There is no doubt that the rollout of 5G mobile networks – anticipated to occur in Australia from approximately 2020 – will have a profound impact on the communications sector. The Australian Government is very aware of this issue and, to facilitate this, announced on 12 October 2017 the establishment of a new 5G working group which will, to quote the Minister for Communications, “provide a platform for an ongoing strategic dialogue on 5G”.

The fifth generation of mobile networks

5G refers to the next generation of mobile networks, beyond the 4G long term evolution (or LTE) mobile networks operated in Australia today.

In addition to announcing the establishment of the 5G working group, the Government has also released a 5G directions paper. That directions paper demonstrates that the Government sees the advent of 5G as facilitating significant changes in the mobile communications market, with the directions paper highlighting that 5G will provide for high data rates, significantly improved connectivity, very low latency, high reliability and mobility at high speeds. It is anticipated that 5G will provide a broad range of benefits across a wide range of sectors.

5G will also be used in fixed line networks. NBN Co, the Government owned entity responsible for construction and operation of Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN), already holds spectrum in the 3.5GHz band, which is suitable for 5G use. NBN Co has advised that it will announce its 5G plans in the short term.

What steps are being taken by Government?

It is not yet clear who will be appointed to the Government’s proposed 5G working group or how it will operate. Based on the details provided so far, the group will have representatives of both Government and industry and will work to ensure that regulatory frameworks are updated to take advantage of 5G.

The Government sees its role in 5G deployment as ensuring that regulatory and policy frameworks support the rollout and do not create unnecessary roadblocks. The Government’s directions paper provides that, in addition to the new taskforce, the Government will perform a key role in the following areas to facilitate the rollout of 5G networks:

  • Making the necessary spectrum available quickly
  • Continuing to engage in existing international standardisation processes
  • Streamlining planning arrangements for deployment of necessary infrastructure
  • Updating the existing telecommunications regulatory regime

While these actions may sound straightforward, all come with challenges, some of which are discussed further below.

Making spectrum available

Clearly, making spectrum available for 5G is critical. The directions paper notes the existing work that the Government is undertaking to replace the Radiocommunications Act 1992 (Cth), a project that was first announced in May 2014 (see here for details of that reform process). One of the primary aims of that reform is to allow for quicker allocations of spectrum, a greater degree of flexibility in spectrum use and improved certainty for users. This will provide obvious benefits in the management and allocation of spectrum suitable for 5G. However, the timing for the new legislation has slipped, with the likelihood that it will now not be passed until, at the earliest, late 2018. Factoring in the proposed transition period, this means it is highly likely that the existing regulatory processes will apply to initial allocations of spectrum for 5G uses.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the Australian regulator responsible for spectrum allocation, has recognised this. ACMA has started the process for 5G spectrum planning under the existing regulatory regime, including for example by commencing consultations on a proposal for an accelerated process for releasing millimetre wave spectrum for 5G in September 2017 and also on proposals for the 3.6GHz band (including the replanning of that band), which will be an early pioneer band for 5G, in June 2017.

In late November 2017 ACMA will undertake an auction of a small number of spectrum lots, with some of that spectrum suitable for 5G use (for our briefing on that auction process, see here). The outcomes of that auction are likely to provide an early indicator of demand for 5G spectrum.

Streamlining planning arrangements

The infrastructure required for a 5G network rollout is different to that required for a 4G network. Smaller antennas and equipment are required, though more infrastructure is needed, given that 5G spectrum is only able to travel a small distance. This has put a spotlight on the regulation applicable to the installation of this infrastructure.

In June 2017, the Government released a consultation paper on proposed amendments to the so-called “telecommunications carrier powers and immunities” (see our briefing here). These powers and immunities are contained in Commonwealth legislation and regulation and, amongst other things, allow carriers to enter land for the purposes of installing and maintaining certain types of telecommunications facilities, generally without the need to comply with State/Territory based planning laws and regulations. The Government believes those proposed reforms will assist in the 5G rollout. However, the consultation did not result in unanimous support for the changes with many stakeholders, including local governments and property sector stakeholders, opposed. The 5G discussion paper seems to suggest that, notwithstanding the concerns expressed, the reforms will be implemented.

Reviewing regulatory regime

In referring to the Government’s objective of reviewing the regulatory regime, the 5G discussion paper again mentions the spectrum regulation reform and also refers to previously announced proposals for the modernisation of ACMA (see here). There is an additional reference to the Government continuing to work with industry to modernise the telecommunications regulatory framework. There have been various announcements since the time of the Government’s response to the 2015 Regional Telecommunications Review of other reforms, including in relation to the controversial telecommunications universal service obligation, but consultations on other reforms to the telecommunications regulatory framework have not been announced.

Concluding comments

The rollout of 5G networks is likely to be very significant for the Australian economy. The release of the discussion paper and the announcement of the new 5G taskforce demonstrates that the Government is aware of the importance of this upcoming technology change. Industry and Government will each need to work proactively to ensure that the benefits of 5G are realised in Australia.