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Wednesday, 29 November 2006
Page: 165

Mr NEVILLE (10:18 AM) —The Datacasting Transmitter Licence Fees Bill 2006 and the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Collection of Datacasting Transmitter Licence Fees) Bill 2006 are another step forward in the allocation of channels through unused spectrums to enhance digital services. I welcome the opposition’s support of this legislation, but the previous speaker, the member for Oxley, was far too harsh in his assessment of what has been happening.

By way of preface, Australia, in adopting various forms of broadcast and telecommunications, has always taken the cautious approach. We were not one of the first countries out there with black-and-white television but, when we did get it, we had the best standard and it was readily taken up. The same applied to colour television. I am confident the same will apply to digital television.

I remember David Hill, when he was the Managing Director of the ABC, giving a public lecture in Bundaberg. I was not in parliament at the time. He described Australians as electronic junkies. He pointed out the rapid take-up of black-and-white and colour television. He also talked about things like VHS machines, fax machines, mobile phones and the like and how readily we have embraced those things. For a country as wide and diverse as this, there is GSM coverage somewhere in the order of 96 per cent and CDMA coverage of about 98 per cent of people in their homes in this country. That is not to say that we cover the whole of the nation. You do not put 25 transmitters in Sturt Stony Desert, for example. But it has been an orderly and measured approach.

It is true that the turn-off date has been put back to the year 2012, but the government’s original plan was to turn it off in 2010. If I recall correctly, it was the Democrats which had that amended back to 2008, and that was probably too ambitious a target. But there have been a lot of movements over recent times, not the least of which is the fall in the price of set-top boxes. I have seen them as cheap as $49. I do not know how good they would be, but you can certainly get quite acceptable models—the member for Herbert is an expert in these matters—in the range of $50 to $100. There may be opportunities further down the track, with respect to those last few people who perhaps cannot afford set-top boxes, where the government will consider some form of subsidising those so that all people can participate in the digital agenda. I for one would certainly support that, and I know that the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts is not averse to it, although I think her view is that that would be premature at this stage.

The other thing we have to recognise is that all the free-to-air channels have seven megahertz of analog spectrum. That applies to the ABC, SBS and the three major commercial channels, and in most country areas—not all—their commercial affiliates also have seven megahertz. When we do turn off analog, a lot of spectrum will be freed up, and certainly the government and no doubt the people who wish to use the spectrum can be more expansive and creative. What we are doing now is putting a toe in the water of expanding digital television in two forms. One is in channel A, as the member for Oxley quite rightly said—a datacasting channel that includes datacasting, narrowcasting and probably community television. No-one is saying that that is the be-all and end-all of digital television—absolutely not. What we are saying is that it adds another dimension to digital television. It will, for example, have text and film, and the sorts of things that we will see will be another tool in the home’s total communications package that will allow people to get a better appreciation of the services that are available under this method.

As things like broadband expand across Australia still other opportunities in the digital field will emerge. Talking about channel A and channel B, they hold great opportunities for specialisation and specialties for Australian audiences. They also allow smaller niche proprietors and media proprietors into the market. Aside from data services and general texting, there would be information like the Stock Exchange, weather information and government services. There will also be a narrowcasting section where you can look at programming on things like religion, rural matters, lifestyle and shopping. The only restriction there will be that it must not be look-alike television. I felt the member for Oxley was straying into that field by saying this channel A should be allowed some form of de facto recognition so that it could get into that field. Once you do that you then muddy the waters. I think it will be a matter of the government taking the brakes off slowly and, in so doing, enhancing the services that are available on channel A.

The two bills essentially extend the same licence fee obligations that the free-to-air commercial television stations have to whoever is the successful holder of the channel A licence. In other words, these licensees are required to pay an annual fee based on the gross revenue of each entity. The new entity will be no different. The government is amending the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and creating a framework for the payment and record-keeping obligations of people who are going to participate in this channel A regime.

I would like to take the opportunity to expand on the potential I envisage channel A might hold. Australia is one of the most culturally diverse nations on earth. We are a multicultural and a multifaith country, with the majority of our population living outside the metropolitan centres. These facts would indicate that there is a broad scope for attracting audiences that have a particular interest in specialised subjects, whether that be religion; business, through financial reports, Stock Exchange reports et cetera; rural content, through market prices and all those sorts of things; and government facilitation services. Interestingly, in the trial that is going on in Sydney at present, the New South Wales government is trialling those government facilitation services as part of a potential channel A type experience.

Although this matter has not been decided yet, I would favour seeing Channel 31, certainly in country areas, on this spectrum. I think that would allow the Channel 31 agenda to move outside the capital cities using this as the conduit. If you wanted to establish Channel 31s in most existing television markets it would be an extraordinarily expensive operation, probably beyond the capacity of most places, except perhaps Newcastle and Canberra. All the other areas I think would find it very difficult. I am one who would favour the use of community television through this medium, but, as I said, the matter has not been decided yet. I think it would really add to the scope and the reach of Channel 31.

The other thing we need to recognise is that if, as is being proposed now, some of the free to airs under the ‘lose it or use it’ provisions are going to make football games available to Channel 31, it would be untenable to have football on Channel 31 in the metropolitan areas but not available to people in country areas so that you could watch two games. I for one cannot understand why we cannot watch two football games on a Saturday or Sunday on, say, two separate channels, whether you do that by expanding the scope of multichannelling or whether you do it this way, through a channel 31. Why can’t we see, for example, the game of the day in high definition on a major channel and then, on a subsidiary channel—be that a multicast channel or a channel 31, which in this instance would probably be a narrowcast channel—watch the game of state interest?

If, for example, the Broncos are playing the Cowboys, it may not be the game of the day, but you can imagine that most Queenslanders would want to watch that. Or, if two Sydney clubs are playing and it is not the game of the day, you could imagine that a lot of Sydney people would still want to watch that game, be it NRL or AFL. I think that this is a good step forward. It is certainly new territory. There will need to be some experimentation, and I am sure that government will not be mean fisted in allowing whoever gets the licence to make a success of it.

There are some, too, that would like to see a competitive service to the ABC in rural areas, perhaps somewhat different from the major ABC channel—not necessarily a carbon copy of it—where you could have stock reports and interviews and things about rural matters, such as the use of chemicals, varieties of cropping, methods of harvesting, methods of marketing and all that sort of stuff. The ABC does an excellent job, and I do not diminish that for a minute, but this could be yet another service and it might allow industries in rural areas on a commercial basis to be able to support a narrowcast within a channel A format.

So it is another step forward. I do not know what the member for Oxley meant about the ABC, but the genre restrictions on the ABC and SBS are about to be lifted, which will allow them a lot more scope both in their major ABC channel and in ABC2. So this is a good bill and another step forward in digital transmission, and I commend the bills to the House.