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Responses to the consultation process on reconfiguring the 890–915/935–960 MHz band were varied and raised a number of concerns and suggestions that the ACMA has been considering in determining a way forward. These included the potential implications of service discontinuity, particularly in regional areas, associated with some reform options, as well as drawing linkages between the 890–915/935–960 MHz and 809–824/854–869 MHz (or ‘850 MHz expansion’) bands.
In response to submissions, the ACMA decided the most appropriate means of achieving the necessary band reforms is to clear the current apparatus licences in the 890–915/935–960 MHz band and commence the consultation process towards making a recommendation to the Minister for Communications that the band be subject to a price-based allocation of 5 MHz (based) lots.
Recognising the importance of service continuity in regional areas, the ACMA considers the clearance process should allow sufficient time for alternative arrangements to be put in place, so will recommend that the new arrangements should not come into play until mid-2021. The ACMA also recognises that there are direct linkages between the 890–915/935–960 MHz and 850 MHz expansion band, which is also planned for 4G use, but currently unallocated for that purpose. The ACMA therefore also intends to work towards a recommendation to the government that the two bands should be allocated concurrently, with licences in the 850 MHz expansion band also issued in mid-2021.
As clearance of the 850 MHz band is currently still ongoing, allocation together with 900 MHz would mean that the 850 MHz band licences would be partially encumbered for the first three years of their tenure. Existing services transitioning out of that band would be protected during that time, and the scope for 4G deployments in that band will vary by frequency and location up until 2024.
While the above outcomes draw consideration of potential reconfiguration options to a close, there are some implementation issues that the ACMA is seeking further submissions on. In particular, the ACMA is interested in industry views on how best to achieve an eventual downshift of the adjacent 850 MHz spectrum licences, which would further optimise the 890–915/935–960 MHz band for mobile broadband. Views are also being sought on potential licence tenures for the 850 MHz expansion and 890–915/935–960 MHz bands, with a view to optimising mobile service delivery in sub-GHz bands as a whole in the longer term.
In May 2011, the ACMA commenced a review of arrangements in the 803–960 MHz frequency band. Following two rounds of consultation, a decision paper was released in November 2015, detailing a range of reforms and an implementation plan.
The review’s main focus was on refarming spectrum not currently allocated for mobile broadband. It also touched on how existing mobile broadband allocations could be replanned to be more economically and technically efficient. In particular, it discussed the rationale for a potential reconfiguration of the existing 890–915/935–960 MHz band.
The 890–915/935–960 MHz band has for many years been the primary band for the operation of 2G (GSM) networks. However, the deployment of 3G and 4G services has resulted in a decline of 2G subscriptions. The three mobile network operators (MNOs) licensed in the band—Optus, Telstra and Vodafone—have now committed to shutting down their respective 2G networks.
Optus, Telstra and Vodafone currently hold paired 8.4, 8.4 and 8.2 MHz apparatus licences respectively. 4G (LTE) technologies currently represent the optimal use of this band, and while the MNOs have, to varying degrees, re-farmed some of their existing spectrum holdings in the band to deploy 3G and 4G services, the band in its entirety cannot be efficiently used for 3G/4G services unless it’s allocated in integrals of 5 MHz blocks.
A consultation paper released in November 2016 examined a range of options to reconfigure the band into 5 MHz blocks. The options identified five options, comprising included various combinations of interventionist, non-interventionist, market-based and non-market-based solutions. The consultation paper provided an analysis of the reconfiguration options by evaluating them against a range of public interest criteria. Submissions to this consultation process can be seen here.