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Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement - 24/06/2013 - Spectrum for public safety mobile broadband

HEWITT, Mr Ronald James, Member and former Chair, National Coordinating Committee for Government Radiocommunications


CHAIR: Welcome. Mr Hewitt, thank you very much for coming along, and thank you very much for the indulgence of standing yourself down while we heard the last witness. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Hewitt : I have a couple of apologies to explain why the chair is not actually presenting to you. Firstly, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to give evidence today. I have to make two apologies. The Chairman of the National Coordinating Committee for Government Radiocommunications, NCCGR, is currently overseas. As the former chair and the local ACT representative for the NCCGR, I am appearing in his place. Secondly, the NCCGR was given two weeks to prepare a statement and obtain a release from all Australian jurisdictions. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to clear the draft through all jurisdictions in this time frame. After discussion with the members, it has been decided that the committee cannot supply an endorsed statement with three jurisdictions uncleared. Therefore, I would like to present a statement as the ACT representative of the NCCGR. At this stage, I would also like to seek the opportunity to have the formally endorsed statement lodged with the committee when available.

CHAIR: Sure. We might do the same scenario. We might ask questions and, when we invite you to mop up with any unresolved issues or issues that have not been touched upon, you have indicated that we should understand that you are speaking only as the ACT representative of the NCCGR.

Mr Hewitt : That is correct.

CHAIR: Could you just explain, from my point of view, the NCCGR's role in achieving this national Public Safety Mobile Broadband Network? Who do you represent and what input have you had?

Mr Hewitt : The Auditor-General's Department presentation to you mentioned the national framework of interoperability that was endorsed by COAG in 2009. The NCCGR drafted that framework, and it is responsible for achieving its outputs by 2020. The work you are doing here is, of course, critical to that interoperability function and spectrum management function inside that framework.

CHAIR: I had cause over a few years to look at most of the inquiries that happened, whether it was a royal commission or an inquiry after a major natural disaster—most specifically, the Victorian bushfires and the Queensland floods. Universally, they have looked at the inadequacy of communication, both in terms of the lack of a common platform and the capability of that communication. From posterity's point of view, we want to ensure that we are not creating a situation which seems to us to be an opportunity that is now available to the Australian people where we miss that opportunity and end up facing criticism in a future royal commission that says 'the spectrum allocated was either inadequate, was in the wrong band or was not properly coordinated'. What is your take on committees looking at the importance of this coordinated communication?

Mr Hewitt : I believe there have been considerable misunderstandings, some undue haste in some of the reporting processes. Combinations of those things have led to some of the confusion that you have seen in this room today. From the overseas examples, where people have deployed these systems and are now starting to get a good feel for how they work and what they can do with them, universally they are saying that 20 megahertz is the absolute minimum you can run them on effectively.

CHAIR: And what is your view of that?

Mr Hewitt : I can only bear witness to what our emergency service brothers overseas, who are actually practically doing this, are finding. You can model all you want and talk about the engineering all you want, but when you get out there in the field and discover that you have not got enough bandwidth or network capacity, that is the proof of the pudding.

CHAIR: And, I suppose, more profoundly, if you have not got it to allocate anymore.

Mr Hewitt : That is right. That is the other issue. The choices of spectrum in 800 should be looked at quite carefully. If the chunk at the bottom of the 800 is used, the capacity for expansion is quite limited because you are sitting on top of the 700 megahertz allocation, which has already been allocated to commercial operators. It would, basically, snooker you into a corner.

CHAIR: If you only allocated ten from that lower 800?

Mr Hewitt : There is only ten in there. There is nowhere to go after that. You would not be using that piece of spectrum if you were looking at expansion.

CHAIR: One argument that has been put in one of the submissions is that, if we did limit ourselves to a recommendation of ten, we would effectively be assigning emergency responders to a far less capability than an adolescent in their bedroom would have in gaming and collaborating and competing with gaming people on gaming programs around the world.

Mr Hewitt : Even at the best of times, on these networks you are only generating realistic values of four megahertz. Most people have 10 to 20 megahertz coming into their homes on their own ADSL accounts. And that four or five megahertz has to be shared with every responder who turns up on the incident. Once you start slicing that up into video streams and moving GIS files, which are enormous, around the place, you are going to find that that is going to get chewed up very quickly. For example, there was an industrial fire a few years ago out in the Mitchell area.

CHAIR: I recall that.

Mr Hewitt : In that sort of situation you are moving mapping products out to the people in the field. You are designating where roadblocks are going to be. You are designating where plumes of smoke, possibly poisonous smoke, are going. You are designating evacuation areas. Met data is being pumped into those sorts of products. It is all going backwards and forwards from the responders and from our headquarters in Fairbairn. At the same time we were running the international alerting system out there. People were receiving SMSes to stay indoors, close their windows, yada yada yada. If we were to roll onto commercial networks and push that service off, those messages would not be received.

CHAIR: I see. This is the national emergency warning system that sends out SMSes and will shortly have the location based capability. So, if the first responders were to second commercial networks, it would make that national emergency system less viable. Is that the case?

Mr Hewitt : Absolutely. Secondly, although this is anecdotal and I cannot demonstrate this, the alerting system tends to drive up use on the network. When you wake up somebody with an SMS, warn them and get them all wound up about poisonous gas, the first thing they do if they have their phone in their hand is open their browser and try to find out what is going on. Every time another thousand people get this SMS, another thousand people go onto the network. There seems to be an issue there that will need to be more carefully observed in future, I suspect.

CHAIR: There are some protocols there, yes.

Senator PARRY: Thank you very much for your frank comments so far. The 20 megahertz, if that was allocated in the 800 band—and we heard today that there will be 30 available—where will that sit? You mentioned this is the low 800s. To assist me and the committee technically, do the 30 or the 20 need to sit together, or can it be like five here and five over there? It needs to be in one complete bandwidth together, without anything interrupting in between; is that correct?

Mr Hewitt : Yes, you need contiguous spectrum.

Senator PARRY: Thank you, that was the word I was looking for. Okay. So, in the 700s, where would it have been allocated? Do you know?

Mr Hewitt : I am not sure which chunk of the 700 is still sitting on the table. But there is 15 plus 15 remaining available.

Senator PARRY: And that would obviously be linked together in that space that you need?

Mr Hewitt : Yes, it is paired.

Senator PARRY: So there is capacity in the 800s, providing it is put at a higher level so they are all together; is that correct? Now, the higher you go in the 800s, does it lose any capability or does the whole 800 spectrum have similar capability?

Mr Hewitt : As has been stated here earlier, there is a slight technical performance advantage on 700 meg, and, the higher you take the 800 up, the more significant that difference becomes. As for whether or not it is a factor that would be a deciding factor, in a big fire emergency services will take any advantage they can get. So that is possibly something that should be considered. My concern with the 800 is the availability of chipsets, the cost of these things. You can harmonise the 800 band, but most of Asia have already deployed their police and emergency service narrowband voice systems in that space that has been identified by ACMA.

CHAIR: Sorry, what space is that?

Senator PARRY: The 800s.

Mr Hewitt : As was pointed out, it was identified some years ago as PPDR, so it has been used and is currently in use in Asia by police and emergency services for narrowband voice, not for broadband data. Now, the question that has never been answered and I cannot give you any answer to is: while you can harmonise that spectrum as broadband data, are our Asian neighbours prepared to push out all their own voice systems and replace them with broadband data at some costs to themselves? Why would they do it?

Senator PARRY: Well, this is new evidence to us. What you are saying then, and I am converting this back to our understanding, is that that space in the 800s has been allocated, but to voice only.

Mr Hewitt : That is correct.

Senator PARRY: And that would need some major reconfiguration?

Mr Hewitt : They would have to move.

Senator PARRY: Right. So there is no disadvantage to us moving into the 700s, from that perspective?

Mr Hewitt : I know what ACMA is trying to do. International harmonisation is a positive thing. It is difficult to achieve. It is a long-term planning thing. It is the one factor with the 800 that does concern me, though, in that we have no assurance that people will move even if you do harmonise it; and, if people do not move, then they will not buy chipsets and so Australia will be still on its own.

Senator PARRY: Okay. So there could be no commercial advantage in us having an 800—

Mr Hewitt : Possibly not.

CHAIR: In fairness to ACMA, I think they have said they are focused on the 800 because the government had indicated they were going to reassign the 700 and take it to market.

Mr Hewitt : That is correct, yes.

CHAIR: But, since all of that occurred and ACMA were being directed in that direction, we have seen that 30 megahertz in the 700 band did not sell. Does that present a case for us to re-examine an allocation in the 700?

Mr Hewitt : In truth, the documentation and the work that has been done by emergency services does not cite the 700 because, quite early on in the piece, it was made clear that that was going out to commercial auction and that it was off the table. It is only in recent times that the auction has run its course and 30 megahertz has been left lying there. I do not think at this stage the emergency services have got a considered opinion on whether or not they should be pursuing it. I do not think they have had time to think it through. I do not see much difference between 700 and 800 except that 700 is a clear and free open chunk of spectrum that is going to be used internationally for LTE. Technically I do not see much of a performance difference but from a risk of commercial issues aspect probably 700 might be a lower risk for us than 800.

Senator PARRY: The next question is 20 versus 30. As of how we sit today we have heard evidence that 20 would be adequate, 10 is not. Do you see a need, and you really alluded to this in some of your other remarks, to look at more? Do you think 30 is a more sustainable option for us, so at least it is there?

Mr Hewitt : To be frank, the reason that no one has put 30 forward is we did not think we would get 20. Thirty has never been a proposition that has been socialised at all, which is the reason that you do not see it anywhere. I can only give you an analogy of hard drives—20 years ago we figured we would never fill up that one meg hard drive, and here we are today with terabytes sitting in our PCs. It will be the same thing. It will be the same as data services on mobile phones. Once people understand what they can do with this technology, and the fact that they have a bearer they can use, applications will start popping up all over the place and they will chew the capacity up quickly.

Mr MATHESON: If you were going to go in one direction in relation to 800 band or 700 band, what direction would you go in?

Mr Hewitt : My personal choice would be 700.

Mr MATHESON: For what reasons?

Mr Hewitt : I think there are fewer risks in it.

Mr MATHESON: The Police Federation of Australia have stated previously that their operational requirements are being dictated to by the government forcing them into the 800 band. It is not addressing their requirements; they are saying that they need that two by 10, or the 20 megahertz, in the 700 band, when it becomes available. They have made those comments recently—even though you did say in your comments that they have not made that indication, they are now pushing that issue.

Mr Hewitt : People are starting to see that opportunity and starting to move down that line. And 700 is effectively available sooner than 800, and 700 is an international LTE band—it will be used all over the world. Chips are made and sold all over the world for LTE. It will be commercial chipsets, but they are exactly the same chipsets as we will be dropping into our boxes.

Mr MATHESON: 'LTE' is long-term evolution?

Mr Hewitt : Yes. It is 4G, by the way. That is what is referred to as 4G over here in Australia. Those chipsets will be banging out all over the world.

Mr MATHESON: That is why I ask about going straight into the 700 band. It is readily available, we could have it up and running as quickly as possible. That to me seems to be a great benefit in relation to public safety. I just do not see why it is not the first consideration instead of an alternative consideration.

Mr Hewitt : There are also some misunderstandings regarding the cost of deploying these networks and the speed. The consultants reporting that was done, which a lot of this stuff is based on, is based on a greenfield rollout of these systems. That is not a criticism of the consultant—that is what they were told to do, so that is what they did. Speaking again as the ACT radio networks manager in this case, we would never do that. I have got a microwave ring that circles the ACT in place now.

CHAIR: So you piggyback on some of that infrastructure?

Mr Hewitt : Yes, exactly. I would build no sites, no backhaul and no power suppliers. I do outdoor installs where the little white sector antenna you see on the poles is the only thing you install. There is nothing in the shed; you are just connecting up power and a category 6 cable.

CHAIR: So when there is talk of a $7 billion infrastructure spend, as was suggested to us in the United States, you are ignoring the fact that you already have considerable infrastructure in place.

Mr Hewitt : If you have a look at your Ericsson submission, they point out that in greenfield sites 80 per cent of the expenditure is in towers, sheds, power and backhaul, and the equipment is only 20 per cent. That is all we are deploying. Ericsson is a world leader in the stuff.

CHAIR: Private providers tend to come together now on various poles and so forth, don't they?

Mr Hewitt : Yes. So for us it is relatively cheap and would be relatively quick. On the issues with cores, the new project 25 voice cores that we use—which are the guts of the network for our voice systems that we use and for virtually every jurisdiction in Australia—now come LTE-ready so you just drop an extra server into the core and off you go.

CHAIR: Yes. I just have one question, and it arises from Mr Matheson's point about what happens if we move in one direction. What hit me was that I think I have about 10 megahertz coming into our household, and that is frequently at least slowed down, becoming almost unusable, because of my 13-year-old daughter downloading videos of One Direction. So that is the sort of comparison we are looking at: a household would have 10 megahertz, roughly.

Mr Hewitt : It has been mentioned before here too that the carriers have enormous capacity in their networks and suck up terabytes of information. When we have an incident it is likely to be on one sector antenna, as in the Mitchell Bridge collapse. That is not a moving incident; it is going to be sitting there on one sector and that is all you are going to get to cover something like the Mitchell Bridge collapse. It is those sorts of differences in the way we operate. On the concept of hardening the commercial networks, I find that economically crazy, in fact. We would be less than one per cent of their carriage of data through their networks, yet you are going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars hardening complete fibre backbones that circle Australia to secure less than one per cent of the traffic that is being carried on those networks. That does not seem sensible; it does not seem economically rational. You would be way better off just putting in microwave, which is what we consistently use today.

We do not have the demand that the commercials do. We do not have millions of people—kids with flip phones downloading television programs. We do not have that sort of demand. Our networks are quite different. The idea of just putting in more sites and having more density to get more capacity is one of the weaknesses in the commercial systems. They put in lots and lots of sites in low-lying areas, so you get lot of good spectral re-use. Unfortunately, during something like the Newcastle floods they are underwater, so they stop working. That is another commercial difference between what we do and what they do. What they do is very sensible. They have excellent designs in their networks,. They have maximised the spectrum they have available, which is very expensive. It is an expensive resource for them and they maximise it to the greatest degree, and they have great engineers who work out how to do that. But that does not necessarily make it a highly resilient emergency services network.

CHAIR: Thanks very much for your evidence. I cut you off at the outset. Do you have anything that you want to say to supplement the questions or the issues we have covered.

Mr Hewitt : No. I would like to apologise again for our inability to get our chairman or our executive officer, who is also on leave, down here.

CHAIR: We really appreciate it. Thanks very much for staying till the end.

Mr Hewitt : Thank you.

Committee adjourned at 12: 19