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Monday, 16 October 2006
Page: 104

Mr HUNT (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage) (7:38 PM) —I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Conversion to digital is the most fundamental change in broadcasting since the introduction of television itself 50 years ago.

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. Further legislation followed in 2000 setting out the operating rules for digital television services.

Since that time, technology has continued to evolve, consumers’ media consumption habits have continued to change and grow more sophisticated and internationally the move towards digital has continued unabated.

The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006 represents the next major step in the digital television conversion process for Australia.

The bill amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and other legislation to implement the government’s decisions relating to the regulation of digital television, the broadcasting of sports on the antisiphoning list on new digital channels, and procedures for the allocation of new commercial television licences.

This bill contains several measures aimed at driving the uptake of digital television which will bring significant benefits to consumers and Australian society. These measures include the removal of the current program restrictions on national broadcaster multichannels immediately; the phasing in of multichannelling for commercial television broadcasters; and the allocation of two unassigned channels for new digital services.

The removal of the high definition simulcast requirement will enable commercial television broadcasters to provide a high definition television multichannel from 2007 if they wish. From 2009 they will also be able to provide a standard definition television multichannel.

Commercial broadcasters will not be restricted as to the number of multichannels they can provide within their allocated channel of spectrum from the time of switchover, which is intended to commence in the period 2010 to 2012.

This approach balances concerns about the impact of multichannelling on broadcasters’ business models and technical spectrum capacity limits, with the need to provide additional digital content to viewers and to drive digital uptake.

The high definition television programming quota of 1,040 hours per year will be maintained during the simulcast period and then removed providing increased flexibility for broadcasters in the services they offer their audiences.

All broadcasters will be prevented from premiering the whole or part of an event on the antisiphoning list on a digital multichannel. This will ensure that listed events remain available to the widest possible audience. This requirement, along with the operation of, and ongoing rationale for, the antisiphoning scheme, will be reviewed in 2009 prior to the expiry of the current list and in the context of approaching digital switchover.

This bill also contains measures relating to the allocation of new commercial television licences following the end of the moratorium on new licences on 31 December 2006.

This bill modifies the power to allocate new commercial television broadcasting licences within the broadcasting services bands of spectrum so that the Australian Communications and Media Authority cannot exercise this power unless a decision has been taken by the minister that such a licence should be allocated.

This will implement the government’s election commitment to take a decision-making role in commercial television licensing.

This bill also provides a power to the minister to veto the allocation by ACMA of a new commercial television broadcasting licence outside broadcasting spectrum (under section 40 of the BSA) on the basis that the allocation of the licence would be contrary to the public interest.

The end of the simulcast period provides a natural point from both a policy and practical perspective, for further changes to the digital television regulatory settings.

The removal of the remaining restrictions on free-to-air multichannelling at switchover means that the way obligations such as Australian content quotas are applied to digital channels from switchover will need to be revisited.

This bill requires that a review of content requirements on multichannels must be conducted prior to the end of the simulcast period. In the meantime, the bill ensures that the usual viewer protections will apply to content on multichannels.

The bill also provides for the allocation of two currently unused broadcasting channels, on a nationwide basis, for new services. These are known as channel A and channel B.

These provisions will allow the introduction of new and innovative digital services. Channel A will be reserved for fixed, in-home, free-to-air digital services, while channel B can be used for a wider range of services, including mobile TV.

To encourage new players in the broadcasting sector, incumbent commercial television broadcasters and national broadcasters will be prohibited from controlling channel A. These control provisions do not apply to channel B, provided the channel is not used for free-to-air, in-home services.

Channel B licensees will also be subject to an access regime to prevent the possibility of channel B licence holders monopolising the limited transmission capacity on channel B.

Finally, the bill repeals a range of existing provisions for digital television technical standards and provides for a range of new standards- and code-making powers for ACMA. These measures provide an enhanced role for ACMA and a flexible regulatory regime to respond to technological developments and change in the digital broadcasting sector.

Taken as a package with the bills on media ownership reform and enforcement powers for ACMA, the reforms in this bill represent a significant and important step forward in Australian media policy and regulation.

The digital television component of the package will provide opportunities for Australian television viewers to access a greater range of digital programming and services and ensure that viewers and broadcasters are better prepared for digital switchover.

I thank the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Helen Coonan, her staff and the officers of her department for their work and I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Stephen Smith) adjourned.