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Thursday, 19 June 2003
Page: 16975

Mr McGAURAN (Minister for Science) (9:01 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Communications Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2003 makes amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, the Radiocommunications Act 1992 and the Telecommunications Act 1997 in relation to:

· Solus television markets;

· Two-service television markets;

· Transmission of datacasting services;

· Variations to approved national broadcaster implementation plans; and

· Penalties payable instead of prosecution for non-compliance with obligations relating to telecommunications customer equipment and cabling.

Television viewers in capital cities in Australia enjoy three commercial television services, as well as the ABC and SBS. However, many of their counterparts in regional areas only receive two, or sometimes just one, commercial services. When it introduced digital television, the government made significant changes to the Broadcasting Services Act to encourage incumbent broadcasters to provide additional services in two or single service (`solus') markets. These changes will help provide viewers in regional areas with better television services. They are very important changes.

This bill corrects minor anomalies in the legislative framework relating to the introduction of these new services.

Under section 38A of the Broadcasting Services Act, a commercial television broadcasting licensee in a market with only one commercial service can apply to the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) for a licence to operate a second analog commercial service in the same licence area. Both these services must ultimately be converted to digital, in accordance with legislation. The government introduced amendments (which came into effect on 1 January 2001) to give the broadcaster the option of electing to multichannel both digital versions on the same channel, with exemption from HDTV obligations. This will result in cost savings to the broadcasters in terms of transmission and other equipment. Licensees are required to elect whether or not they wish to take up this option `at or about the time' the section 38A licence is allocated.

In 1996 a second service was established in Griffith under the section 38A provisions. Since the 2001 amendment came into force, the ABA has allocated second licences under section 38A in the remaining four solus markets, and in each case the licensees have elected to multichannel digital transmissions of both services. However, because the Griffith licence was established before 2001, the broadcaster in that market was unable to meet the requirement that it elect `at or about the time' its section 38A licence was granted, whether it wished to multichannel its digital simulcast services.

The bill corrects this anomaly by allowing a licensee in a solus market, where a second licence was allocated under section 38A prior to 1 January 2001, to elect within 90 days of the relevant provision of the bill coming into effect to multichannel the digital transmission of the original and section 38A services.

The bill also contains provisions to facilitate the earlier potential availability of new commercial television services in regional markets with only two existing commercial services.

Licence areas outside the capital cities are classified as regional or remote, depending on their location. In some areas of Australia there is overlap between a regional licence area and a remote area.

Under section 38B of the Broadcasting Services Act, commercial broadcasters in two-service regional markets can elect to provide a third service in digital mode. The act currently provides that, where these markets overlap with remote licence areas, the date on which the broadcasters can elect to provide a third service under section 38B is set in the context of the digital conversion arrangements for the overlapping remote area. As arrangements are yet to be finalised for the introduction of digital television services in remote areas, this is likely to delay the availability of new services in the relevant regional markets.

The bill breaks this nexus by allowing the ABA to determine separate dates in overlapping regional and remote markets from which licensees can elect to provide a third service under section 38B.

The Radiocommunications Act currently prevents free-to-air broadcasters from transmitting datacasting services until the earlier of 12 months after the commencement of the simulcast period in their area or the first time a datacasting service was transmitted by an independent datacasting transmitter licensee. The government originally introduced these provisions to help ensure a level playing field in the provision of datacasting services.

These provisions are no longer necessary, given that, following the recent datacasting review, the government decided not to proceed with allocation of datacasting transmitter licences at this stage. The retention of these provisions could slow the ability of regional free-to-air broadcasters to provide datacasting services until, in some cases, the end of 2004. The bill therefore removes these provisions.

The national broadcasters must develop implementation plans in relation to the conversion of their television services from analog to digital transmission mode. Implementation plans prescribe, amongst other things, the commencement dates and technical specifications for particular digital television services. The legislation requires the ABC and SBS to roll out their digital television services in accordance with implementation plans approved by the minister or variations to such plans that have been subsequently approved by the minister.

There are over 600 national broadcaster television services requiring conversion and variations are often required because of delays in the arrival of equipment from overseas, changes to timetables to coordinate roll-out with other broadcasters and minor changes to technical specifications. Under the current provisions, the minister must approve each variation.

The bill contains amendments to allow the minister to delegate the power to approve proposed variations to approved implementation plans to the secretary or senior officers of the department.

The bill also contains provisions relating to the penalties payable as an alternative to prosecution under part 21 of the Telecommunications Act.

Part 21 of the Telecommunications Act sets out a number of obligations relating to the manufacture and importation of customer equipment and customer cabling, and the installation of customer cabling, which are intended to ensure appropriate levels of service delivery, product performance and safety. Noncompliance with these requirements has the potential to cause significant detriment to consumers.

Prosecuting an individual or a body corporate for offences under part 21 is, however, often inappropriate because there is a potential for harm to reputation if a conviction is recorded. Prosecution also involves a significant diversion of the time and resources of the Australian Communications Authority (the ACA).

The bill provides for the establishment of an infringement notice scheme whereby the alleged offender has the option of paying to the Commonwealth, as an alternative to prosecution, a penalty that is less than that which would apply if the matter were dealt with by a court and a contravention of an offence established. It is anticipated that this medium-level regulatory response will enable the ACA to act more quickly to address noncompliance, and thereby encourage improved compliance.

Consumers are expected to benefit through reduced risk of physical injury and poor service delivery arising from noncompliance, lower prices and greater confidence in the quality of cabling and customer equipment.

A similar penalty in lieu of prosecution scheme currently exists under section 315 of the Radiocommunications Act and has been effective in encouraging increased compliance with provisions under that act that are similar in nature to those included in the proposed penalty in lieu of prosecution scheme in this bill.

The amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act and the Radiocommunications Act represent sensible and indeed necessary but minor adjustments to the digital television and datacasting regulatory framework so as to remove anomalies or unnecessary prohibitions and to streamline implementation arrangements for national broadcasters and therefore the consumers they service. The amendments to the Telecommunications Act will improve compliance with the technical requirements that apply to customer equipment and cabling.

These are worthwhile and justifiable reforms, part of Senator Alston's and his department's ongoing energy and drive and commitment to service the sector and consumers. I commend the bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Swan) adjourned.