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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 7

Mr FARMER (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education, Science and Training) (9:31 AM) —You will find, during what I have to say in summing up this debate, that we have addressed a number of the concerns highlighted by the opposition. The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2007 and the Radio Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2007 provide the Australian radio industry with a unique and important opportunity to commence digital radio services. Digitisation is a key strategic issue for radio, which is the last significant broadcasting platform to remain analog only. The Australian radio industry has lobbied strongly for the introduction of digital radio to enable it to respond to the opportunities and challenges that digital broadcasting presents. There is no doubt that digital radio has the potential to enhance the already high-quality radio services enjoyed by Australian radio listeners every day.

The opposition would have us delay the introduction of the new technology, and thereby deny the radio-listening public the opportunity of new and innovative digital radio services, until further consultation has occurred; yet a comprehensive process of consultation has already occurred in the development of this legislation with the full support and involvement of the Australian radio industry. In December 2004, the government initiated an intensive process of industry consultation, research and policy development to examine the most appropriate technology and framework for the introduction of digital radio in Australia. This process culminated in the release by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts in October 2005 of a policy framework to guide the implementation of digital radio, which is now being implemented through this legislation. The government’s policy development process had the strong support and involvement of industry, and the framework was warmly received by major stakeholder groups when it was announced. The stakeholders have been further involved in the development of legislation to implement the framework through the release of an exposure draft of the bills prior to their introduction into parliament and through the inquiry of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.

Underpinned by this exhaustive policy development process, these bills provide a measured approach to the introduction of digital radio in this country, one that balances a range of complex objectives and constraints. Two of these are the scarcity of available spectrum for digital radio and the choice of digital radio technology. While there are a range of technology standards available for digital radio, it will be crucial that Australia adopt a standard that is widely deployed and for which there are a range of reasonably priced consumer receivers available. Equally importantly, this standard must be compatible with the radio frequency spectrum available for digital radio broadcasting in Australia. The bill provides for the introduction of services using the digital audio broadcasting, or DAB, standard. DAB is the most mature and developed of the terrestrial digital radio platforms, and its adoption in Australia has the full support of industry.

These DAB based digital radio services will be introduced in a progressive manner, with the first services to commence in the state capital cities by 1 January 2009. This progressive approach to service introduction reflects the view, supported by the international experience with this technology, that digital radio will supplement existing analog radio services for a considerable period and may never be a complete replacement. Contrary to the suggestions of the opposition, listeners outside the state capitals have not been overlooked. The legislation provides that regional markets will have an opportunity to commence DAB digital radio services dependent on the interest of relevant broadcasters in providing services. The commercial radio industry has publicly expressed considerable interest in providing DAB services in a number of large regional markets, and it is therefore reasonable to expect that digital radio services may commence in a number of these areas some time after 2009.

While DAB is the clear choice for the implementation of digital radio in Australia’s larger markets, it is acknowledged that the platform may be unable to replicate the extensive broadcast coverage of services in many of the regional markets, particularly AM services. Consideration will need to be given to whether the other technologies such as digital radio mondiale, or DRM, are better placed to address the audience needs of some of the regional areas.

While DRM has particular strengths in terms of its capacity to provide a very wide coverage service, it remains an underdeveloped technology, with affordable consumer sets only recently being produced in any meaningful numbers. There would be risks if Australia were to draft legislation to support the introduction of technology that is yet to achieve significant commercial support in overseas markets. This consideration, together with the view of digital radio as a supplementary technology, supports the conclusion that it would be premature for Australia to develop a detailed regulatory framework for alternative digital radio technologies at this time.

However, there would be a clear benefit in continuing the assessment of technology options for regional digital radio. This is consistent with the government’s stated commitment to ensuring equitable access to the new services in broadcasting for people living in rural, regional and remote Australia. To this end, the legislation provides for a statutory review by 1 January 2011 of technologies for the transmission of digital radio broadcasting services and restricted datacasting services in regional licence areas. This review will allow for the appropriate consideration of issues such as the availability of equipment for, and the coverage characteristics of, various digital radio technologies, as well as the types of services that could result from the use of those technologies in regional areas, and will thus allow for adjustments to the regulatory framework if necessary.

During the first phase of the introduction of DAB digital radio, it will be important to provide the commercial radio industry with an appropriate measure of stability and certainty as they roll out services. The legislation provides this with a six-year moratorium on the issue of new licence area planned commercial digital radio licences from the commencement of services in the respective markets.

However, the legislation also seeks to balance the stability provided to incumbent broadcasters with the requirement that they fully utilise the new platform. Each incumbent commercial radio broadcasting licensee will be obligated to commence a digital radio service and to continue to provide such a service for the duration of the moratorium. Failure by any licensee to meet this requirement will result in the licensee forfeiting their rights in digital and will require the regulator to issue a new digital commercial radio licence for the area concerned. This is an important obligation on the commercial broadcasters—a point that seems to have been missed by the opposition. It will ensure that the digital radio platform is fully utilised and allow appropriate commercial entry where an incumbent commercial broadcaster chooses not to provide a digital radio service.

In terms of transmitter licensing, the legislation provides incumbent broadcasters with the opportunity to own and operate the relevant licences, known as multiplex transmitter licences, that will provide their digital radio services. This is consistent with arrangements for analog radio and digital television where broadcasters manage the transmission of their services and control the associated spectrum.

The community broadcaster’s involvement in multiplex licensing and operations will be by way of a representative company formed and owned by community licensees in each market. This representative company will enable the relevant community broadcasters in a licence area to manage their collective involvement in digital radio—as provided for in the government’s announced policy framework—on an equitable and transparent basis. The government’s policy framework also provides the community sector with guaranteed access to capacity on the multiplex transmitter licences that will also provide the guaranteed access for digital radio services of the commercial broadcasters.

The legislation establishes a multiplex access regime to ensure efficient, open and generally non-discriminatory access to digital radio multiplexes and, in particular, rights for incumbent broadcasters to access multiplex capacity. In the case of the wide-coverage community radio broadcasting licensees, the legislation reserves two-ninths of the capacity of every foundation multiplex transmitter licence for the community broadcasters in a market to collectively use for digital radio. This provides the sector with an opportunity to participate in digital radio from the commencement of the first services. I would also like to note that the government has backed up this commitment to the community sector with federal budget funding of over $10 million to help community broadcasters establish digital radio infrastructure.

The government has also committed to funding the roll-out of infrastructure to support the delivery of digital radio services by the national broadcasters—the ABC and the SBS. Together, these initiatives will enable the sectors to participate with the commercial broadcasters in the commencement of digital radio services in the state capital cities on 1 January 2009. This is an excellent outcome for the introduction of digital radio in Australia and will support the successful establishment of the new platform. The implementation of digital radio overseas has highlighted that consumer take-up depends on the capacity for digital radio to offer more in terms of choice and quality of radio services.

In Australia, the national broadcasters play a vital role in the Australian radio market and are a critical source of service diversity, with their services highly valued by audiences across the country. Similarly, community radio is an established player in the radio broadcasting landscape, making a valuable contribution to the diversity of radio services. This funding package will ensure that the roles of the respective sectors are carried forward in the digital environment.

In terms of digital radio services, the legislation permits each of these sectors to provide any combination of text or still visual images as part of digital radio content or content in a form determined by the minister. This mechanism will allow careful consideration of any additional types of radio content, such as animation of moving image material, in the context of the broadcaster regulatory framework for broadcasting services and the experience of digital radio in Australia and internationally.

In addition, the legislation permits broadcasters to provide multiple digital radio services rather than a single stream of radio content, and there will be no requirement for broadcasters to simulcast their existing analog services in digital—although some broadcasters may choose to do so. These measures harness the potential of the DAB standard to expand the range of radio services in a spectrum-efficient manner, enabling broadcasters to provide a wide range of programming that is responsive to audience needs.

As the member for Moreton indicated, this is enabling legislation. It provides a framework for the industry to take forward and make good use of. Taken as a whole, the measures contained in this legislation cement radio’s important position in Australia’s media landscape, providing industry with the opportunity to invest in innovative new digital content and provide listeners with a rich and more diverse radio offering.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Grayndler has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.