Coonan sees panacea to shrinking bandwidth

Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan has waved off concerns of a looming spectrum shortage, predicting wireless broadband, datacasting by television networks and third-generation mobile technologies will all be able to live happily together.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra yesterday, Coonan brushed aside questions on whether the Department of Communications and the Australian Communications and Media Authority was any closer to providing industry with an estimate of how much or how little commercial broadband or other commercial digital spectrum will be made available to industry by the government.

The panacea to shrinking bandwidth, according to Coonan, will be a range of new MPEG 4 video compression technologies, that will allow datacasting and video over IP to share the same airwaves as other content and data.

"New MPEG 4 [video compression standards] will mean that there will be greater compression - there could even be community [broadcasting] uses," Coonan said.

However, Coonan declined to indicate if, where, or when further limits on spectrum licensing may occur, saying it was inappropriate to speculate on how the bandwidth may be carved up.

In June, the Australian Communications Authority (now the Australian Communications and Media Authority) clamped down on the allocation of wireless broadband spectrum, with assignments for the 3575MHz through to 3710MHz spectrum band "embargoed" until further notice.

At the time, acting chair Bob Horton said the new restrictions were needed "to preserve spectrum options for further planning and possible introduction of broadband wireless access systems in this band, particularly in regional areas."

The spectrum seizure came after lengthy stakeholder and industry participation and a spectrum review in August 2004 which saw a range of new players intensively lobby the government to wrestle the Department of Defence for access to new bandwidth.

At the time, Coonan's office indicted it would be able to provide industry an estimate of how much spectrum would be available over the next 10 years, subject to the sale of Telstra and regulatory restrictions on the manner in which media and communications players were able to distribute both content and communications.

The light treatment of the bandwidth issue has angered some insiders at the Department of Defence, who have repeatedly warned radio frequency spectrum is a commodity to be treated with care.

"People have to realize unmanned technologies need spectrum to operate. Data-enabled combat troops need spectrum. Network-centric warfare needs spectrum ... and while you can pull it out of thin air, it doesn't grow on trees," said one informed source who declined to be named.

However, the fears that any spectrum come as the result of datacasting and digital television may not materialize until the end of the decade, with Coonan revealing the government will not enforce the shut-down of present analogue television broadcasting in 2008 as legislated, because people were simply failing to migrate to both standard and high-definition digital television.

Coonan added there was no current legal impediment to sending television signals over broadband, or IPTV.

"The current regulatory regime would not preclude television over broadband," Coonan said.

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Julian Bajkowski

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