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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 2407

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (19:22): I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Dividend) Bill 2013, which amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Radiocommunications Act 1992 to allow telecommunications services possible access to the spectrum known as the digital dividend while it is still part of the broadcasting services bands. The bill amends the current datacasting regime by introducing the concept of designated datacasting services, which will be defined under the legislation to be those provided by a commercial television broadcasting service, a commercial radio broadcasting service or a national broadcaster. Datacasting is defined in schedule 6 of the Broadcasting Services Act as:

… a service that delivers content:

(a) whether in the form of text; or

(b) whether in the form of data; or

(c) whether in the form of speech, music or other sounds; or

(d) whether in the form of visual images (animated or otherwise); or

(e) whether in any other form; or

(f) whether in any combination of forms;

to persons having equipment appropriate for receiving that content, where the delivery of the service uses the broadcasting services bands.

The broadcasting services bands are in turn defined as:

(a) that part of the radiofrequency spectrum that is designated under subsection 31(1) of the Radiocommunications Act 1992 as being primarily for broadcasting purposes; and

(b) that part of the radiofrequency spectrum that is designated under subsection 31(1A) of the Radiocommunications Act 1992 as being partly for the purpose of digital radio broadcasting services and restricted datacasting services.

Datacasting licensees generally transmit information and education programs, parliamentary and court proceedings, text and still images, interactive computer games, electronic mail, and internet content but are unable to broadcast a range of material which may be considered to be the equivalent to television news, drama, sports, music, weather, documentary, lifestyle or entertainment programs, or commercial radio programs. The spectrum is an important public resource and governments around the world regulate it and charge for its use. Currently in Australia, broadcasters pay licence fees to the Australian Communications and Media Authority—ACMA—for the use of their allocated spectrum on which to broadcast.

ACMA has noted three key processes are required to realise the digital dividend. These are: (1) conversion of analogue televisions broadcasting to digital transmission, known as switchover; (2) clearance of a contiguous block of spectrum; and (3) allocation of the speared spectrum. In June 2010, the government announced as part of the transition to digital television that there will be 126 megahertz in the upper ultra-high frequency band spectrum released as a digital dividend. The digital switchover has been in process under the Commercial Television Conversion Scheme since June 1999 and under the National Television Conversion Scheme since February 2000, and will be completed by 31 December 2013. The released dividend will be auctioned off in April 2013, just next month, and is expected to be cleared by for use by January 2015. ACMA has arranged a combinatorial clock auction process which will be used to allocate the spectrum and will commence on 16 April 2013—less than one month away. Licences issued for the 700 megahertz band as a result of the digital dividend are to commence on 1 January 2015. Potential bidders have been notified by ACMA that, should a broadcaster vacate spectrum in the 700 megahertz band before the successful bidder's licence period commences, the regulator will consider applications for interim licences. These will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Only commercial and national broadcasters will be required to hold a datacasting licence for the delivery of datacasting services in the broadcasting spectrum. The amendments in the bill will not affect existing regulation which applies to datacasting services which are currently provided by the commercial broadcasters such as WIN Television's GOLD and the Seven Network's 4ME. These services will not be affected by this bill and will be able to continue in accordance with their present datacasting licences.

There is currently a long delay between when the telecommunications companies pay for the spectrum and when they actually have access to it. The delay between the auction process and the commencement of licences for successful auction bidders is to ensure there is sufficient time for the comprehensive clearing of digital television services from the digital dividend spectrum to be completed. However, it may be possible in some geographical areas for new services to commence while spectrum is still considered to be part of the broadcasting services bands.

In the government's efforts to achieve a budget surplus, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy intervened in the digital dividend auction and set a reserve price of $1.36 a megahertz per head of population and a minimum purchase of 5 megahertz for the spectrum—a price considered to be high by international standards. At this rate it will cost a company about $1.5 billion to buy enough spectrum to cover 22.6 million people. To quote my colleague the member for Bradfield:

This is a terrible piece of policy for a government that says it wants to encourage broadband services.

He is right, of course. Spectrum is a scarce and valuable public resource, and the high reserve price may result in this important spectrum not being allocated. Telstra and Optus are the only companies registered to bid in the April auction and have criticised the high auction price. Optus called the pricing of the spectrum 'unworkable', and has warned that this pricing will restrict investment and drive up the price for essential telecommunications services.

The Police Federation of Australia has been pressing for radio spectrum for police and emergency services across Australia to ensure they have effective mobile broadband communications, especially during times of natural disasters—and haven't we seen some dreadful natural disasters occur in Australia in recent years? The need for access to such communications has certainly been highlighted during the floods, bushfires and cyclones. I know the emergency services in my electorate of Riverina would agree that such access to the spectrum would have been of assistance during the floods of 2010 and 2012, and also during the January bushfires which brought national media attention to my region—the sort of national media attention that you do not want. Can I add as an aside that William Belling, who on Saturday was recognised for 72 years of service to the Humula, Oberne Creek and Tarcutta rural fire services, talked about the marvellous improvements in technology, comparing what was available to him when he fought his first fire as a 14-year-old in 1940 to now. This was on Saturday, at the local RSL hall at Tarcutta, where 30 medals were awarded to firefighting volunteers to recognise their combined service of 1,187 years fighting fires and working as volunteers at motor vehicle accidents.

This is relevant to this debate because these people all acknowledge the fact that better telecommunications services are vitally needed, with so many areas of black spots—certainly there were black spots after the fires—for mobile telecommunications. I welcome the member for Cowper, who I know is fighting hard for better telecommunications services in his shadow portfolio area; I know how much work he has done in that regard. Better mobile telecommunications services are vital to the people of the bush—as you would well know too, Mr Deputy Speaker Mitchell. Unfortunately, there are so many areas in our electorates that are not covered by good telecommunications services. To have better access to mobile services during times of disaster would save a lot of people's property and would bring the necessary alerts to save a lot of people's stock. It just makes good sense.

As I was saying, the Police Federation of Australia is calling for 20 megahertz of the released spectrum to be set aside for public safety. They believe this should be done under the Radiocommunications Act 1992, which refers to making adequate provision of the spectrum for law enforcement and emergency services. We really need to listen to the Police Federation of Australia in this regard. We need to listen to the advice given by those brave firefighters of Humula, Oberne Creek and Tarcutta. We need to listen to the State Emergency Service people in New South Wales, the Volunteer Rescue Association people across New South Wales and certainly the volunteers who fight fires and help after floods and during times of natural crisis right across Australia when they say that we need better mobile telecommunications. We need, as the Police Federation is calling for, 20 megahertz of the released spectrum to be set aside for public safety—if for nothing else than to save people's lives. It just makes good sense. I am sure the member for Cowper agrees with me. Public safety mobile broadband is critical to emergency services, to ensure that they have effective, modern and interoperable communications to undertake their essential functions.

The bills also limit the scope of datacasting and will facilitate the commencement of telecommunications and broadband services in the digital dividend spectrum before it is removed from the broadcasting services bands. The bill will also provide the minister with the ability to specify by legislative instrument another service of a specific kind to be a designated datacasting service. This will prevent a service provider from providing a service similar to that of a commercial television broadcaster. This provision will allow for flexibility to expand the scope of the datacasting regime if the circumstances require it. This may apply where a provider seeks to use the broadcasting spectrum to provide a datacasting service that the minister considers should be subject to the conditions of service and codes of practice that apply to licensed datacasting services. The digital dividend will be removed from the broadcasting services band spectrum once the spectrum has been restacked.

This is a vital debate. This is a vital piece of legislation. The coalition supports this bill but, as the member for Bradfield quite correctly asked, do elements of it go far enough?