Australia’s Department of Communications publishes report on future directions for spectrum

26 May 2015

Australia’s Department of Communications has published its ‘Spectrum Review Report’, which outlines the future directions for spectrum management and recommends changes designed to improve the frequency management framework. With the report calling for the simplification of the process for new and existing spectrum users, and suggesting ‘increasing opportunities for market-based arrangements, including spectrum sharing and trading’, the three main recommendations in the report are: to replace the current legislative arrangements with streamlined legislation that focusses on the outcomes rather than the process, for a simpler and more flexible framework; to better integrate the management of public sector and broadcasting spectrum to improve the consistency and integrity of the framework; and to review spectrum pricing to ensure consistent and transparent arrangements to support the efficient use of spectrum and secondary markets.

According to the government, the recommended legislation would simplify regulatory structures, streamline regulatory processes and clarify the role of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). Further, it would also provide for greater use of market mechanisms and, consistent with the state’s deregulation agenda, rationalise the number of licence categories, and reform current highly prescriptive and lengthy allocation processes.

As per the recommended new framework the government’s role in ensuring the adequate provision of spectrum for key public and community services would be maintained, while the state would provide policy direction and guidance to the ACMA as regulator and continue to manage Australia’s participation in international forums. If the review recommendations are agreed by the government then the next stage of the reform process is the development of detailed legislative and regulatory measures, which would be undertaken in close consultation with stakeholders.

Such reforms, the report notes, would include: the establishment of a single licensing system based on the parameters of the licence, including duration and renewal rights; clarification of the roles and responsibilities of the communications minister and the ACMA; the provision of transparent and timely spectrum allocation and reallocation processes and methods, while allowing for allocation and reallocation of encumbered spectrum; the provision of more opportunities for spectrum users to participate in spectrum management, through delegation of functions and user driven dispute resolution; and improved compliance and enforcement by introducing proportionate and graduated enforcement mechanisms for breaches of either the law or licence conditions.

Implementation stages would commence following the passage of legislation, and with these to include ongoing consultation with stakeholders, the state expects progress ‘over a period of some years’. According to its planned timeline, assuming the government policy approval to implement the proposed reforms is forthcoming by mid-2015, then the broad activities and indicative timing for the major work streams to be completed by late 2016 would include the release of consolidated legislative reform package (September 2015) and the passage of this package by early- to mid-2016. Meanwhile, with regards to initial policy statements and subordinate regulation, the state expects to release a policy statement following the passage of the legislative package, following which the ACMA will commence a formal consultation on a draft annual work program in mid-2016. In terms of introducing the single licensing system, initial examples of model concessions will be prepared for release from mid-2015, with a consultation to take place between mid-2015 and early-2016. The ACMA will subsequently commence formal consultation on draft licensing options in mid- 2016, before the ‘progressive implementation’ of the new licensing system in late-2016. Further measures to fully operationalise the new framework, including allocation and reallocation processes, technical regulation and compliance and enforcement measures, will be introduced during the course of 2016 and 2017.