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Speech by Linda Caruso, General Manager Communications Infrastructure, RadComms 2022: licensing innovation

Good afternoon, everyone.

In this part of the session, I want to offer a regulatory focus on the theme of licensing innovations. I’ll look broadly at the work the ACMA has been doing to support technology innovation and changing communications business models.

Supporting technology innovation

A general starting point for our spectrum planning and allocation work is that we are trying to meet a market demand for spectrum, with that demand driven by the pace of technology.

Engagement on the five-year spectrum outlook and regular consultations on regulatory activities are a key source of information for us about the timing of technology developments and their implications for future spectrum demand.

In bringing new wireless and satellite services to market, we support technologies trials and testing. For example, our scientific trial licence is a very open and flexible licensing arrangement to authorise novel spectrum uses.

In addition, our class licensing regime – the Australian equivalent of ‘licence exempt’ or ‘unlicenced’ – is an extremely important mechanism for supporting innovation. The low-interference potential device (LIPD) class licence is the key regulatory tool here – supporting everything from Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and wireless microphone, to ultra-wideband devices.

More recently, we’ve been contemplating whether some communications with satellites might be able to be authorised under the LIPD – an innovation of expanding the traditional terrestrial use of the LIPD to space systems.

Like all regulators, we are alert that the LIPD doesn’t and can’t provide the requisite certainty and utility for all uses of the spectrum. But the sheer scale of its use illustrates that its importance grows and you, as spectrum users, will decide whether it meets your needs.

We have heard about the use of technology to solve specific spectrum problems. A focus for some regulators is the use of automated database solutions for spectrum sharing and real-time spectrum assignments.

To date, we’ve been addressing the mid-band spectrum crunch by using our other regulatory planning and licensing powers to support multiple use-cases and users within specified spectrum bands.

In the case of the upper portion of the 6 GHz band, we’ve also indicated the ACMA is open to considering the suitability of automatic frequency assignment systems.

The conditions for a wider move towards dynamic spectrum access will likely include a commitment from a range of sectors and a clear industry champion to take forward the design of a database. While these conditions have emerged in other jurisdictions, we consider that such systems need to be driven by a specific need.

In other words, we want to use the right tool for the problem, rather than just use a new tool because it is potentially available. We remain open to facilitating trials and implementation of certain sharing approaches in response to receiving any specific proposals from industry.

Licensee-initiated innovations

It is not only new technologies, but we are seeing an ongoing evolution of business models and commercial relationships and agreements. These can lead to innovative communications services.

The regulatory framework specifically supports this dynamism, and it provides for a mix of both market-initiated and regulator-led activities to support the acquisition and use of spectrum. These regulatory tools are intended to enable changes in spectrum use and holdings over time, and during the term of an individual licence.  

The ability for licensees to initiate changes to how spectrum is used also provides flexibility to share spectrum. The radiocommunications regulatory framework does not generally place restrictions on sharing communications infrastructure or assets.  

Responding to licensee-initiated requests for change, such as licence variations, trades and transfers, forms a reasonable part of the ACMA’s radiocommunications work in adapting and modernising regulation. If you are thinking about a change to a licence, our plea is to please check-in early with the ACMA about what sort of authorisation is needed for the spectrum you want to use. This gives time for consultation with any other affected licensees and for us to make the necessary regulatory changes.

Regulator-led innovations

We have heard from many speakers today about technology innovations.  I want to focus on some regulator-led innovation.

But this takes place in a context where spectrum availability is limited. This constraint inevitably focuses our regulatory effort on ways to make more efficient use of the available spectrum. So, we have adapted regulatory models across planning, licensing and allocation.

Our planning activity has provided support for a range of different business models based on national, localised (and often hyperlocal) and unlicensed spectrum access. 

In the recent millimetre wave and mid-band planning decisions, we adopted a band segmentation approach to enable fixed and mobile wireless broadband – both nationwide and localised use-cases – as well as satellite services within the same band.

Mixed licensing is another way we have provided new opportunities for spectrum access through long-term, area-wide spectrum licences, shorter licence term apparatus licences and shared spectrum access under our class licensing model. Again, the millimetre wave allocation adopted this approach, and we are proposing similar for the forthcoming mid-band allocation.

I want to highlight the area-wide licence. This new style of licence is flexible and scalable and allows a licensee to target a geographic area with the specific amount of spectrum they seek to use, rather than a regulator-defined, single-size licence product.

We develop different styles of allocation processes to provide a range of opportunities to acquire spectrum, and on terms that match the use-case. We used an allocation window approach in the millimetre wave apparatus licence allocation as an easy entry path to acquire spectrum, but in a way that assisted the ACMA in managing differential demand in that allocation.

In addition to band planning and spectrum releases, another important part of our work is optimising existing technical frameworks and adapting them for new technologies. 

We focus this work on addressing band and service-specific issues identified within existing frameworks – for example, by addressing technology innovations and enabling sharing opportunities and other changes to improve the efficient use of the spectrum.

We have an ongoing program of updates to technical frameworks and coordination arrangements for the various licence types available in Australia.

While each of these regulatory processes are often solving unique incumbency and band-specific issues, a common feature that informs all our work is maximising the efficient use of the spectrum.

Future focus

In terms of future work, today I want to provide an update on key work program elements.

Firstly, there is new information about the proposed timing for mid-band allocations. To inform our decisions about allocations for new wireless services in the 3.4–4.0 GHz band, the ACMA has engaged with other regulators around the world on technical studies and approaches to manage coexistence with radio altimeters operating above 4.2 GHz. We have also been consulting with both the aviation and communications sectors through our technical liaison group and working with other relevant government agencies.

Because these are important issues, we expect to consult further on these matters to inform decisions on mid-band allocations.

We intend to progress in accordance with the following timelines:

  • Consult on draft instruments for the auction of spectrum licences in the 3.4 GHz and 3.7 GHz bands to commence in February 2023, to support an auction in early quarter 4, 2023. We intend to publish further radio altimeter studies at this time to seek feedback.
  • Commence an allocation of area-wide apparatus-licences in remote areas in the 3.4–4.0 GHz band in quarter 2, 2023.
  • Consult on an applicant information pack in quarter 2, 2023 for area-wide apparatus licences in metropolitan and regional areas in the 3.8–4.0 GHz band to support an allocation in quarter 1, 2024.  
  • Consult on technical arrangements in the first half of 2023 for apparatus licensing inner metropolitan (urban excise) spectrum in the 3.4 GHz band, and for restricted cell use in the 3950–4000 MHz band in metropolitan and regional areas.

In terms of other work program items, we continue to look at ways to improve efficient access to and use of spectrum under our various licensing arrangements. 

In the period between 2028 to 2032, spectrum licences across a range of bands will expire. These licences are held by a variety of licensees, including the mobile operators, NBN, rail operators and TV broadcasters and the licences support a broad range of services. The first licences to expire will be the 800 MHz and 1800 MHz licences – which expire in June 2028.

Many of these licences were previously re-issued between 2013 and 2017. Since that time, changes to the Radiocommunications Act 1992 have introduced a new renewal and expiry process for spectrum licences. The ACMA is now responsible for all matters relating to expiry and renewal, including deciding whether renewal is in the public interest and deciding the price of any renewed licences. These Act changes also introduced statutory timeframes, where formal applications and decisions relating to renewal are limited to the 2-year period before a licence expires.

We intend to begin the renewal consideration process 5 years from expiry. In quarter 2, 2023 we will release a discussion paper outlining our approach for renewal. This will cover issues concerning public interest, and our approaches to band valuation and spectrum use.

In terms of new spectrum, we’ve identified interest in terahertz spectrum – that is, spectrum above 100 GHz.  We are aware of an emerging set of applications for this spectrum, including short-range radar sensing, imaging, non-destructive testing and high-speed communications.

Some other jurisdictions are actively looking at planning and allocating this spectrum, and we want to be in a position so that Australia can take advantage of the available technologies. We intend to release an information paper early next year, examining international regulatory models and use-cases for these frequency bands and their applicability for Australia.

A further area of interest is the role that receiver performance plays in spectrum sharing. This is not new – every spectrum management activity must consider the impact of both transmitters and receivers in the sharing ‘equation’, but transmitters and their performance, such as unwanted emissions, are often the focus.

The ability of a receiver to operate effectively in its expected spectrum regulatory environment is critical. Just like a poorly performing transmitter isn’t conducive to spectrum sharing, a poorly performing receiver impacts on spectrum utility. But higher receiver performance can come at a cost – so there is always a trade-off between cost and spectrum utility that the regulator needs to navigate.

Work is being done globally on this question, with our focus on improving spectrum utilisation. This will lead to challenging general assumptions about the ‘givens’ of receiver performance (along with that of transmitters). The current global considerations considering radio altimeters and wireless broadband is a case in point.

We heard earlier today about great innovations occurring in satellite communications.  With increased activity in non-geostationary satellite launches and deployment, we have considered whether we have the right balance of regulatory controls and incentives to manage access to spectrum.

We are aware that some regulators have adopted more prescriptive approaches to the regulation of satellite systems, which, comparatively, are more interventionist than our approach. 

Given the global nature of NGSO systems, we are cautious about introducing additional regulatory overlays on global systems that are already subject to ITU processes. To date, there has been no need for additional interventions in Australia. However, the continuing evolution of NGSO satellite communications means we that will continue monitor relevant domestic and global regulatory developments, as well as spectrum demand from the sector.


We value your engagement – keeps us informed so that you help priorities for the work program that best addresses your spectrum requirements.

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