The Department of Communications on Friday 22 May 2015 released its Spectrum Review Paper outlining its recommendations in the review of Australia’s radio spectrum management framework. The Department proposes a complete re-write of the Radiocommunications Act with the aim of increasing transparency, efficiency, flexibility, certainty and simplicity in the management of spectrum.

The key recommendations of the Department are to:

  • create a single type of spectrum licence;
  • improve spectrum administration by simplifying processes and increasing transparency;
  • provide greater certainty for licensees;
  • allow greater flexibility to share and trade spectrum;
  • provide more enforcement options for breaches of the Act; and
  • streamline the requirements for radiocommunications devices.

The Spectrum Review

In May 2014 the Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, announced a review of the spectrum policy and management framework in Australia. The Terms of Reference jointly tasked the Department and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) with undertaking the review.

As part of its review, the Department has released two papers for discussion. Our previous client alert on the Department’s consultation paper, with more detail on some of the reform options, is available here. Since then, the Department has held over 40 meetings with industry, the Government and community stakeholders including a stakeholder workshop with over 100 attendees. The Spectrum Review Paper outlines the recommendations of the Department following this consultation.

The Department identifies that while the current legislative framework was progressive when it was introduced over 20 years ago, it has become “slow, rigid and administratively cumbersome”. The Department’s principal example for this is the re-allocation of Australia’s digital dividend (the 694-820 MHz spectrum previously used for TV broadcasting and now used for 4G mobile services) that took about 3 years and involved 16 legislative instruments being passed by the Minister or the ACMA.

The Department proposes that the Government pass new legislation to replace theRadiocommunications Act 1992 (Cth).

Click here to view table.

What this means for spectrum licensees

In the immediate future, licensees should be prepared for ongoing consultation with the Department and the ACMA in the development of the new legislation. The Department has outlined an ambitious timeframe for the development and enactment of the new spectrum management framework as follows:

Click here to view image.

If the new legislative framework is adopted, the report recommends transitional arrangements so that existing licences continue to be governed by the current regime until they expire. A spectrum licensee will, however, be able to elect for the new regime to apply. The report flags that licensees should be encouraged to move to the new framework to reduce the burden of having both regimes operate in parallel. Whether licensees decide to move to the new framework will depend largely on the incentives offered. This decision will be an important one for licensees if and when the new framework is introduced.

On the whole, the Department’s proposals appear to be relatively well considered and are likely to be fairly well received. While the Department’s timeframe is ambitious, it is not implausible that Australia will have a new spectrum management framework before the end of next year.

The full spectrum review paper can be found here.