The rumours persist, and keep coming round. Let’s do our best to unmuddy the waters.
Are FM links dead?
Let’s start by dispelling the rumours. FM link technology is not dead in Australia, and won’t go away any time soon. There is spectrum available for Studio-Transmitter Links (STLs) and Sound Outside Broadcast (SOB) links, and licences are being issued. To correctly quote Mark Twain, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
So what happened?
Most of our community is aware that some segments of the UHF band have been repurposed. Some of this, notably 809-824 MHz paired with 854-869 MHz, has been allocated to mobile broadband.
Also repurposed was the block from 849-852 MHz, traditionally used for STLs and SOBs. This spectrum was made available for two-frequency fixed links and land mobile services, and many of these services have been moved in from other parts of the band.
Taking a high-wide view, it’s hard to argue with these reallocations. Anyone who has applied for a two-way handheld service, or who is reading this page on a phone, might well be benefiting from the changes. It might even be you, right now.
Consolidation of services previously using the STL/SOB block has advantages. It’s like Spectrum Tetris: after the dust has settled, the remaining spectrum will be able to be managed more effectively. In most cases (especially where there were empty channels) existing licensees have been moved into the lower segment of the band transparently. Some stations took the opportunity to move from analogue FM links to class-licensed digital links. Other stations opted to stay in the STL/SOB block.
Despite some very good messaging from the regulator (and notwithstanding open publication of a clear long-term view, which is worth a read), many of our members are still confused about what they might do, what they must do, and whether they need to do anything at all.
So let’s answer a few questions, like: what’s the current status of the 850MHz restack? Are licenses still being issued? Is it sensible to replace an existing FM link with another one? Do all stations have to go digital?
What’s the current status?
The ACMA has been very helpful, and gave Technorama an update on 23 April 2019. Quotes from this document are in red-violet.
- Existing STL operators must cease operating in the 849-852 MHz segment by 30 June 2019. The ACMA has notified affected licensees on several occasions to inform them of these requirements.
TR comment: this applies to existing users of the upper part of the band, the part that was sold to Telcos. It doesn’t apply to the lower segment of the band (845-849 MHz). If you’re operating there, you are protected. You can expect an existing licence to be renewable, and you may replace your equipment.
- Embargo 64 only allows new services into the 845-849 MHz segment if they are relocating from either the 849-852 MHz or 857-861 MHz segments. This helps preserve access to the 845-849 MHz segment for licensees who are impacted by the band restructure (noting that services which are relocating still need to successfully coordinate with existing services in the 845-849 MHz segment). The ACMA considers exemptions to Embargo 64 on a case-by-case basis. Embargo 64 does not apply to existing services in 845-849 MHz.
TR comment: if you’re there, you’re there. However if you’re not there already, just be aware that Embargo 64 was put in place to give existing users a measure of protection from potential users who have come to the party late. It doesn’t mean you won’t be allowed to jump on board.
Annoying rumour mill
Some of the negative press might have come from misreading of the Embargo. For instance, there are statements in Embargo 64 which indicate very clearly that existing apparatus licences in segments of the 800MHz band will not be renewed beyond defined dates. However the Embargo also states quite specifically:
This embargo does not apply to Sound outside Broadcast (SOB) assignments in the frequency band 845-850.5 MHz
Any applications for case-by-case exemptions are to be referred to the Manager, Spectrum Planning Section for consideration.
So Embargo 64 doesn’t mean that no new licences will be issued. New licences can be issued, especially where an applicant can demonstrate that technical operating conditions will allow the spectrum to be used effectively, and existing users won’t be impacted. This might well be the case in rural areas where the number of channels available in the 845-849 MHz exceeds the number of users. Like all spectrum planning, getting the best out of the available bandwidth is tricky but not impossible.
Applications for SOB licences may be made in the usual way, and the time to issue a licence will depend on usual factors, like how many people are ahead of you in the queue and how complex the spectrum use is in your area.
- The 800 MHz band plan (also known as RALI MS 40) details the frequency allocations in the band. It contains four appendices which detail the band configuration at set dates in the future – these align with the implementation plan of the 803-960 MHz review (detailed in Chapter 3 of the ACMAs long-term strategy for the 803-960 MHz band). The long-term frequency arrangements for STLs (which are included under the fixed point-to-point (single frequency) allocation) and SOBs are included in the band plan.
Clear message: read the strategy document!
- Please note that the arrangements currently in Embargo 64 may be transferred to the 800 MHz band plan as part of a future update, in order to simplify documentation.
Exactly what it says. Administering multiple documents gets messy over time, and is simplified when all of the rules and regulations are put in the one place.
If you believe that an FM link is the way to go for your station, and you don’t have a licence currently, you may apply for one. Exceptions may be made to the Embargo on a case-by-case basis, once the request is known, understood, and assessed.
If you’d like more advice on this topic, check out the Technorama Q&A Facebook Group. There are many people there who have successfully implemented FM links, and who would be happy to provide information.