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Wednesday, 18 October 2006
Page: 179

Mr ADAMS (11:45 AM) —This brief piece of legislation, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2006, is important for television viewers in remote areas of Australia where there are only two commercial services on the market. The bill will assist commercial free-to-air broadcasters to deliver digital TV to Australians living in these areas. But once again the national broadcaster is not included in this, in the sense of having opportunities to broaden its footprint, yet there really are huge deficiencies in the ABC’s range in Australia.

If commercial broadcasters take up the options made available in this bill, viewers in places like Kalgoorlie, Port Hedland and Geraldton will be able to experience the superior picture, sound quality and other benefits of digital TV—yet in Tasmania we are scratching to receive the public broadcaster in a good percentage of town areas. They will also have the benefit of an additional commercial television channel—and in Tasmania we will with Channel 10.

I do not begrudge these improved services for people living in remote Australia, and I will support the passage of this legislation through the parliament. While this legislation mainly applies to remote areas, I would like to know what is happening to help the government owned broadcasting service to be screened in every home in my state. In Tasmania many areas have not received ABC television reception since the change from VHF to UHF. Now we are being asked to deal with the next change without any assistance to receive that new signal.

The member who spoke before me, the member for Lindsay, mentioned pricing, and I know that the report she did was about the price of digital TVs and about bringing down digital pricing. The thrust of her argument was quite right: the more people that take it up, the cheaper TVs will get, as I have discussed with other people. But as you start changing the delivery signal in different areas some people that are on the edge miss out while some others pick it up, so there are winners and losers when you start changing signals. My electorate has 62 per cent of the landmass of Tasmania. It has a lot of dales, hills, mountains and trees, all of which can interfere with signals, so a lot of people have great difficulty in receiving signals.

Digital TV transmissions began in metropolitan areas in 2001 and in most parts of regional Australia in 2004. The rollout of the infrastructure for digital broadcasting has proceeded very well. Free-to-air digital TV is available to 85 per cent of Australian households. The state capitals and 31 regional centres have access to all of their existing free-to-air television channels in digital form, except certain parts of Tasmania that are not considered remote, yet do not have the luxury of having a free-to-air service.

The Broadcasting Services Act does not contain any provisions which set a date for the commencement of digital broadcasting in remote licence areas. This reflects the fact that population density is low in remote licence areas and, typically, to reach the audience, many retransmission sites are required. So, if they can have them for the commercials, what is wrong with providing a similar service for the national broadcaster?

These factors make the transition to digital broadcasting very expensive for licensees in remote areas. So, while this legislation aims to help reduce those costs and to increase the incentive for incumbent commercial broadcasters to invest in digital transmission facilities, it does little to help the ABC. In remote areas where there are only two commercial television licensees servicing the market, broadcasters will be permitted, either individually or through the establishment of a joint venture company, to broadcast a new digital-only service. The new service will also broadcast the digital version of the existing analog services on the same channel. In other words, commercial broadcasters in remote licence areas will be able to multichannel.

Currently, this option is not open to commercial broadcasters in non-remote areas. In order to reduce the costs of establishing a new digital service, the bill offers broadcasters in remote areas relief from the high-definition quota. In metropolitan and regional markets, licensees are required to broadcast 1,040 hours per year in high-definition digital format. This bill allows remote licensees to elect to broadcast only in standard definition format. The ability to opt out of high-definition broadcasting will significantly reduce the costs of providing digital services in remote areas. As many people do not even get standard definition, it will be acceptable for a while until technology brings on new levels of reception. However, there is a significant policy gap because there are no details provided on what assistance will be available to ensure that the disadvantaged are not left staring at a blank screen when switch-over occurs.

My Senate colleagues have done their homework on what is available overseas. The US congress has allocated nearly $US1 billion to subsidise the purchase of set-top boxes. In Britain, up to £400,000 will be set aside from BBC licence fees to assist the disadvantaged to switch. The task of achieving digital switch-over is a huge policy challenge. In the UK, where 72.5 per cent of households have access to digital TV, it is estimated that only 40 per cent of televisions have been converted. If it can be done for the BBC, I do not see why the ABC cannot be assisted to provide service to semi-remote or difficult terrain regions.

My constituents in Glengarry, Flowery Gully, Royal George, the Tasman Peninsula, the west coast and many other places will have nothing. One of my elderly constituents, Ken Wagg, even felt tormented enough to climb a 60-foot tree on his property to improve TV reception. The reception was still no better, but he drew attention to people’s plight in that area. A member of the upper house of the Tasmanian Parliament and I persuaded Ken to come down. We persuaded him that there are safer ways of bringing this issue to the attention of the legislators. He went off with a petition and collected the signatures of nearly 4,000 people who have had difficulties with TV reception in their different areas of Tasmania.

So it is really not good enough to allow just the commercials to have access to rural and remote concessions. People in my electorate are not that rural or remote, yet they still cannot get a decent service, either from the ABC or the commercials. Some of them would laugh to hear that they are supposed to be getting at least three channels. I watched a football match in one area of my state on the only channel I could get and I could not track down where the football was—so I can forget about the cricket. The situation is that people can buy into pay TV, but they do not get local TV news bulletins from the ABC. They can pick up other news bulletins from other parts of the country, but it is not local news. This is an isolating factor as well. I believe we have to do a lot more mixing of communications technologies whereby people can share whatever is available to get television, radio and mobile phone coverage. Not everyone wants to run around with a computer under one arm and a satellite under the other to try and pick up a signal.

We also have this added complication of the change in media ownership laws, supposedly to broaden the ownership of commercial stations—purportedly giving us a greater range of programs. All it is really doing is allowing the current media moguls to cross-subsidise themselves. Those in regional areas will not only miss out more but also lose any sort of independence of view that they might have had. I am very disappointed in those changes too. They show that the minister is just not up to the task of being able to regulate media in this country. We saw members of the House gagged this morning by the Leader of the House, who probably got a phone call from Jamie early this morning saying that he wanted the bill through the House today, that he needed the money because he has to buy a part of Fairfax. So we had debate in the House of Representatives gagged, and many people who wanted to speak on that particular bill and about media ownership could not do so. It is something which is very important for the democratic processes of our country, but it was denied. So while I agree that this legislation will be helpful in areas that we all have to deal with—and some people will receive some benefits: digital TV has great advantages—it will be less than helpful for some people in my state.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 11.58 am to 12.17