The government is set to auction extra mobile broadband spectrum in late 2021 that will be freed up in a reorganisation of the 850MHz and 900MHz bands.
The structure of the bands - used by Telstra, Optus and Vodafone to deliver mobile services - has been under question since 2017.
But there has long been disagreement on how spectrum in the bands could be reorganised without disrupting the 3G (and occasional 4G) services those bands are used for.
The disagreement remains, but the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) said it will plough ahead with a planned reconfiguration of the band.
“Reconfiguration of the 900MHz band will enable it to be utilised for 4G and 5G mobile broadband services,” the ACMA said in a decision paper.
“The current configuration is not conducive to optimally efficient carriage of 4G or 5G services, which means that large parts of the band are either not being used efficiently, or in some cases, at all.
“Reconfiguration of the band into 5MHz paired lots represents the most efficient configuration for the band.”
At the same time, the ACMA is planning to release some additional spectrum in the adjacent 800MHz band, which could allow telcos to secure larger slices of spectrum in which to run mobile broadband services.
The ACMA said it plans to package up the available spectrum and auction it in late 2021.
The outstanding issue is service continuity.
Telcos are worried that reconfiguring the band will disrupt their 3G operations and cause grief for customers, particularly if they are unable to secure as much spectrum as they already had.
Telstra has already said it plans to shut its 3G network in 2024, meaning continuity is in many ways a time-limited problem.
The ACMA said the Communications Minister Paul Fletcher had the power to “set aside” enough spectrum for existing players, and to set allocation limits that also affected how much more each could buy at auction.
“We acknowledge concerns of incumbent licensees about service continuity and note that should the government wish to mitigate risks to continuity of consumer services by providing certainty to incumbent licensees in the band, this can be achieved through the use of allocation limits,” the ACMA said.
In a statement, Fletcher indicated the Government was open to setting allocation limits.
“The Government will consult with stakeholders, including incumbents and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, on the potential use of allocation limits to achieve the Government’s objectives,” he said.
“It is important that we have spectrum allocation processes which support the introduction of vitally important new services such as 5G mobile. But it is also important that our spectrum policy settings do not trigger a disruption in service to existing 3G customers.
“I will work with industry to promote continuity of services in the band and seek to minimise any potential impact to consumers as a result of changes to spectrum holdings.”