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Speech by Nerida O’Loughlin, ACMA Chair: RadComms 2022 opening address

Good morning and welcome everyone to RadComms 2022. It is great to be able to meet together after such a long hiatus and see many familiar and some new faces here today.

It is 4 years now since we have been able to hold RadComms. Today, I want to reflect on what has taken place across the communications industry in such a tumultuous period of change. I also want to focus on the future and highlight aspects of the ACMA’s spectrum work program, which is supporting the ongoing technology evolution and delivery of innovative communications services for Australians.

First, I want to acknowledge the efforts of the communications industry through a pandemic, which has accelerated the digital transformation of many aspects of Australia’s economy and society. And as Australia has responded to multiple natural disasters of bushfires and floods in recent years, communications connectivity has been a critical element in the rapid response effort and the capacity for our communities’ recovery from natural disasters.

I did a quick mental checklist of key communications industry developments since we last met in 2018, including:

  • The National Broadband Network build has been completed.
  • We concluded the World Radiocommunications Conference 2019 and are nearly through the next cycle for WRC-23.
  • Parliament amended the Radiocommunications Act with the ACMA subsequently using its new legislative powers to provide for longer 20-year licence terms, licence renewal statements and implement its annual work program.
  • On the consumer front, Australians are using more data intensive applications, with data download volumes growing. Over 10.7 million terabytes were downloaded in Australia for the quarter ending December 2021, up from 9.5 million terabytes the year before. The NBN accounts for 86% of the total volume of the data downloaded.
  • We are also seeing the mobile phone becoming the ubiquitous device to access many applications. At the end of 2021, there were over 29 million active mobile services in Australia. According to the ACMA’s 2022 annual consumer survey, 98% of Australian adults used a mobile phone, with 93% using that phone to access the internet. That same device is used by 52% of Australians to stream video content at home, and by 36% of adult Australians to listen to audio content in their car, using the mobile device connected via cable, Bluetooth or another speaker.

For its part, the ACMA has also completed some major spectrum allocations in the past 12 months to support 5G deployments with the millimetre wave allocations and the 850/900 MHz spectrum auction. We are also well progressed in preparation for the mid-band allocation in 3.4-4.0 GHz spectrum to occur throughout 2023.

A new style of licence – the area wide licence – was introduced, and we saw very good take-up of this very flexible and scaleable licence in the millimetre wave allocations, with 93 area-wide licences currently issued in the 26 GHz and 28 GHz bands

A major body of review work was completed with our implementation of the Spectrum Pricing Review recommendations, which has resulted in:

  • Reductions in tax rates for services above 5 GHz by between 25 to 90% and reductions in tax rates for low-power open narrowcasting services
  • The introduction of a ‘systems price’ for earth stations, with multiple antennas to provide incentives for efficient use of spectrum via spectrum sharing to support Australia’s growing space sector.
  • Additional price discounts to encourage more use of a spectrally efficient land-mobile ‘micro’ service model.
  • Updating and simplifying the administrative pricing formula for apparatus licences and making available a new licence fee calculator.

We focused one of our annual compliance priorities on carrier compliance with the relevant ARPANSA EME safety standard and the Mobile Base Station Deployment Industry Code. This was to support 5G deployments, and to help correct the misinformation about 5G and EME being promulgated during the early months of the pandemic.

We launched an EME Checker which reports on the results of our measurement work across 3 states. All measurements recorded were less than 1.2% of the ARPANSA limit, and the majority of sites were under 1% of the limit. The carriers were also found to be meeting their obligations under the Deployment Code, which is an important safeguard to ensure communities are informed and consulted on deployments in their area. 

We are continuing to expand our EME measurement program, with measurements recently conducted in Western Australia and the ACT, and we will go back to sites already measured to ensure the EME Checker remains up-to-date over time.

Turning to current priorities for communications and media, tomorrow we will hear a keynote speech from the Minister for Communications. The Government has indicated its policy priorities with respect to:

  • First Nations Australians and meeting the Closing the Gap targets
  • A commitment to Net Zero by 2050 and the role that digital infrastructure and services can contribute to meeting this objective.
  • Opportunities to deepen links and cooperation between Australia and the Indo-Pacific. 

In all these areas, there is an opportunity for spectrum users to consider how they can contribute to these goals and shape the future direction of the Australian communications sector.

In terms of the ACMA’s future work, I want to focus on our strategic priorities as set out in our corporate plan.  We have refreshed our corporate plan, which sets out the ACMA’s purpose – to contribute to maximising the economic and social benefits of communication infrastructure, content and services for Australia. The corporate plan identifies 2 key activities which will collectively deliver on the ACMA’s purpose:

  • Supporting an efficient and reliable communications infrastructure.
  • Building consumer trust in the use of communications content and services.

Spectrum management is integral to the way ACMA seeks to support an efficient and reliable communications infrastructure. A defining characteristic of spectrum management is that we are dealing with sectors and technologies that are rapidly changing – leading to increasing demands for spectrum and, more often than not, competing priorities.

Our objective in spectrum management, as set out in legislation, is to maximise the long-term public interest from the allocation and use of spectrum.

These public interest considerations often require us to consider how and whether we can support a range of spectrum use cases and spectrum users, so that a range of new technologies and services become available to Australian businesses and consumers.

We seek to deliver on this throughout all of our work, but most specifically, in setting our spectrum work program and in progressing the major band planning and allocation processes within that program.

The Five Year Spectrum Outlook (FYSO) is a document which provides a medium-term view about those technological, market and policy factors which set the environment that shape our work. We are going to hear from a range of speakers over the next 2 days, highlighting many of the technology developments and innovative business models that are bringing new wireless and satellite services to Australia.

I should note that the Five Year Spectrum Outlook is deliberately a roadmap document.  It does not set numerical targets for spectrum allocations for particular purposes into the future.  

While important inputs to our decision-making processes, medium and long-term forecasts are susceptible to change because of assumptions and changing circumstances. Locking in targets also risks eliminating the confidence value of careful band planning decision by pre-emption. 

Consistent with a roadmap, the more detailed annual work program set out in our FYSO 2022–27, outlines the extensive planning activities we are undertaking, which are focused on making mobile broadband and satellite spectrum available.

Our immediate focus continues to be the allocation of more spectrum for wireless broadband by implementing the planning outcomes for mid-band spectrum in the 3.4–4.0 GHz band. This is to be followed by an allocation of 2 GHz spectrum for mobile satellite services.

We recognise the significant technological innovation occurring in the provision and delivery of communications and space-based science services. In our work program, we raised for discussion whether it is timely to consider the adequacy of existing regulatory arrangements for non-geostationary satellite orbit constellations, noting the strong domestic and global interest in deployments. Later today, we will hear from a number of satellite operators, highlighting the diverse set of satellite use cases and technologies in use. I expect these will demonstrate the pressures we collectively face in supporting many different types of spectrum uses within the constraints of a shared, but finite, resource.

In updating the annual work program, we are also looking at the potential uses and supporting regulatory arrangements for terahertz spectrum bands, which is the next spectrum frontier as we move beyond the millimetre wave bands.

Spectrum in many bands is increasingly contested by interest from existing users alongside demand from prospective spectrum users. We continue to explore new spectrum sharing techniques, through both licensing arrangements and seeking interest in models for real-time spectrum assignments as mechanisms to manage coordination and spectrum congestion – and we will hear more from speakers on these topics.

Traditionally when we talk about demand pressures on spectrum, we often have meant pressures between sectors and different spectrum uses.  A well-known example is the competing interests for new spectrum for wireless broadband and other spectrum users either incumbents or aspirants.

While this form of demand pressure remains, we are seeing an increase in demand pressures within a sector for spectrum use. This may occur because the optimal planning, licensing and allocation arrangements can sometimes differ between use cases, even if the overall ‘service’ or application is broadly the same.  

A very current example is wide area, public wireless broadband services, characterised by mobile network operators. These can be very different to those parties seeking to provide private, enterprise networks or smaller, local area public networks. There are similar trends occurring within the satellite where traditional ‘old space’ companies may have different preferences to ‘new’ space entrants – and a clash between GEO and LEO satellite interests.

It can be a challenge for spectrum managers to determine the regulatory arrangements that best meet multiple demands – balancing the flexibility needed to efficiently accommodate different use cases against increasing the complexity of planning and licensing arrangements.

As with many tough spectrum management challenges, there is usually no simple or singular answer to these questions, but instead requires clearly articulated objectives and careful judgement weighing the evidence that is presented to us.  When we reach decisions, we are transparent about how we have weighed competing considerations and assessed them against our objectives.

Our consultation during the development of the FYSO, on specific band planning consultation papers, our Technical Liaison Groups, our spectrum tune-ups, or the myriad of other engagements we have with spectrum users, are all critical inputs to our spectrum decision-making process. We see our RadComms conferences as an integral part of our engagement with our stakeholders.

So, this underscores the importance in spectrum management responsibilities in hearing the arguments and evidence from our many and varied stakeholders and bringing this to bear in our priorities and individual decision making. 

My message to you as an industry is to take advantage of these opportunities to inform our regulatory decision-making and shape Australia’s priorities for spectrum management. 

Over the next 2 days, we will be hearing from many industry experts sharing their vision for future communications technology. We will also hear from a range of spectrum users and consumers about the challenges of technology adoption and what we collectively can do as the communications industry to maximise the benefits from spectrum using technologies. 

As I add my welcome to you to RadComms 2022, I urge you to take the opportunities whether through engaging with the presentations, or through the many networking opportunities over the next 2 days to let us know your views.   

Thank you and enjoy RadComms '22.

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