is the legislation that requires us to consider how to best promote the long-term public interest derived from the use of spectrum.

We often do that through a balanced application of market and regulatory mechanisms.

We will always seek to maximise the extent to which market mechanisms and market signals move spectrum to a use that best promotes the long-term public interest.

But public good uses of spectrum, and the need for spectrum authorisation arrangements that promote investment certainty, enhance technical efficiency and manage interference, mean that our regulatory functions sit alongside the market as key tools in spectrum management.

That application of market and regulatory mechanisms also means we are interested in the market and demand for spectrum, but we are equally concerned with the efficient use of spectrum as a natural resource.

As we look across the communications industry, we are seeing demand for spectrum growing, and this includes from government spectrum users as well as a wide range of commercial and non-commercial interests.

Prior to the pandemic, the digital economy was already experiencing growth, alongside an ongoing need for connectivity and sufficient data capacity to support it.

Now in its third year, the changed digital work and business practices that evolved during the pandemic are continuing.

2021 saw data traffic at an all-time high, with total downloads over 3 months rising by 20% in the year to June 2021, to 9.8 million terabytes.[1]

ACMA research also highlights the increasing popularity of wireless services, with almost all Australians aged 18 or over now owning some form of mobile device.

Internet-enabled ‘smart’ devices are prevalent in nearly all Australian households, and smartphone use has also greatly increased in regional areas, rising from 77% in 2019 to 93% in 2021.[2]

While there are many forecasts of data demand growth from different industry groups arguing the relative importance of their sector, a common thread is that forecast growth will drive demand for greater network speeds and reduced latency.

These in turn influence the quantity and type of spectrum needed to support those wireless broadband networks, satellite communications and critical technologies.

As a growing number of enterprises place greater value on having dedicated local area wireless broadband networks for advanced, secure connectivity, we are seeing increasing interest in accessing spectrum for private LTE, or private networks more generally.

The construction and mining sectors were early adopters of private networks, which are now increasingly found in the agribusiness, transport and logistics, utilities, and hospitality sectors.

We are supporting this growing and diverse set of users and spectrum use cases. This includes through licensing arrangements for local area wireless broadband and for Internet of Things applications, used for monitoring and sensing applications.

Advances in satellite, machine-to-machine and AI technology are facilitating the development of smaller, more affordable space hardware, also accelerating the attraction of satellite connections for IoT.

The ubiquity of satellite coverage means that satellite services also have a role to play in providing alternative means of connectivity to terrestrial broadband networks.

Another important influence shaping these demand pressures is industry structural change. For example, the divestments of tower infrastructure assets, network sharing arrangements and ongoing development of neutral host models for service provision. All these changes are likely to impact on the industry investment outlook and the future demand for spectrum.

From our perspective, accommodating competing demands for spectrum from individuals, companies and government spectrum users, means that we look to meet that demand in a number of different ways, and not solely from new releases of spectrum.

An important feature of our work is the continued evolution of existing technical frameworks to adapt them for new technologies.

We have an ongoing program of updates to spectrum licence technical frameworks, and updates to the radiocommunications assignment and licensing instructions for apparatus licences. Our work program identifies the technical framework updates we are planning for the forthcoming year.

Another way of providing new opportunities for spectrum access is the way we adapt licensing arrangements to encourage more efficient network deployments and better use of the spectrum in those networks. Licensing innovation has been an active area of work over the past year.

ACMA has developed a new licensing model – the area-wide licence.

This new style of licence is flexible and scalable, and allows a licensee to target a geographic area with the amount of spectrum they seek to use.

We saw a good take-up of this licence type in the 26/28 GHz allocation last year, with the 14 successful applicants proposing to provide services across all states and territories and in urban, regional and rural areas. We are also proposing to use this licence type in the mid-band allocation of apparatus licences in the 3.4–4.0 GHz band.

Under the amendments to the Radiocommunications Act last year, we have implemented new licence conditions such as the provision of renewal statements. These statements set out conditions under which we will renew a licence, and is intended to provide increased certainty for licensees about what will happen at the end of their licence term.

In addition to these features for individual licensing, we have continued to use the class licensing model, or licence exempt approach, as another way of meeting demand for spectrum access and allowing Australians to get access to new technologies.

One of our recent initiatives was opening up the lower 6 GHz band for the latest version of wi-fi under shared spectrum access or class licensing. This work complements other direct spectrum allocations.

We continue to explore new spectrum sharing techniques, through both licensing arrangements and under real-time spectrum assignments as mechanisms to manage coordination and spectrum congestion.

We are open to exploring other sharing models, such as database driven automatic frequency control or dynamic spectrum access, and invite further engagement from any parties interested in development of these models.

Looking ahead on other licensing matters, our work program prioritises the consideration of renewal processes for spectrum licences that are due to expire in the next 5 years. This responds to feedback we received on last year’s work program.

But probably the area that gets most interest though, is the allocation and reallocation of spectrum that supports new wireless and satellite services being made available in Australia.

Spectrum band replanning to support the deployment of 5G has been a major priority for the ACMA over the past 5 years.

In Australia, we have a little under 6 GHz of spectrum available for wireless broadband services today across low, mid and high-band spectrum.

These figures increase significantly if additional class-licensed spectrum is included, such as 60 GHz, which also has potential use for broadband.

While direct international comparisons are difficult, we are confident that Australia continues to compare well to global peers in terms of spectrum available for 5G, including wireless broadband.

Last year, we completed 2 important auctions of low-band spectrum in the 850/900 MHz band and the high-band 26 and 28 GHz bands, which were intended to support a wide range of 4G and 5G use cases and services.

This year and going into 2023, we expect to allocate more spectrum for both localised uses and wide-area uses of wireless broadband as we implement the planning outcomes for mid-band spectrum in the 3.4–4.0 GHz band. There are a range of existing uses in parts of the band for fixed satellite services, point-to-multipoint and amateur services that will continue to be supported.

Looking at wireless broadband uses, the types of use cases intended under these allocations include for mining, agritech and regional service providers, as well as the wide-area uses required by the mobile network operators.

We are well progressed in our preparations and recently released consultations for an allocation of apparatus licences in remote areas of the 3.7–4.0 GHz band, along with a spectrum licensing component in the 3.4 GHz band and 3.7–3.8 GHz bands.

As far as possible, we are aiming that allocations of similar licence types across this mid-band spectrum will be conducted together.

The first allocation is planned for remote spectrum across 3400–4000 MHz in the first half of 2022.

This will be followed by an additional allocation for spectrum licensing, likely under an auction, in 2023.

The next band in focus, once we have concluded the mid-band allocations for wireless broadband, is the 2 GHz band, which we are planning for mobile satellite services, including satellite Internet of Things uses.

As we look ahead over the 5-year period, we have highlighted a couple of strategic issues where we value engagement from all spectrum users.

There is strong domestic and global interest in deployments of new, large non-geostationary satellite orbit constellations. Satellite communications are experiencing a significant period of technological innovation and transformation in the provision and delivery of communications and space-based science services.

This year, we are raising for discussion the adequacy of existing regulatory arrangements for non-geostationary satellite orbit constellations and we welcome further views on this issue.

In updating the annual work program, we also want to gauge interest in the potential uses and supporting regulatory arrangements for terahertz (THz) spectrum bands. This is spectrum above 100 GHz and is the next frontier of lightly used spectrum.

Globally, interest in using terahertz spectrum is increasing, thanks to the amount of spectrum available and its potential for sharing, due to its propagation characteristics.

There are a number of emerging and potential applications for spectrum in this range including short range radar sensing, security imaging, non-destructive testing and high-speed communications, potentially with 6G technology.

While the technology and commercial use-cases for terahertz spectrum are still in their infancy, some national spectrum managers, including the Federal Communications Commission in the United States and Ofcom in the United Kingdom have implemented new regulatory arrangements for spectrum above 100 GHz, specifically to support these emerging technologies. Canada is also consulting on potential arrangements.

In Australia, the scientific licensing regime provides a flexible and low-cost mechanism to support trials and technology development in these bands. However, the scientific licence regime doesn’t provide a long-term framework necessary to support commercial, wide-scale use of these bands.

We are interested in views on the priorities for the development of an ongoing regulatory framework for terahertz spectrum.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the significant effort and support of the many contributors to the formulation of Australian positions for the World Radiocommunication Conference WRC-23 and other ongoing International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Study Group activities.

I acknowledge this important work has been made more difficult by the remote meeting attendance arrangements over the past couple of years during the pandemic.

As we head towards the WRC-23, this work both at the ITU, and regionally, is accelerating, with a number of preparatory group meetings progressing their studies and developing regional positions for the conference. The ACMA appreciates the strong engagement and support we receive from the broader industry in these international harmonisation processes.

In concluding, I encourage your interest in engaging with the ACMA’s spectrum work program as set out in our five-year spectrum outlook.

As always, we value all perspectives and evidence which informs our regulatory decisions and the feedback you provide on our work program priorities.

Thanks again to CommsDay.

Thank you everyone.

[1] Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Internet Activity Report, June 2021, accessed February 2022.

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