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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 2906

Mr TURNBULL (12:42 PM) —This Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Dividend and Other Measures) Bill 2011 introduces amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, the Radiocommunications Act 1992, the Australian Communications and Media Authority Act 2005 and the Copyright Act 1968. The bill has two main elements: to introduce measures to effectively implement a reorganisation of digital television channels to realise the digital dividend—that is addressed in schedule 1—and to amend the regulatory framework for free-to-air digital television services provided on the VAST satellite service, and the switch-over to digital-only television, which is addressed in schedule 2.

I will begin with schedule 1, dealing with the digital dividend. As a result of the switch to digital-only television, the government plans to release spectrum—known as the digital dividend—in the frequency range 694 to 820 megahertz inclusive. Digital television switch-over will be completed in Australia, it is intended, by 31 December 2013. The UHF spectrum currently used for broadcasting services is highly valued for delivering wireless communication services including super fast mobile broadband. The government has indicated that it aims to auction the digital dividend spectrum in the second half of 2012.

In order to free up this highly valued spectrum, broadcasting services will need to be relocated out of the identified digital dividend spectrum and reorganised more efficiently within the remaining broadcasting spectrum. This process is known as restacking. To assist the Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA, to plan and implement the restack of broadcasting services as efficiently as possible, the government proposes amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act and the Radiocommunications Act to modify the existing planning process for television broadcasting services.

While the coalition understands the need to provide ACMA with greater regulatory flexibility during the restack process, we do have some concerns around the realignment of the existing licence areas into new television licence area plans. The issue is with the extensive powers that the bill gives the minister to direct ACMA to make or vary a television licence area plan for a particular area. We note that it is not intended that every television licence area plan reflect all the characteristics of each of the existing licence plans and we are concerned that there is scope for rescuing of resources between the respective broadcasters. During the recent Senate inquiry the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy testified that this bill made ‘no express prohibition on ACMA allotting broadcasting spectrum in whatever way it sees fit’.

We note with concern that this means ACMA could have the discretionary power to allocate greater than two channels per television licence area plan to a more powerful broadcaster to the detriment of smaller players in the market. Despite departmental reassurances that the intention ‘is not to disadvantage any broadcaster and for ACMA to assign channels of equivalent utility to all broadcasters in a particular area’, the coalition remains concerned that, despite the best intentions, the provisions in the bill include broad and unchecked powers.

I will now move to schedule 2, which deals with the switch from analog television to digital. Members will be aware that the switch to digital is occurring on a region-by-region basis with Mildura and regional South Australia completed and regional Victoria and regional Queensland scheduled for the first and second half of 2011. The coalition has registered, both in this place and elsewhere on a number of occasions, its real concern with the government’s handling of the switchover, particularly in regional and remote Australia. In fact my colleague the member for Casey in May last year warned this House that the government’s inadequate planning and preparation would have significant consequences for consumers particularly in regional and remote Australia.

Those warnings seem to have fallen on deaf ears and here the coalition finds itself again urging the government to look at the problems with their implementation of the rollout of digital television. As an overall approach the government has decided to depart from the principle that wherever analog terrestrial television channels are transmitted a digital terrestrial transmission facility should be established. This means that many people will need to switch from terrestrial television reception to satellite reception. The government has decided to fund a satellite based service called VAST, at a cost of $375 million over 12 years, and has decided to discontinue funding support to local communities, typically local councils, to provide self-help retransmission services. In a paper provided to the consumer expert group meeting held on 26 August 2010 it was stated:

There are 680 self-help sites in Australia and broadcasters will convert a number of these to digital. However, about 570 sites will not be converted and will cease operation. This will affect around 127,000 households in over 700 communities. Households in these areas may need to install VAST satellite equipment in order to watch free-to-air television.

In its submission to the exposure draft of this bill, the Local Government Association of Queensland stated:

… converting many if not most existing analogue self-help retransmission sites to digital is a more convenient and cost effective way to approach a conversion to digital TV …

In Queensland, 56 councils have retransmitted analog television services to rural and remote communities for over 20 years. This convenient and low-cost service provides the simplicity of the delivery of major city television services without the need for individual satellite dishes and related equipment. The government acknowledges that there is a cost for consumers to move from terrestrial coverage to satellite and to that end they have developed a satellite subsidy scheme that reimburses eligible households to assist them with the cost of converting. The coalition urges the government to use the same rationale for communities wishing to establish their own digital terrestrial self-help transmission.

As put to the recent Senate inquiry by Mr Hoffman, the general manager of the Local Government Association of Queensland:

It has been acknowledged by the department that it is technically possible to undertake the self-help terrestrial retransmission. In fact, the department has advised a cost potentially between $110,000 and $270,000.

Allowing the subsidy to be pooled to create a lump sum would assist the local councils involved to upgrade their facilities to digital terrestrial service without requiring further government funding. This would represent a more flexible and constructive use of the satellite subsidy scheme amount already set aside as well as having the potential to substantially reduce the added household expenses associated with the conversion to satellite television. To date the government regrettably has refused the many sensible and practical requests to pool the existing satellite subsidy scheme, and the coalition urges the government to be flexible and allow councils the right to decide, in consultation with their communities, whether converting retransmission sites is a better option for them.

Further practical requests with respect to the satellite subsidy scheme have been made and ignored by the government. The coalition urges the government to consider providing subsidies for small businesses to transition to terrestrial digital television in remote Australia. The VAST satellite subsidy scheme only applies to private residential households not to hospitals, nursing homes, hotels or caravan parks or indeed any other businesses which might provide television services to their customers or guests. The government does not seem to have considered the likely substantial, if not prohibitive, cost that may otherwise have to be incurred by small businesses to procure digital television transmission. The cost to these small businesses to install multiple VAST service units is open ended and this is particularly relevant to towns and communities that rely heavily on tourism as a source of income activity. When giving evidence to the recent Senate enquiry, Mr Arnold, the manager of the Remote Area Planning and Development Board in Queensland said:

We are trying to assess on behalf of individual tourism businesses the likely cost. Some of them who have looked into it are estimating it is a substantial cost—$10,000 to $20,000.

In a statement to the Senate committee examining the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2010, the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy stated that broadcasters who have undertaken to convert a transmission site from analog to digital or to establish new digital transmission facilities, or gap fillers, are required to have the site active six months before the digital switchover date. As the department rightly pointed out, this six-month time frame is critical in providing residents and businesses with the necessary time to ensure they have adequate digital television reception and to properly convert their current equipment and free-to-air television aerials. The government did not observe the six-month rule in the case of the initial Sunraysia analog switch-off or the South Australian switch-off—nor did they make it for the Victorian switch-off, due on 5 May. The coalition will be watching closely to see that the disallowable instrument the minister needs to lodge to switch off regional Queensland ensures that there will be six months between the proposed switch-off date and when the last broadcaster owned and controlled digital terrestrial transmission facility is commissioned.

Turning to the specifics of schedule 2 of the bill, the coalition acknowledges that there are measures related to the VAST service in the bill that are critical to the rollout of digital television in Western Australia. We support ensuring that commercial broadcasters in remote and regional Western Australia are given the same opportunity to build the necessary infrastructure to deliver the full suite of digital television channels via terrestrial broadcast before allowing viewers in those regions to access the satellite service, thereby protecting the local terrestrial broadcast market.

However, we do wish to record our reservations with items 47, 50, 51 and 52 in the bill. These measures allow broadcasters to seek exemptions from existing obligations to roll out digital terrestrial facilities in certain circumstances and allow the minister to exempt applications from the ABC or SBS to roll out digital terrestrial facilities of their own in certain circumstances. Under these exemptions, any commercial broadcaster, the ABC or SBS could request exemption from providing digital terrestrial transmission facilities within their ACMA conversion scheme to communities of less than 500.

Under the current provisions of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, broadcasters have no choice but to convert their analog facilities in such a way that provides for the same terrestrial signal coverage. The minister’s office has advised the coalition that, left unchanged, this may result in what they describe as ‘mixed reception outcomes’, where viewers need to install both terrestrial and satellite digital reception equipment to access the full range of digital television services. If this is the intention of the proposed change, the coalition is concerned that the bill actually goes well beyond this and could result in broadcasters applying for exemptions from upgrading or installing digital terrestrial services, especially in remote areas.

In conclusion, the coalition acknowledges that the passage of the legislation is necessary to continue to implement the government’s digital switchover policy, especially in regional and remote Western Australia. However, the coalition strongly urges the government to consider amending the bill consistent with the concerns that I have expressed. While there are no direct measures contained in this bill that would have any impact on the rollout of the satellite subsidy scheme or the six-month rule, the coalition asks the government to consider the comments that I and my colleagues, and indeed local communities, particularly in Queensland, have made, and to adjust the scheme to ensure smooth implementation of the switch to digital television, particularly for regional and remote Australians. It surely must be evident to the government, as it is to communities in regional Australia, that, notwithstanding the technical functionality and capacity of satellite services, it is clearly preferable where it is at all possible for digital services to be retransmitted terrestrially. To support local communities in doing that—enabling the VAST satellite subsidy to be pooled so that they have the wherewithal to convert to digital retransmission—is manifestly good policy, is in the public interest and would both improve the technical reliability of the service and reduce the cost of receiving the new digital services for householders in those regions.