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PC News - March 2016

Delivering mobile broadband to Australia's public safety agencies

Commercial carriers represent the most efficient, effective and economical approach for delivering mobile broadband to public safety agencies.

Mobile broadband technology has the potential to transform how Australia's public safety agencies (PSAs) - police, fire, ambulance and other emergency services - perform their duties. It can open up new ways for PSAs to access and share information while in the field. This represents a significant opportunity to save lives and property, improve officer safety and drive productivity gains in how PSAs operate.

Most PSAs currently rely on voice radio to communicate. While these networks have generally proved highly reliable, they offer limited scope to transfer data. And historically, different agencies have tended to use their own separate networks, which has sometimes made it impossible to communicate with one another or with their interstate counterparts.

Some PSAs have started using mobile broadband, but uptake has been modest and piecemeal to date. This reflects concerns about the quality of service offered by Australia's commercial mobile carriers. To rely on mobile broadband in situations where lives are on the line, PSAs need confidence that they can access sufficient capacity when and where they need it. In other words, they need a 'public safety grade' service.

Reflecting this, the Australian Government asked the Productivity Commission to undertake a first principles analysis to identify the most efficient, effective and economical way of delivering a public safety mobile broadband (PSMB) capability to PSAs by 2020.

What did the Commission do?

The Commission evaluated three ways that a PSMB capability could be delivered:

  • building a dedicated network to the specific standards that PSAs require
  • using services delivered by a commercial carrier, with investments in that carrier's network to meet PSAs' requirements
  • hybrid approaches that combine a dedicated network with commercial services - with the dedicated network built to cover all areas that currently have mobile broadband, or just in urban areas where most of the population lives.

How could mobile broadband improve public safety?

  • Police officers could remotely access databases and more easily record key evidence, saving time spent on administrative tasks.

    Firefighters could download maps and building plans while en route to an emergency, making it easier to identify how best to respond.

    Information could be more effectively shared between emergency services and the community. It could also be better shared across agencies and jurisdictions, allowing public safety agencies to work more effectively together.

Each of these options would be technically feasible, though the precise way that mobile services are delivered would vary. The cost of each option was estimated by adding up the cost of the specific equipment and inputs that would likely be needed. The benefits and risks of each option were assessed qualitatively, given the difficulty in measuring these in dollar terms.

A commercial approach minimises costs

The analysis found that deploying a dedicated PSMB capability is nearly three times more expensive than relying on commercial networks: $6.2 billion versus $2.2 billion over 20 years. This largely is because a dedicated option requires significantly more investment in new equipment. The hybrid options fell in between, depending on the footprint of the dedicated network.

The results varied depending on the inputs used in the analysis. However, the ranking of options was robust to changes in the specific assumptions and parameter values (as illustrated opposite).

Other factors also matter

While the benefits of PSMB are likely to be substantial, the options under evaluation were designed such that the benefits of each were not expected to vary markedly. However, some key risks are likely to vary across options.

PSMB delivery costs - best and worse case sensitivity analysis

  • Sensitivity analysis – Best and worst case. This figure charts tables C.55 and C.56 in appendix C. It shows that there is significant variation in estimated costs depending on assumed parameter values. It also shows that the ranking of different options does not change when parameter values are varied.

While the technology exists to provide PSAs with priority access and capacity over other network users in a commercial approach, the precise service levels that could or would be delivered are uncertain. Moreover, the state of competition in markets for mobile broadband services and equipment could make it more challenging for governments to obtain value for money under a commercial approach.

On the other hand, a dedicated network is expected to take longer to deliver and may face greater risk of delay. It would also provide much less scope to immediately scale up the capacity delivered to PSAs during large-scale emergencies - unlike a commercial approach, where networks already serve millions of other users.

Pilots should be the next step

The Commission concluded that a commercial approach offers the best way forward. However, small-scale pilots of the technology would provide an opportunity to build PSAs' confidence in this approach. Pilots would also help governments to better understand the benefits of PSMB and build a business case to expand the capability.

Ultimately, each jurisdiction - the States, Territories and Australian Government - is responsible for deciding whether or how to provide its PSAs with mobile broadband. Nevertheless, all jurisdictions should agree on common technical protocols to support interoperability across agencies and state borders.

Not least, PSAs will be responsible for taking up PSMB and using it to improve how they operate. To make the most of this new capability, institutional barriers to PSAs sharing information or network capacity with one another will need to be overcome.

Public Safety Mobile Broadband: Summary of the Commission's recommendations*

  • Governments and PSAs that decide to deploy a PSMB capability should undertake pilots of a commercial approach on a small scale. This would provide an opportunity to demonstrate the technical and commercial feasibility of the approach; evaluate the costs, benefits and risks; and develop the business case and resolve uncertainties ahead of a wider-scale rollout.

  • Governments that decide to facilitate the deployment of a PSMB capability should set clear expectations and deadlines for their PSAs to develop inter-agency protocols for sharing information over mobile broadband. Where two or more PSAs share the same PSMB capability, protocols are also needed for prioritising specific agencies, users, devices and applications.

  • All jurisdictions should agree on a set of minimum technical protocols to facilitate interoperability over PSMB.

  • If the Australian Communications and Media Authority licences spectrum for PSMB, it should be priced at its opportunity cost.

  • Governments and PSAs that decide to deploy a PSMB capability should maximise value for money by using competitive procurement. Strategies include splitting up tenders, leveraging infrastructure assets and insisting on open technology standards.

* A complete list of findings and recommendations is available in the report overview.

Public Safety Mobile Broadband

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