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Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Page: 5471

Mr ALBANESE (Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government) (9:09 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The bill proposes amendments to the Radiocommunications Act 1992 (the act) to:

  • give the independent radiocommunications regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) greater flexibility in the time frame in which it can commence reissuing spectrum licences;
  • allow the ACMA to issue class licences in the same spectrum space allocated or designated for spectrum licences (coexistence); and
  • vary the treatment of certain ministerial determinations and directions made under the act.

In the late 1990s, the government commenced auctioning a number of spectrum licences to support a market based approach to licensing of the radiofrequency spectrum. The licences had a 15-year tenure, flexible conditions and were fully tradeable. Australia was amongst the first countries in the world to issue licences on this basis. Many of these licences are now used by telecommunication carriers to provide mobile phone and wireless access services to millions of Australians.

The first of the 15-year licences are due to expire in 2013 with the remainder by 2017.

The act requires the ACMA to publish a notice advising which spectrum licences are due to expire within the next two years and inviting expressions of interest in the spectrum. The ACMA is also restricted from issuing draft spectrum licences as part of their marketing plan until two years prior to licences’ expiry.

Incumbent licensees have consistently called for greater certainty about licence reissue. Without such certainty it is claimed that there will be a reluctance to maintain investment in infrastructure and service provision with potential adverse impacts on coverage and service quality.

The bill amends the act to remove the current timing constraint which restricts the ACMA to publishing notices about expiring spectrum licences and publishing draft spectrum licences to two years prior to licence expiry. Removing this time constraint will provide greater flexibility for the ACMA in terms of when it can commence licence reissue processes. The ACMA would still be required to seek expressions of interest for spectrum licences prior to expiry.

The bill also amends the act to permit coexistence of class licences and spectrum licences in the same spectrum band.

New technologies are being developed that could greatly increase the technical and productive efficiency of spectrum use. Such technologies are intended to allow devices to share spectrum with traditional radiocommunications without harmful interference. Over time there will be widespread adoption of new technologies in a range of devices that would be readily available in Australia. These new technologies may be authorised by the ACMA under class licences.

Under current legislation, in bands subject to spectrum licensing, the only way to accommodate these new technologies is through a third-party authorisation by the incumbent spectrum licensee. To date, experience shows this to be problematic.

It is important that the Australian radiocommunications regulatory framework be sufficiently flexible to meet such challenges and to enhance the effective management and allocation of spectrum.

The bill makes additional amendments to clarify the operation of provisions relating to the variation of existing class licences to coexist with spectrum licences in the same spectrum allocation.

The bill includes safeguards. Before applying any coexistence provisions involving class licences in a spectrum licensed allocation, the ACMA would be required to develop adequate safeguards through consultation with industry. The ACMA would also need to satisfy itself that the new technologies coexist without unacceptable interference to primary services and are in the public interest.

The amendments on coexistence will not affect current spectrum licences and licensees; they will only affect new or reissued spectrum licences issued in the future.

The bill amends the act to make ministerial determinations, specifying classes of services for which reissuing the same licence to the same licensee is in the public interest, legislative instruments that are not subject to disallowance. These determinations will, however, be published on the Register of Legislative Instruments.

Delays from the possible disallowance of a determination could have a material negative impact on conducting licence reissue discussions with incumbent licensees, particularly those licences which are due to expire in mid-2013.

The bill further amends the act to make written ministerial directions to the ACMA concerning spectrum access charges legislative instruments not subject to disallowance. The measure is consistent with existing provisions in the Legislative Instruments Act 2003 that instruments of this kind are not legislative in nature. The amendment will also protect commercially sensitive pricing information relating to the licence reissue discussions from being published before ACMA reissue processes are completed. Consistent with current practices, it is expected that the ACMA would make known the prices paid for reissued licences. I commend the bill to the house.

Debate (on motion by Mr Andrews) adjourned.