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Tuesday, 22 November 2011
Page: 13470

Mr FLETCHER (Bradfield) (17:10): I am pleased to rise to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Review of Future Users of Broadcasting Services Bands Spectrum) Bill 2011. The key purpose of this bill is to seek to amend section 35A of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to defer the initial statutory review of whether to allocate one or more additional commercial television broadcasting licences. The current provision requires the minister to cause a review to be conducted by 1 January next year. The amendment will defer the date to 1 January 2013. We are told that the rationale for this is allowing for the completion and reporting from the Convergence Review, which is scheduled to report to the government in early 2012.

The bill also amends section 35A to reframe and expand the scope of the statutory review so that the review will consider possible uses of the unassigned broadcasting services bands spectrum available for both television broadcasting services and non-broadcasting services. The expanded scope of the review will also examine any impact the introduction of new services using the unassigned broadcasting services bands spectrum will have on current broadcasting services and consumers.

I will make three points in the brief time available to me. Firstly, I will express the view that the amendment, as far as it goes, is a sensible one and is supported by the coalition. Secondly, I will talk about the broader context of this review process. As the member for Greenway has just noted, the review is part of a broader process under which the so-called digital dividend is being realised through the transition of television broadcasting from analogue to digital. With the greater efficiencies permitted by digital broadcasting, spectrum is freed up both within the broadcasting services band and outside the broadcasting services band. Much of that spectrum has already been reallocated, and clearly this bill addresses the question of the remaining spectrum, so I will talk about the importance of that spectrum and of the reallocation process, particularly in the context of wireless broadband. Thirdly, I will reflect on some of the observations that have been made by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy in this area, particularly concerning wireless broadband in recent years.

I turn firstly to the basis on which the coalition considers that these amendments are broadly sensible and ought to be supported. The need for a review is not contentious. Spectrum will become available as a result of the completion of the digital switch-over and the spectrum re-stack process. That freed-up spectrum will be available for a number of potential purposes. There has been debate surrounding this issue, certainly for as long as I have had the privilege of being involved in the communications sector, which includes my time serving on the staff of the then communications minister in the late 1990s. At that time, this process commenced—the Howard government in 1997 allocated the remaining spectrum to community free-to-air broadcasters and maintained the restriction on the establishment of a fourth commercial television licence. Subsequently, there was an announcement in 2006 that spectrum would be auctioned for two digital services. However, this was overturned by the current government following the 2007 election. Since that time, the future use of the spectrum has been uncertain. The Convergence Review Committee was established by the government in 2010 to look at the future use of the broadcasting services bands spectrum and the purposes for which it might be used.

The central logic of the bill embodying this amendment is that it does not make sense for the statutory review to be conducted by the deadline presently specified in the act in the light of the fact that, as of the deadline, the convergence review will not have reported. There are complex issues facing the commercial television industry and, more broadly, the communications sector. In coming to grips with some of those complex issues, the input from the convergence review will clearly be important in determining the optimal use of this spectrum.

As the shadow minister has already pointed out, the historical divisions between broadcasting spectrum and other kinds of spectrum are now hopelessly outdated. It is clear that this spectrum and many other kinds of spectrum can be used for a whole range of communications services of many different types, all of which are based upon fundamentally consistent underlying technologies. Therefore, the legislative premise that the different kinds of spectrum are to be dealt with in wholly different ways is also completely outdated and the amendment to give effect to a capacity to consider non-broadcasting uses of this spectrum is highly sensible.

That brings me to my second point. The amending legislation here, together with the broader public policy process, which was referred to by the member for Greenway earlier and concerns the realisation of the digital dividend, should remind us of the fundamental importance and value of spectrum for a range of communications services, particularly a range of broadband services.

It is evident, as you look around the world, that it is accepted that the use of radio frequency spectrum for the delivery of wireless broadband services is considered to be of the highest importance. Interestingly, in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission has recently given its full support to the development of mobile broadband in that market. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has been quoted in recent days, speaking at the GSMA Mobile Asia Congress, as saying the following:

The Commission is making a concerted effort to make sure that mobile broadband operators have enough spectrum to support the increasing number of smartphones and tablets coming online. This is not something that anyone anticipated, planned for or predicted several years ago but it is a very significant issue, particularly in large densely populated markets with smartphone and tablet penetration. We need to tackle the looming spectrum crunch by dramatically increasing the amount of spectrum.

I venture to suggest that one of the issues which will be absolutely central to this review, as it is conducted under the amended terms set out in proposed section 35A, will be the capacity to use this extra quantity of spectrum for additional mobile broadband purposes. Of course, that would come on top of the program of work the government already has underway to make available additional spectrum under the digital dividend process through an auction process, with the expectation that the bidders are likely to include all of the existing mobile communications and mobile broadband operators.

There has been an explosion in the growth of wireless broadband services. Consumers have taken up these services with enormous enthusiasm, and the government's stated program of conducting auctions recognises the enormous consumer enthusiasm for wireless broadband services. I think there is very little disagreement on any side of the House that wireless spectrum and wireless broadband are of enormous importance. That brings me to my third point. The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy has made some reflections about the use of wireless for the delivery of broadband services. For example, I draw the House's attention to what Senator Conroy had to say about OPEL, the network that was going to deliver wireless broadband services under the Howard government's Broadband Connect program in a contract announced in mid-2007. Senator Conroy described OPEL on repeated occasions as the 'dog of the product'. This is puzzling given that OPEL proposed to use the same spectrum, the 2.3 gigahertz and 3.4 gigahertz spectrum, as is now to be used for the wireless broadband network to be provided as part of the National Broadband Network.

Indeed, Senator Conroy's confusing and conflicting views about wireless broadband were also revealed in an interview on The 7.30 Reportin 2007, where he said about the OPEL network:

If you pick up your cordless phone while you’re using your Internet, your line can drop out. If you use your microwave, your line will drop out.

There is a puzzling contradiction between these high-minded consumer warnings being given by Senator Conroy in 2007. I am sure they were motivated purely by a desire to ensure that consumers were not misled, because apparently wireless broadband was deeply flawed—even to the extent that, if your microwave was turned on, you were not able to use wireless broadband—and that the purity of their motivation was only slightly tempered by their enthusiasm, which they have maintained in government with the National Broadband Network, for wireless broadband. I repeat that the spectrum proposed to be used and the speed—a 12-megabit per second peak speed—now proposed by the government under the National Broadband Network are absolutely identical to the OPEL product which was so remorselessly bucketed by Minister Conroy, the then opposition spokesman, during the 2007 election.

Indeed, it was not just the opposition spokesman on broadband who appeared to have a conflicted view, because the then opposition leader, on 19 June 2007, had this to say:

People in regional and rural areas deserve every bit as good a service as those in the big cities. Our fibre-optic-to-the-node plan will offer high-speed broadband to 98 per cent of Australians regardless of where they live. When you look at some of the technical deficiencies in wireless and problems in terms of being able to access speeds of 12 megabits per second using wireless then we believe we have hit upon the right technology.

In other words, the member for Griffith was then arguing that fibre was the only sufficient technology and that wireless, going out as far as 98 per cent, was inadequate—a view that the government seems to have changed markedly since it has come to the position that wireless is the appropriate technology to use in the 93rd percentile.

I will make my position on this perfectly clear, lest I be verballed, as is regrettably common when it comes to dealing with the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. I am a strong supporter of wireless broadband, and I have been a consistent supporter of wireless broadband, but the point I am drawing to the attention of the House is that the minister has displayed no such consistency. For shabby, short-term political purposes, he spent most of 2007 ruthlessly bucketing wireless as a technology for the delivery of broadband. Suddenly, in the last couple of years, he has had a road-to-Damascus conversion and now accepts the proposition that wireless is a vitally important technology for the use of broadband. Presumably, he would no longer assert, as he did on 10 August 2010, commenting on the coalition's policy at the last election to use wireless as a component for the delivery of broadband that 'it will consign Australia to the digital dark ages'.

It is truly confusing to try to understand what the minister for broadband actually believes. I really do not advise anybody to look for intellectual or logical consistency in the observations delivered by the minister for broadband. They tend to be influenced heavily by expediency. I do make the point that the legislation before the House today, and indeed other aspects of the government's legislative program, are predicated correctly on the view that wireless spectrum is an asset of great value and that we ought to think very carefully about how we can best optimise, in the public interest, the use of the limited spectrum resources that we have. And as part of that we ought to consider very carefully the use of spectrum, which presently falls within the broadcasting services ban. I have no doubt the review will consider that issue and it will weigh up the competing technologies which are available, and the optimal uses of that spectrum and the optimal regulatory settings, so as to facilitate that spectrum going to its highest value use. Consistency in politics and policy is a fine thing. As I have demonstrated, that is not something that you would look to from the current Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, but on this occasion we are nevertheless delighted to support his legislation.