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Tuesday, 10 May 2011
Page: 2152

Senator FEENEY (VictoriaParliamentary Secretary for Defence) (17:43): Firstly let me indicate on behalf of the government that it is our intention to oppose both of the second reading amend­ments that Senator Ludlam is proposing. It is our view that the proposed amendments would not have any practical effect upon the bill nor any practical effect in terms of constraining or obliging the government to do anything. We see them as being of no effect and we will oppose them.

In summing up on behalf of Minister Conroy, firstly let me say thank you to all honourable members for their contributions to the debate on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Dividend and Other Measures) Bill 2011. After its introduction in the House on 24 February 2011, the bill was referred to the Senate Environment, Com­munication and the Arts Legislation Com­mittee for inquiry, as Senator Birmingham touched upon. The committee tabled their report in the Senate on 21 March 2011 and it recommended that the bill be passed.

The bill introduces amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Radiocommunications Act 1992 that are crucial to effectively implementing the restack of digital television channels needed to realise the digital dividend. On 24 June 2010, the government announced that 126 megahertz of broadcasting spectrum would be released as a digital dividend as a result of the switch-off of analog television services. The switch to digital-only television will be completed in Australia by 31 December 2013, releasing the channels used for analog television. The digital dividend will be released as a contiguous block of spectrum in the ultra-high frequency, or UHF, band. The UHF spectrum currently used for broad­casting services is highly valued for delivering wireless communication services, including superfast mobile broadband. The government aims to auction the digital dividend spectrum in the second half of 2012.

In order to release this highly valued spectrum, digital broadcasting services will need to be relocated—or, as Senator Fifield prefers, 'restacked'—out of the digital dividend spectrum and organised more efficiently within the remaining spectrum. The government intends that the digital dividend spectrum be cleared by 31 December 2014. While ACMA has some scope under its existing powers to commence digital channel restack planning, the bill would give it more flexible planning powers and allow the restack of digital television channels to occur in a timely and efficient manner. The proposed amendments will also improve the regulatory framework for digital switchover and the delivery of both terrestrial and satellite free-to-air digital television services.

During the inquiry of the Senate Environment and Communications Legisla­tion Committee into the provisions of the bill, some submissions raised concerns that the bill favoured satellite conversion over terrestrial conversion. The government recognises that both terrestrial infrastructure and a satellite service are required to provide all Australians with access to the full range of digital television services. Government policy does not advocate a preferred method of digital television reception. I might also take this opportunity to respond to Senator Birmingham's concerns regarding regional Australia by simply saying that this government is very proud indeed to have finally brought to viewers in regional and remote Australia, through our switchover program and the launch of a new satellite service, access to the same number of digital television channels as people in the capital cities enjoy. This is a historic outcome for viewers in regional and remote Australia, who for decades have received less choice and arguably lower quality reception in their television viewing than people have in the capital cities.

The bill will amend the conditional access scheme to provide commercial broadcasters in remote Western Australia with the opportunity to roll out their terrestrial digital television services before viewers they intend to serve can access the VAST satellite service. This will help to protect the integrity of the larger terrestrial television markets in remote Western Australia and avoids the need for viewers to purchase satellite reception equipment unnecessarily. The bill also proposes to allow viewers access to the VAST satellite service after a specified time after switchover in their licence area if it provides a superior number of commercial digital television services, including digital multichannels that are otherwise available terrestrially in their area. These provisions will provide the commercial broadcasters with the incentive to roll out all of their terrestrial digital television services before viewers in the area will be able to automatically access VAST.

Although commercial and national broadcasters can apply to the minister for exemption from converting terrestrial digital transmission sites under very limited circumstances, it is important to note that this exemption is not automatic. It is within the minister's discretion, having regard to the statutory criteria outlined in the bill, whether to grant a broadcaster an exemption. An exemption cannot be granted where a service has already commenced transmitting in digital. These provisions are intended to, amongst other things, minimise situations where consumers need to purchase both satellite and terrestrial reception equipment to receive the full suite of digital television channels. The bill will progress the government's digital television switchover program and will help realise the digital dividend, bringing significant social and economic benefits to all Australians. On behalf of the government, I commend the bill to the Senate.