700MHz national emergency system to cost billions: AMTA

The federal government should not build a dedicated national emergency services network based on the 700Mhz spectrum and instead, leave it to the private market to supply telecommunications services during disasters, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) has said.

The federal government should not build a dedicated national emergency services network based on the 700Mhz spectrum and instead, leave it to the private market to supply telecommunications services during disasters, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) has said.

At a public hearing into the capacity of communication networks and emergency warning systems to deal with emergencies and natural disasters, AMTA chief executive director, Chris Althaus, said such a network would cost tax payers billions and deprive industry of valuable spectrum.

"It is not just building a network; it is operating it and maintaining it in a very big country with a very small population," he said.

"The needs in an emergency are sporadic -- yes, there are peaks -- but most of the time, there would be very low levels of activity and from a cost-benefit [perspective] that is very suspect.

"We have a network mosaic in the country which covers 99 per cent of the landmass. It is inconceivable that government in this day and age would invest in a duplicate network... To give you a sense of dimension, to go from 98 to 99 per cent coverage in Australia requires the addition of 900,000 square kilometres of network coverage."

In addition to the significant cost of building a national emergency network, Althaus argued there would be significant opportunity costs to the telecommunications industry from being unable to access 700MHz spectrum.

"It can't be overstressed that you would be seeing billions of dollars of investment in something that would effectively duplicate what is already in place," he said.

"The emergency services have extraordinary expertise at a lot of things, including telecommunications, but they should be doing what they do best and we should be doing what we do best."

"It would be a shameful waste of 700meg spectrum to have it sitting, essentially fallow for extensive period of time when natural disasters are not taking place."

Responding to suggestions the costs for capacity for emergency services organisations (ESOs) during recent disasters had been too high, Althaus said it was best left to the market to decide the capacity and cost provided during a disaster.

"The recent range of unfortunate events from the 2009 bushfires through to the floods and Cyclone Yasi saw the industry, and particularly the three primary carriers, respond as they do at considerable cost," he said.

"When we send people into the field using a helicopter to refuel a base station to maintain connectivity our primary thought in doing that is completion of the end-to-end communications flow for emergency service management."

"The industry does not go and do those things with the immediate moment in mind in terms of profit and bottom line.

"We are there to be in partnership with the ESOs to get communication system viable in times of stress so we can use it to best advantage.

"You can't get away from the fact the this is a business and the carriers and industry are in business to make money however this goes to a higher relationship, I think."

Althaus added that the National Broadband Network (NBN) would "undoubtedly" be part of the delivery of communications in future emergency services and would, with its fibre network, provide a complement to carriers' mobile services.

"It is a backbone and very, very important backbone [for mobile services] given the sorts of volumes of data that are expected," Althaus said.

Follow Tim Lohman on Twitter: @Tlohman

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