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Wednesday, 10 May 2000
Page: 16123


Mr McGAURAN (Minister for the Arts and the Centenary of Federation) (9:31 AM) —I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

The introduction of digital television and datacasting services in Australia from 1 January 2001 is a very significant development in the history of television. Consumers will be able to view clearer, sharper pictures, and choose between different types of television viewing—such as wide screen movie quality programs, or multiple camera angles for sporting programs. They will also, through their television set, be able to have access to new datacasting services which are likely to include a wide variety of information, education, advertising, and shopping services.

In 1998 the foundations were laid for Australia to enter the digital television era when the parliament passed legislation to establish the basic framework for conversion to digital television. This legislation sets out the broad framework for converting free-to-air commercial and national television from analog to digital. The rules governing the operation of digital television and datacasting services were to be determined following a number of statutory reviews.

The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television and Datacasting) Bill 2000 sets out the operating rules for digital television and datacasting services following a review process which included extensive consultation with stakeholders and the public about options for appropriate regulatory solutions for the digital conversion process. Reports of the eight completed reviews are to be tabled in parliament during the current sitting period. One review remains to be completed and will be tabled as soon as the government's decisions on the spectrum allocation process have been finalised.

The bill also sets out a framework relating to HDTV standards and levels, the nature of datacasting and program enhancements, and on arrangements relating to captioning, the provision of new services in underserved areas and arrangements for the hand-back of analog spectrum.

Must carry standard definition television (SDTV) and HDTV Quotas

A key feature of the government's digital television policy has been to minimise the disruption to consumers during the conversion period and to minimise the costs of conversion.

The bill requires free-to-air broadcasters to provide a standard definition digital simulcast of their transmission in analog mode at all times in addition to meeting HDTV quota requirements.

The requirement to provide SDTV provides real choice for consumers. SDTV receivers will be more affordable and are expected to be more widely available in the initial phase of introduction of digital television. Consumers will be able to choose whether they want:

. cinema quality pictures with access to datacasting services through a more expensive HDTV set;

. access to new services and a higher quality picture through a cheaper SDTV set;

. access to new services on their existing analog television set through a set top box; or

. continuing, for the time being, to watch their existing analog programs but without the additional services available via digital transmission through their existing analog set.

Because SDTV receivers will be more affordable, this measure will encourage more rapid take-up of digital television and datacasting. More rapid take-up may also lead to a more rapid reduction in prices of equipment. In addition, the faster the conversion to digital, the sooner the government will be able to turn off analog services and regain valuable analog spectrum for re-use.

Requiring the simulcast transmission of SDTV at all times also means that consumers can buy SDTV equipment and know they will always get a picture. If this requirement was not included, it would mean that when programs were broadcast only in HDTV, those with SDTV sets would not receive a picture.

SDTV pictures, while they will not have the `cinema' quality clarity of HDTV pictures, will still provide viewers a very high quality picture free of the `ghosting' and `snow' that characterise the reception experienced by some viewers.

As part of the requirement to provide SDTV at all times, the government expects that broadcasters will provide an audio stream using the MPEG sound standard. The government would encourage the industry to reach a common position on this issue, but may be willing to consider regulating a standard, using existing powers in the legislation, if this appears necessary in the interests of consumers.

The government remains committed to HDTV as a key feature of digital television and is moving to implement the mandatory HDTV requirement as agreed by parliament. The spectrum loaned to television broadcasters will provide sufficient spectrum capacity for HDTV.

The bill puts in place the following requirements for HDTV.

Free-to-air broadcasters are required to commence HDTV as soon as practicable after the commencement of digital services in a licence area.

Within two years of commencement of digital transmissions, commercial and national broadcasters must provide at least 20 hours per week of HDTV programs.

Commercial broadcasters must meet this target with material originally produced in HDTV. The HDTV requirements for the national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, are more flexible to take into account their diverse programming sources and may include upconverted SDTV material.

A review will be held in 2003 on HDTV quotas and the provision of HDTV in remote areas.

The provisions contained in the Bill impose a modest target, which will ensure that HDTV programming is made available to those who choose to purchase HDTV sets.

Datacasting

The 1998 legislation introduced an interim definition of datacasting. Following a review of the scope of datacasting services, the government considers that this definition should be modified. The legislation needs to be clearer about what kinds of services can be provided and about the distinction between datacasting and broadcasting services.

The parliament has legislated that no new commercial television licences can be issued until after 2006. Therefore, the regulatory regime needs to prevent this being circumvented by ensuring that datacasters do not become de facto broadcasters.

The parliament also prohibited multichannelling by broadcasters at least until a scheduled review in 2005. Therefore, the legislation needs to eliminate the possibility of broadcasters using their datacasting services to provide multiple television broadcasting channels and thus contravening the multichannelling ban.

The regulatory regime for datacasting will be implemented through a new schedule 6 to the Broadcasting Services Act1992, the BSA. The regulatory approach will focus on the kinds, or `genres', of programs and services which datacasters are allowed to provide. Datacasters will be prevented from providing content in genres regarded as free-to-air television—for example, drama, current affairs, sporting programs and events, music programs, infotainment and lifestyle programs, light entertainment and variety programs, compilation programs, quiz programs and games shows. The Australian Broadcasting Authority, the ABA, may make written determinations concerning whether or not programs fit within a particular genre.

Datacasters will be able to provide short extracts of these television program genres, as long as the extracts are not self-contained, and are not provided in a way that facilitates their combination to form a television program.

There will be limitations placed on the audio material datacasters can provide. This is primarily intended to prevent them from operating as radio broadcasters, and will not prevent them from providing a wide range of permitted audio material.

The ability to provide news, financial, market and business information is likely to enhance datacasting services and their attraction to audiences. Therefore, datacasters will be able to provide short news, business information or weather overview bulletins. In addition, bulletins may be provided on an individual news item, on a topic of business or financial information and on weather information, if they are made available to a viewer by selecting from a menu on the screen. Outside the restricted genres, datacasters will be able to provide any services. These include, but are not restricted to, programs providing information on products, services and a range of activities; educational programs associated with courses of study; foreign language news bulletins; transactions such as home shopping; banking and bill paying; any matter which is in the form of text and still pictures, including Internet web sites; Internet carriage services which provide individual end users with point-to-point access to the Internet; interactive games; and parliamentary broadcasts, or broadcasts of the proceedings of a court, royal commission or similar body.

Datacasting licensees will be able to provide their customers with individual point-to-point connections to the Internet. This will increase the range of business models available to datacasters. For example, it will allow a datacaster to function as an Internet service provider, providing connections to the Internet rather than just content.

In common with all other means of accessing the Internet, this would allow users of datacasting services to have access to programs such as video clips of news stories, or streamed audio and video services, where they are made available on web sites. The moratorium in the BSA on new commercial television services applies to services delivered by any technological means including the Internet. However, there is currently some uncertainty whether services such as streamed audio and video obtainable on the Internet are, legally, broadcasting services. This is a generic issue relating to the convergence of broadcasting with other services, and it is therefore proposed to refer the matter to the ABA for their detailed consideration over the next 12 months.

Rules applying to datacasting services under this legislation will apply only to services provided in the broadcasting services bands spectrum, and will not affect services delivered by other technical means. Subject to this limitation, they will apply in respect of all datacasting services, whether by commercial broadcasters, national broadcasters or other datacasters.

The ABA will be provided with strong powers to enforce the distinction between datacasting and broadcasting. The ABA will issue datacasting content licences and oversee their use. It will be an offence to provide a datacasting service without a datacasting licence, or in breach of the conditions of a licence. Licences can be suspended or cancelled. The ABA will have the power to apply to the Federal Court for an injunction to prevent a datacaster from continuing to provide a datacasting service without a licence or in breach of a licence. The ABA can also issue remedial directions towards ensuring a datacaster complies with licence conditions.

Datacasters must also, as a group, develop codes of practice dealing with, for example, access to undesirable material, and handling of complaints.

The bill also prevents national broadcasters or commercial broadcasting licensees or those in a position to control such licences from controlling a datacasting licence. These measures give effect to the government's policy that free to air broadcasters should not be allowed to purchase or control additional spectrum.

The provisions for the licensing of datacasting content outlined earlier will be separate from the provisions for the licensing of datacasting carriage. The bill provides for datacasting transmitter licences to be issued. Until 2007, these licences can only be used to transmit services provided under a datacasting content licence issued by the ABA. Datacasting transmitter licences will have a term of 10 years, with the expectation of a single renewal for five years only.

The statutory moratorium on the issue of new commercial television broadcasting licences is scheduled to end in 2006. From 1 January 2007, therefore, spectrum licensed to datacasters will be able to be used for any other service licensed under the BSA, in addition to licensed datacasting. The regulatory arrangements applying to the use of this spectrum from 1 January 2007 will be the subject of a statutory review in 2005. The review will also examine what charges and other financial arrangements—if any—should apply to this spectrum.

Program Enhancements

I now turn to program enhancements. The ability to provide enhanced services will make digital television more attractive to consumers. The bill provides that free-to-air broadcasters will be allowed to provide digital enhancements to their main simulcast programs. These enhancements may be in any form, such as text, audio or video, provided that: the sole purpose of the transmission is to enhance a television program; there is a direct and close linkage between the enhancement and the primary program; and enhancements are transmitted simultaneously with the primary programs to which they are linked. The bill will also allow enhanced programming in the form of live coverage of a different sporting event to that being broadcast as a primary program, provided that the event is being played at the same venue, is in the same sport and overlaps in time with the primary program. This will allow, for example, broadcasters to enhance a program providing live coverage of a tennis match by also providing different camera angles, each player's results in past matches, video highlights from these past matches and each player's ranking and career highlights. They will also be allowed to provide coverage of another tennis match taking place at the same time in the same venue.

Broadcasters will also be able to use the flexibility provided by digital technology to deal with problems created by program overlaps. The bill will allow free-to-air broadcasters to use their additional channel capacity in dealing with overlaps where the end of a sporting match, or the telecast of other significant events as designated by the ABA, runs over time due to circumstances outside the control of the broadcaster and, as a result, clashes with another program which commences at its scheduled time. This means that viewers will have the choice of switching to the other program or watching the end of the event.

National Broadcasters

The government recognises the important role of the ABC and SBS in providing digital television services to viewers. With the start-up of digital television, the ABC and SBS will be obligated to simulcast their analog programs in digital mode and to meet HDTV format and captioning requirements. Under the provisions in this bill, the national broadcasters will be able to televise enhancements of their analog programming. They will also have the flexibility to provide innovative datacasting services. This will ensure that the national broadcasters are able to use digital television to enhance their charter functions, that they are placed on the same footing as the commercial television broadcasters in terms of the permitted range of digital television programming and that there is a common regulatory regime for all datacasting services.

It is not proposed, however, to amend the Broadcasting Services Act to lift the current statutory prohibition on national broadcasters providing multichannel television programming. There is a legitimate concern that free-to-air multichannel television programming would unfairly compete with the developing pay TV sector. It would also be inequitable to lift the ban on ABC and SBS multichannel programming while maintaining the current prohibition on commercial free-to-air multichannelling. This issue is best addressed as part of the statutory review of multichannelling that is to be conducted in 2005, in the light of experience with the introduction of digital technology and further developments in the pay TV industry.

Captioning

Free-to-air television plays a major role in providing entertainment, education and information to audiences throughout Australia. The advent of digital television provides the opportunity to significantly improve the access of the deaf and hearing impaired to television services. The BSA requires that standards be determined that, as far as practicable, require broadcasters to caption programs transmitted during prime viewing hours and to caption all news and current affairs transmitted at any time. The government has carefully considered the advice from broadcasters, the deaf and hearing impaired community and other stakeholders on the effect of this requirement and whether it should be amended. As a result of these considerations, the government has decided to limit exemptions only to programs or parts of programs in a language other than English, programs or parts of programs providing music without English words, and incidental or background music. These requirements will bring Australia more in line with developments in countries such as the United States of America, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Underserved Areas

In regional Australia there are currently a number of areas which have fewer than three commercial television services. There are currently four solus markets—that is, markets which have only one commercial channel. There are 10 other markets which have only two commercial services available. The government wishes to encourage the provision in these underserved regional licence areas of up to the same number of commercial television broadcasting services as are provided in most metropolitan areas. The government is mindful of the particular economics of underserved markets, with small widely dispersed populations requiring extensive transmission infrastructure and providing a low advertising revenue base. Therefore, the most effective way to introduce new services in these markets within a reasonable time frame is to allow existing broadcasters to provide such services. This is also consistent with the moratorium on new commercial licences in other areas.

Additional services would be supplied in regional solus markets principally through the existing legislative provisions which allow the granting of a second licence to the incumbent in a solus market if spectrum for a second analog service is available. Incumbents granted a second licence in these markets will be allowed, under the bill, to multichannel the digital transmission of the existing and new services in SDTV format. This will allow these broadcasters, if they wish, to minimise their conversion costs by using the same infrastructure to transmit both digital services. These multichannelled services will be exempt from the HDTV requirements, subject to review in 2005. Digital transmission of the original and second analog service is required to commence by 1 January 2004.

In the case of two-station markets, the bill will provide for a third digital-only service to be provided either by one of the existing incumbents or by a joint venture by the two incumbents. If only one of the incumbents provides the new service they can elect to do so by multichannelling in SDTV format—with exemption from HDTV requirements, again subject to review in 2005. The new service is required to commence by 1 January 2004, or any earlier time notified by the ABA.

These changes will provide the opportunity for incumbent broadcasters in solus and two-service markets to provide new digital services with lower roll-out costs, and provide the potential for new services for consumers in these regions.

Spectrum planning

Free-to-air television broadcasters are to be loaned sufficient additional spectrum, free of charge, to enable them to simulcast their existing service in analog and digital format for at least eight years. At the end of this period they will be required to hand back the spectrum no longer required for analog transmission. It is important that at this time the ABA has the maximum capacity to plan future spectrum efficiently.

The current legislative provisions could limit the ABA's flexibility and restrict its ability to take advantage of the spectrum efficiencies arising from digital technologies. The bill will amend the legislation to ensure that the ABA has the power to allot the channels that will be used by the broadcasters for digital services after the end of the simulcast period having regard to the most efficient use of spectrum.

Conclusion

This bill represents a significant step forward in the process of implementing digital television in Australia. It puts in place all the major requirements for digital television conversion and for the establishment of datacasting and provides a comprehensive framework under which broadcasters can embark on the provision of the new and exciting digital services. It also provides broadcasters and datacasters the maximum certainty through legislation.

There will, of course, be a need for some review of progress, given that we are entering a new environment in which technology is constantly changing and developing. The bill provides for such reviews, which will facilitate adjustments of the framework in the light of experience and the take-up of digital television. I commend the bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Stephen Smith) adjourned.