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Tuesday, 10 May 2011
Page: 2147

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (17:26): I rise to add some comments on behalf of the Australian Greens, and I advise the Senate at the outset that the Greens will be supporting this bill. We have a number of concerns, which Senator Birmingham has outlined, and the concerns that we raise are very similar. I will give advance warning that I will be moving two second reading amendments that address in particular one of the issues that Senator Birmingham just raised.

This bill amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Radio­com­muni­cations Act 1992. It has come in consequent to a process that we do support. The switch-over to digital television has been a long time coming. It has been delayed; it is probably running about a decade behind schedule considering when it was first proposed. It is appropriate that we are debating this legislation now with the process of the rollout where it is. The amendments introduce measures to effect­ively implement the reorganisation of digital television channels, to realise the digital dividend and to improve the regulatory framework for free-to-air digital TV services provided on the VAST satellite service and the switch-over to digital-only television.

The Australian Greens welcome the government announcement that 126 megahertz of broadcasting spectrum will be released as a digital dividend. This dividend will be released as a contiguous block of spectrum in the UHF band in the frequency range of 694 to 820 megahertz. The spectrum will become available as a result of the switch to digital-only television and the release of spectrum currently used for analog television. Digital switch-over will be completed in Australia, we understand, if all goes according to plan, by 31 December 2013.

The Greens have asked the government to estimate the overall revenue that will be raised by the auctioning of the digital dividend band, which of course is now an important and extremely valuable piece of taxpayers' property effectively. We have asked the government whether any sections of the band will be allocated for use by the emergency services or by other non-com­mercial services. I missed the first few minutes of Senator Birmingham's speech. I am not sure whether this is an issue that the coalition have taken an interest in or not. The Australian Communications and Media Authority should be able to tell us the commercial value of the 20-megahertz spectrum requested by the Police Federation of Australia on behalf of emergency services organisations, and we think that this information would be useful as the debate unfolds with regard to who gets what in the digital dividend.

We understand the government is still considering whether or not to reserve part of the digital dividend in the 700 megahertz band for police and emergency services, and if so how that will be organised. I will indicate now I have a number of questions with regard to this issue and a couple of others, and that I will be proposing that we take this bill into the committee stage so that we can debate some of these issues with the minister. We want to put on the record that the Greens' view is generally supportive of the proposal that we understand came forward from the Attorney, Mr McClelland, that 20 megahertz or thereabouts be reserved for these public safety agencies because it is vital for the services that Australians need during natural disasters and other critical events such as terrorist incidents, bushfires and so on, and that there are particular technical reasons why emergency service organisations are requesting that particular band of that particular part of the spectrum. As I understand it, all of Australia's police commissioners support the Attorney-General's proposal, including the New South Wales commissioner, who is the spokes­person on the matter, and the govern­ment's own chief commissioner, Tony Negus of the AFP, who in March 2011 told the Parlia­mentary Joint Committee on Law Enforce­ment how important access to that particular band is for police and emergency services workers. I understand the proposal is also backed by peak bodies representing fire authorities, ambulance services and so on across the country, and that the issue was raised at the February 2011 COAG meeting. So I suppose I am inviting at this stage the minister, if he is able to, to provide us with an update as to how that is going.

A hundred and twenty-six megahertz in the 700-megahertz range, the digital dividend, will soon be available for new users when Australia moves from analog to digital television, and of course police and emergency services are seeking 20 megahertz of that available spectrum, around 16 per cent of it. The remaining 84 per cent would then be available for auction to the big telecommunications carriers. I understand that there is resistance to the Attorney-General's proposal from the carriers and there has been a certain amount of debate in the public domain as to whether emergency services need that band, whether they are requesting something in the wrong place or whether it is irrelevant. Of course the carriers all want the available spectrum for commercial purposes, so they are just doing their jobs as well. I understand there is probably some contention even within the government, and maybe the minister can spell out for us what the views of the government are in this regard. I understand that the Attorney has a report from Access Economics which says that setting aside 20 megahertz of spectrum for natural disasters may not reduce the proceeds from auction because of the scarcity value of the spectrum, so in effect it decreases the amount that is available for bidding, which has been described as the waterfront property of radio spectrum.

There are essentially two alternatives to the Attorney's proposal. One is to insist that police and emergency services buy their communication services from commercial carriers. In effect, that means they would at this stage be reliant on Telstra, which is the only carrier in this space which has the reach that they need right across the country. This is the 'leave it to the free market' option that leaves our public safety agencies potentially at the mercy of Telstra, whose systems are not really built to importance level 1, which these services require for reliable, robust communications that survive natural disasters, to have that highest degree of network resilience that they obviously require.

The other option is to impose conditions on the commercial carriers which are successful in buying spectrum in this range at the forthcoming auctions. Such conditions would aim to ensure that the carriers meet the needs of police and emergency services, whether it be robustness, priority, security and so on. This approach was tried by the Obama administration in the States in 2008 and it failed because the carriers did not want to take on the onerous requirements that were necessary to meet the needs of first responders, quite understandably again. Their interests there are actually quite different. So subsequently President Obama reserved 20 megahertz for first responders in January 2011. They have rolled back in the US to the approach that the police and emergency services organisations are proposing here in Australia. If only mild conditions were imposed on the commercial carriers, the needs of first responders would not necessarily be achieved, and that is obviously something that they have great concerns about. We know the carrier systems regularly fail during natural disasters. Recognising that the NBN rollout will change the picture substantially, it is not going to change the underlying dynamic of the divergence of interests between the commercial carriers and emergency services personnel. So we believe that the Attorney-General's proposal probably has merit and is the only option that will ensure that police and emergency service authorities have the high-speed mobile broadband communica­tions that they effectively need in situations like natural disasters.

I understand that COAG has endorsed the need for these public safety agencies to achieve interoperability so as to protect the community in the range of circumstances that are foreseeable. I again give the minister notice now that I will be asking about that in the committee stage. This is a case obviously where the government's first priority, in our view, should be public safety and it should be the national interest rather than the interests first of the telecommunications carriers to maximise the value of the spectrum auction. I understand that a number of independent MPs are supporting the Attorney's proposal to reserve spectrum for natural disasters and other critical incidents. So we believe that public safety should come first and we are interested in pursuing the proposal to reserve spectrum for law enforcement agencies.

We come now to the other area that we addressed during the Senate inquiry earlier this year, which Senator Birmingham touched on in his remarks. It goes partly to the issue of pooling the Satellite Subsidy Scheme. During the caretaker period last year a letter from the department said the following concerning pooling:

The subsidy will be provided by way of a procurement model under which contracted satellite installers will be engaged to provide the equipment and installations for eligible households. It will not be paid directly. Because of this it does not lend itself to pooling of payments.

On 15 November last year I wrote again to the minister suggesting again the concept of pooling the SSS payments. This time the minister replied sometime around 21 December and in respect of the pooling matter a new series of arguments against pooling were raised. They were essentially twofold. Firstly:

Under the funding arrangements agreed to by the government for the satellite subsidy scheme, it is not possible to redirect funding from the scheme for other purposes such as making payments to councils to upgrade self-help facilities.

Secondly, the minister wrote:

I am also advised that pooling of the SSS funding in some areas could have the effect of increasing both the cost of the scheme to government and the copayment by individual households.

This is because—I am paraphrasing slightly here—of the model used maximising benefits from economies of scale that come from being able to contract for a specified number of households on a state-wide basis. If the number of households is reduced, the contractor's price might be expected to rise.

The Environment and Communications Legislation Committee report of March this year shows in a bit of detail the objections and the counterproposals that were put in this matter by the Local Government Association of Queensland, Broadcasting Australia in particular and the Remote Area Planning and Development Board of Queensland, who took a particular interest in these issues. They provided responses within their submissions to the Senate committee as the same points were made by the minister in a letter of 9 December to the chairman of RAPAD. On the first point we believe that, just as the cabinet submission in relation to the scheme may have specified it being used only for DTH reception, so a subsequent cabinet decision could sensibly alter such a restriction if the arguments were made and if they were accepted. On the second point the department and the minister have said that such a procedure would distort the SSS scheme and result in higher copayment charges for the few remaining homes within the SSS VAST conversion structure. It is a reasonable argument, but we respectfully disagree. No bidder to an SSS tender can alter any quoted price on the basis of changes to the predicted number of homes regardless of the reason. This is reasonably well established. The exact wording from schedule 3, which is the pricing schedule for the required RFT response, says:

The exact number of Registered Households that will participate in the scheme may be higher or lower (than outlined in the Schedule) … The list of locations participating in the scheme may also vary due to decisions by the broadcasters to, or not to, convert self-help sites to digital …

So people coming into this process are well aware that the numbers of households can change. The second argument that the minister put to us in his letter does not actually hold water according to the documents. It is clear that broadcasters can quite freely decide to upgrade a self-help facility or not to upgrade one that they previously said they would at any time. The department does not seem to be concerned at this significant potential for a rise or fall in SSS participation and any effect on remaining homes. This already happened at Orroroo in regional South Australia after, we understand, the regional contract was signed with Skybridge. They lost more than half the predicted regional South Australian business. The same happened with Cohuna in regional Victoria. This town of 1,800 residents was removed from the department's scheme town list early in December 2010 after the broadcasters decided to upgrade the self-help transmitter at the end of November. We understand that that occurred after the contract with Skybridge had already been signed. Finally, we understand that total SSS business in regional Victoria is only running at about a third of the original predicted rate in the RFT documentation.

The pooling concept is fairly simple. Funds equivalent to the Commonwealth contribution for the relevant location—whether it be 400, 550, 700 or 980, depending on location—plus the manage­ment fee which is paid to the contractor for every eligible home serviced multiplied by the expected eligible household numbers for the location would be handed to the relevant council. This is something that councils are requesting to at least have the option to be able to do. If the Commonwealth were concerned about such a transfer, it could certainly coordinate an RFT process for such self-help upgrades, resulting in the relevant councils or the local government association and the Commonwealth entering into a bulk contract for all such regional—but mostly remote Queensland—self-help upgrades. I think this is a good model that could be extended elsewhere. The relevant local council would be responsible for all the extra initial establishment costs and continuing maintenance and operational costs—which is what the local government authorities up there are actually proposing. I understand that the LGAQ and RAPAD have been conducting tests of various digital terrestrial self-help technical models, the aim being to demonstrate, for example, a remote Indigen­ous community self-help transmission model. Again, as Senator Birmingham out­lined for the chamber, this is about retaining local programming and local terrestrial transmission. It is not about constricting choice or taking money off people making the government's life more complicated but about preserving the local broadcasters that people are used to.

Clearly, once technical feasibility, bulk costs and ongoing maintenance are identified, the next issue will be: can we pool the contingent SSS to assist the initial rollout cost? The Greens believe there are justifiable concerns from those who have questioned the logic of requiring the 265-odd self-help licensees, involving around 460 facilities, to examine digital terrestrial self-help options during the period 30 March to the end of January 2011. It was impossible for such an examination to be undertaken when the equipment necessary for such endeavours was not actually available. So we note the department's comment during the inquiry that they are willing to accept the position taken by some councils in rural and remote areas who have said that they were opting for the subsidy but if they subsequently find that there is a better terrestrial solution which proves cost-effective they will be able to implement that and they would actually prefer to do that for their communities.

The Greens recognise that there has to be a mixture of solutions to get television to people across Australia—part of that being satellite, part of it terrestrial. The question, obviously, is how services can be delivered most effectively. These issues were very well canvassed in the committee report. We remain concerned, however, that some viewers may be forced to receive a VAST service in rural and remote regions before alternatives have been tested. We understand that government may consider lengthening the time frame for consideration of self-help solutions and application for the scheme.

We have a second reading amendment which calls on the government to do this and I will move that shortly. We also have another second reading amendment that calls for an independent review. We may have created a certain amount of confusion in calling for a review that will actually be conducted before the rollout has concluded by 2013. That is intentional. Because it is a phased rollout, we will have a great deal of operational experience and we will have a very good idea of how the process has worked for the earlier regions once they have been bedded down, which we think will be useful to be conducted during the rollout in later regions, particularly as we start getting into the big metro areas. So we have some concerns remaining about the impact that these changes will have on the community and we believe that a review on the impact of delivery of television services to viewers across Australia, but in particular to regional and remote areas, should be undertaken no later than 24 months after the legislation has been put in place, which, as I say, will probably bring us in some time before the rollout has concluded. That is actually intentional. I move the two Greens amendments:

(1) At the end of the motion, add:

   but the Senate is of the opinion that the Government should extend the timeframes for the consideration of self-help solutions and applications in subsidy areas of the Satellite Subsidy Scheme.

(2) At the end of the motion, add:

   but the Senate is of the opinion that the Government should cause an independent review of the impact of the delivery of television services under this legislation on viewers across Australia, and in particular in regional and remote areas, to be undertaken no later than 2 years after the commencement of this legislation.

I conclude my comments and will come back with some questions for the minister, depending on the comments that he offers now.