19 May 2017

The long-anticipated Exposure Draft of the Radiocommunications Bill 2017 has been released by the Government, two years after the Report of the Spectrum Review was released in May 2015.

Progress on this significant and complex reform is welcome, particularly given the Department estimates the value of Australia’s spectrum to the national economy to be $177 billion over 15 years.

While the twenty-odd documents released do much to expand on and advance understanding of various framework, process and transitional issues, the overarching policy intent on key matters, in the form of draft Ministerial policy statements, is yet to be articulated.  

In something of a chicken-and-egg scenario, the Department is consulting on a principles-based and outcomes-focussed draft Bill in the absence of draft Ministerial policy statements that go to matters as fundamental as the single licensing system, including licence issue and conditions and end of licence term processes and renewal rights, for example.

To facilitate consideration of the exposure draft of the Bill, the ACMA has helpfully supplied supplementary materials intended to provide stakeholders with a greater understanding of how it envisages key aspects of the Bill may operate, should it be enacted, however much of this thinking remains subject to Ministerial policy statements.

What is clear is that this once-in-25-year reform offers up a number of opportunities for substantial change – the success of which will determine the extent to which the benefits of spectrum are realised or improved upon.

Ultimately, the ACMA will be responsible for the important and monumental task of designing and developing new spectrum management arrangements in accordance with the exposure draft of the Bill, should the Bill be enacted in its current form, as well as transitioning spectrum users between legislative frameworks. Furthermore, as the ACMA states in its Licensing paper, there are several projects which could be undertaken as part of the transition to the new legislative framework, and which may best be undertaken as part of a longer term change strategy. These include international experience in spectrum management and licence system design, the potential to convert some licences into spectrum authorisations and a review re-farming mechanisms and the potential for contestable spectrum management.

It is concerning that the regulator is expected to prepare for this generational change on the smell of an oily rag.

The 2017-18 Budget makes no provision for preparatory work for spectrum review implementation by the ACMA, to inform the draft Bill. Without proper funding, spectrum reform may suffer in terms of quality or speed.

Labor acknowledges the importance of getting spectrum reform right, of maintaining the confidence and predictability of arrangements through transition to the new framework. To this end, it is positive to see the Department flag a two-stage consultation process and the ACMA flag further substantial consultation as it designs and settles on its approach to giving practical effect to the new legislative and policy framework.

Given one of the guiding principles for reform is efficiency, one would hope that the Minister ensures the regulator is properly resourced to realise this significant undertaking.