Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 2912

Mr HARTSUYKER (1:11 PM) —Yes, I would certainly hasten to add that the member for Fowler can sit in this place in the full knowledge that his parents are very well represented, and I will certainly work hard to ensure that they stay that way. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Dividend and Other Measures) Bill 2011. The bill is presented in two schedules, the first of which introduces measures to release the so-called digital dividend. The second is to amend the regulatory framework overseeing the services provided on the VAST satellite network as part of the switchover from analog to digital television.

Schedule 1 amends the Broadcasting Services Act to implement a reorganisation of spectrum management in order to release spectrum within the frequency range of 694 to 820 megahertz, which is referred to as the ‘digital dividend.’ Spectrum within the digital dividend is highly valued by the broadcasting and mobile telephony industries.

According to the government’s green paper on managing the digital dividend, the spectrum will allow the implementation of fourth-generation mobile wireless networks using Long Term Evolution technology and mobile WiMAX. These technologies will theoretically provide peak data speeds of 100 megabits per second and higher. By accessing the spectrum, telecommunications companies will be able to provide high-speed services to consumers and households whilst allowing those consumers the flexibility to stay mobile.

This legislation gives the Australian Communications and Media Authority improved planning and enforcement powers to rearrange digital television channels, a process known as restacking. The actual digital dividend will be released by restacking the current bands of spectrum allocated to analog television, which are being converted to digital television through the digital television switchover. Currently the frequency band between 582 and 820 megahertz is dedicated to the Ultra High Frequency band V, which is used to broadcast analog television. Switching over from analog to digital television frees this band by converting the broadcast of television to lower bands of spectrum.

The government aims to auction the digital dividend spectrum in the second half of 2012, and the actual spectrum will become available after all broadcasting centres are converted to digital television in December 2013. ACMA will be authorised to restack television services by realigning television licence area plans to new areas and within lower bands of the spectrum. The new license area plans will be defined by ACMA through legislative instrument and would specify the channels available in particular areas of Australia to provide television broadcasting services.

However, the legislation also gives the minister the power to issue a written direction to ACMA about the exercise of its powers to make or vary television licence area plans and to impose an obligation on ACMA to comply with such a direction. Ministerial directions to ACMA will be legislative instruments and tabled in parliament, but the explanatory memorandum to this bill makes it clear that the instruments will not be disallowable. This means that parliament will be able to read the ministerial direction to ACMA but will not be able to debate and vote on its content.

The coalition has some concerns with this approach. The legislation today is the very last chance this parliament will have to meaningfully debate the release of the digital dividend and restacking television broadcasts. At the moment, we are seeing one of the largest reorganisations of telecommunications services in Australian history through the digital dividend release and the National Broadband Network. Yet the government is operating in the dark, whilst industry operates in an environment of regulatory uncertainty.

The coalition is concerned that making ACMA’s management of the digital dividend subject to a non-disallowable ministerial direction only increases the uncertainty that is preventing the Australian telecommunications sector from making confident investment decisions. The NBN rollout is an example. As Pat Tapper, CEO of Internode, Australia’s largest privately-owned ISP, said in the Australian newspaper three weeks ago:

“The NBN is in the paper every day, but when you try to nut down on it and figure out what’s happening from what’s being said, there’s no path you can be confident in because it’s being planned and rolled out incrementally. There are a lot of variables in that.”

As is evident from submissions made to the Senate inquiry on this legislation, broadcasters have already been subject to uncertain ministerial directions concerning the digital dividend. The minister issued a direction to ACMA on 9 July 2010 for the purposes of providing policy guidance on the government’s digital dividend objectives. The direction was rushed through just before parliament was dissolved last year for the election. There was no opportunity for parliament to consider the direction and its importance. As Broadcast Australia says in their submission to the Senate inquiry, the direction issued on 9 July 2010:

… is shaping the future of all free-to-air broadcasting for decades to come.

Broadcast Australia argues:

… the Directions of 9 July should be inserted into the Broadcasting Services Act …

and says:

We still believe this would be the desirable way to allow Parliament to oversight and consider such important planning principles before their implications become a “fait accomplis”.

The Local Government Association of Queensland notes in their submission:

… the major policy issues concerning this enormous change in broadcasting and mobile voice and data services across Australia have been enshrined in little publicised Ministerial Directions of 9 July 2010. These … Objectives which, among other things may determine whether most areas of regional Queensland ever get digital radio, or whether a 6th free-to-air TV terrestrial frequency will be rolled out anywhere in regional Queensland deserve some debate at the Australian Parliament level.

Under this legislation, there is nothing to prevent the minister from issuing directions to ACMA that again shape the direction of broadcasting without any parliamentary oversight. The coalition is concerned that such an approach could add to the regulatory uncertainty already faced by the industry. Parliament would ideally be able to scrutinise future ministerial directions to ensure that any direction is in the best interests of consumers without placing unnecessary burdens on the industry. The coalition will certainly monitor any directions made by the current minister under this legislation and will revisit the issue of non-disallowable instruments as the need arises.

Schedule 2 to this bill introduces amendments to the legislative framework which the new VAST satellite service operates under. In particular, the amendments will allow broadcasters to request an exemption from providing digital terrestrial transmission facilities within the schemes operated by ACMA for broadcasters to convert their services to digital. Broadcasters will be able to request an exemption for any communication area, regardless of its population, which is not currently serviced by an analog terrestrial broadcast by local free-to-air entities. However, the minister is not authorised to grant an exemption unless the area contains fewer than 500 people in residence. The legislation provides that an exemption would need approval by the minister and would then be tabled as a legislative instrument in parliament.

The coalition is concerned that these provisions will allow commercial stations to refuse to provide television coverage to areas considered unprofitable. However, the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy has advised that the legislation in practice will only affect those areas receiving a broadcast solely from the ABC. According to the department, the provisions will allow the minister, on a case-by-case basis, to decide which areas can be excluded where an ABC tower is providing the ABC as the sole channel for the area and where VAST replicates what is currently available. This can be potentially applied to the 98 areas across Australia that are only served by an ABC tower. The VAST service will provide a superior television broadcast to these areas because it will contain all 16 digital channels, including the ABC which the viewer would currently receive. Viewers will also be provided with rolling local news channels, providing local news content from each regional broadcasting centre in Australia. As such, viewers in areas that currently only receive the ABC will be provided with an improved service after connecting to VAST. The coalition will be watching closely to ensure that the legislation delivers an appropriate outcome for viewers.

We believe that the government must do all it can to ensure that people are able to access terrestrial television regardless of where they live. The VAST satellite service should only be seen as a service of last resort. Regional groups and local councils across Australia have concerns about the quality of service provided by VAST and the fact that many of their communities will not receive a terrestrial digital signal. Broadcast Australia submitted to the Senate inquiry that there was a misconception that the VAST service provides a comparable level of service to terrestrial television. Broadcast Australia said that:

… receiving free-to-air digital TV channels (DTH) from the VAST satellite is more costly and offers less utility and convenience to homes than local terrestrial reception of those same channels.

Currently there are many regional and remote communities in Australia receiving television via self-help sites, which are retransmission sites operated by local councils or community groups. These sites receive a broadcast—either terrestrially from the nearest major centre or through the Aurora satellite service—and then rebroadcast the terrestrial signal in the local community. As television broadcasting is switched over to digital, these sites will require upgrading in order to receive and broadcast a new digital signal. According to the department, broadcasters have made a candidate list of 57 communities which will be provided with a terrestrial digital signal.

A further 34 regional communities currently relying on self-help sites will receive a digital signal through gap fillers, which will consist of either a stronger digital signal from nearby centres or a signal provided by the installation of signal boosters. But, according to the department, there are 16 regional communities relying on self-help sites that will not be upgraded to digital or receive a gap filler. These communities will be forced onto the VAST service. There are also 374 communities, classed as remote and which receive limited terrestrial signals, that will be forced onto the VAST service.

I attended a forum recently, with the member for Dawson, at Dingo Beach in the Whitsundays region of Queensland. Dingo Beach is a small community that receives terrestrial television through a self-help tower and is not a candidate for conversion to digital. It is proposed by the government that Dingo Beach will be provided with a VAST service. The community attending that forum unanimously wanted to receive reliable terrestrial television so that they could get the relevant local content; however, unfortunately to this point the government has been unwilling to accede to the request for the provision of a terrestrial service to Dingo Beach.

There are common issues across regional areas that will not be upgraded to digital. For instance, the Remote Area Planning and Development Board of Queensland lists three main concerns with the VAST service. Firstly, satellite television does not allow the portability of terrestrial television, which is preferred by tourists and travellers. Unless they have expensive satellite systems, caravan tourists in particular will not be able to receive a signal when travelling through areas where there is no terrestrial coverage.

Secondly, households that install a VAST satellite will be forced to move the satellite when vacating the home if they want to ensure satellite coverage in a new home without purchasing new satellite equipment. Thirdly, the government’s satellite subsidy scheme does not cover businesses important to regional areas such as hotels, motels, resorts and shops. Businesses struggling with tight margins and problems such as increasing electricity costs will find it difficult to pay the $10,000 to $20,000 that it will cost some businesses to convert.

For these reasons, the coalition has asked the government to complete an analysis of the costs and benefits of pooling the subsidy scheme available for households within each community that is currently serviced by a self-help site. The opposition strongly urges the government to consider this because many communities would certainly prefer that option. It may in the end turn out cheaper, depending on the size of the community involved.

Instead of providing the subsidy direct to households, the funding could be pooled and used to upgrade retransmission sites, allowing digital terrestrial broadcasts to the local community. The coalition recognises that in some sites an upgrade to digital simply would not be possible. These are the areas where VAST is an appropriate service to implement, when all other avenues have been exhausted.

The bill provides a means for broadcasters to rely on VAST without necessarily exhausting all avenues. The legislation as drafted provides much scope for broadcasters to refuse an upgrade, with little guidance on how this decision should be determined. The conversion to digital is a very important issue, and the coalition certainly is concerned about the prospect that some viewers in regional and remote areas may not get equity of access to high-quality digital television. It is a vitally important issue for regional and rural Australia that people be part of the digital switchover in the most efficient and most effective way. We are certainly concerned about the impact of costs on small business. The satellite subsidy scheme also only provides for the conversion of the first television, so each additional set-top box is 100 per cent at the cost of the household, which is a significant cost for some households. The coalition certainly is supportive of the move from analog to digital and will be watching the government’s performance in this area very carefully.