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Thursday, 23 October 2008
Page: 73

Ms OWENS (10:00 AM) —I am pleased to rise to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2008. Before entering parliament, in one of my past lives I was closely associated with radio, both commercial and community, in my role as the Chief Executive Officer of the Association of Independent Record Labels. We had real concern about the capacity of commercial and community radio to act as a communication channel for local Australian artists. I also served on national committees in various areas of community radio and worked with community radio stations all round Australia on the promotion of Australian music through that medium.

When discussion first began some 10 years ago about the introduction of digital radio and how that would affect the operation of radio in Australia, we had mixed views, I have to say. On the one hand we recognised that digital radio provides many additional benefits to listeners—in particular, better quality of sound, better reception and a more efficient use of spectrum—but we were concerned that, in the switch-on of digital to run alongside analog, the capacity of the new technology be used to increase diversity and the interests of smaller broadcasters be protected through that changeover period.

This bill deals with the introduction of digital radio to operate, as it will, alongside analog radio, and essentially it eases many of the concerns that I had in those early years. Mainly, at this stage, it extends the deadlines for the introduction and adds provisions for different sectors of broadcasting for different periods and for different reasons. It extends the deadline for broadcasters in the mainland state capital cities by six months, to 1 July 2009, it treats Hobart as a special case and it introduces special provisions for community radio. The current switch-on deadline for the six capital cities is 1 January 2009 and, to broadcasters who do not meet that deadline, sanctions will apply. Those sanctions can be quite harsh and they include the cancellation of their rights to broadcast in digital. I am very pleased to see that ‘use it or lose it’ provision reinforced in this bill. Spectrum is limited—it is extremely limited—and, while we must provide flexibility for businesses to make the adjustments that they need, we must not allow broadcasters to hold valuable spectrum unused for unreasonable periods of time. But for a range of reasons it has become apparent that many broadcasters will not be able to meet that deadline.

This bill amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Radiocommunications Act 1992 to extend the deadline for the commencement of digital radio services by six months, to 1 July 2009. It gives additional flexibility to commercial broadcasters to resolve any further infrastructure issues that relate to the rollout of transmission equipment as they prepare for the launch of the new digital services. It should be noted, though, that the ABC and the commercial radio sector have announced that the national switch-on for digital radio will take place on 1 May 2009—before the 1 July deadline. It is important to note that the extension of the deadline will not disadvantage broadcasters that choose to switch on early; it simply provides greater flexibility for those that require the additional time.

That extension to 1 July 2009 applies to the capital cities on the mainland. Hobart is treated differently and given additional time again over the six months. That is not an unusual response to Hobart’s circumstances. In the switch-on for radio and the switch-over for digital television, broadcasters in smaller regional markets are given additional time to make the necessary changes for conversion to digital. Hobart is classified as a regional licence area in a number of other contexts, including the rollout of digital television and for advertising market purposes. That is because its population is roughly the same or smaller than other markets classified as regional, including, for example, Geelong, Wollongong and Newcastle.

The costs for broadcasters in Hobart, should they be forced to commence digital radio services at the same time as the mainland state capitals, would be much higher than their competitors in the capital cities on the mainland. Hobart’s commercial radio broadcasters stated that, because of the higher costs of operating in small markets, they would not be in a position to commence digital radio services at the same time as larger mainland capital cities. This bill effectively removes Hobart from the capital city category and allows it to commence digital radio services at the same time as other similarly sized markets.

Finally, there are special provisions for community radio—and it is quite right that there are. Community radio in Australia is a particularly vibrant sector. We have one of the better community radio sectors in the world, well known for its diversity, local content and grassroots participation in the media sector. In a country like Australia, where diversity in media content is a priority, community radio plays an extremely important role in providing a voice for many people who would otherwise not have one at all. But it often struggles. These community based organisations survive extremely well in Australia, but technological changes such as this one will make it difficult for organisations that are constantly fundraising to support their ongoing operations let alone expensive upgrades of equipment, the skilling of volunteers and access to transmitters under the new formats.

The digital radio framework for the introduction of digital radio services in Australia was included in legislation introduced into the parliament in 2007. The framework required that joint venture companies could be formed by digital radio broadcasters for the purposes of holding a relevant digital radio multiplex transmitter licence and managing the transmission of digital radio services in Australia. In line with that legislation, the community broadcasters formed representative companies in each of the state capital cities with dual functions of coordinating the sharing of transmission capacity reserved for community broadcasters between individual community radio licences and representing the community sector should it choose to take up the option of joining the relevant joint venture company.

In the tight fiscal environment leading up to the May budget, the government deferred funding for the community broadcasters to participate in digital radio to the 2009-10 financial year. So community broadcasters were unable to purchase shares in joint venture companies. Under this amendment, community radio broadcasters will have an opportunity, should they choose, to purchase shares in the joint venture company in line with the intention of the original legislation passed in 2007. Community broadcasters, though, will not be forced to join the joint venture company. The legislated reservation of transmission capacity remains unchanged by this investment, so broadcasters of all kinds are able to broadcast digital radio services regardless of whether they are part of the joint venture company.

Digital radio has the potential to bring significant benefits to radio listeners through a greater number of channels, but it is important through the change of process that we ensure that we see an increase in diversity and not just an increase in the number of channels. The potential for both broadcasters and listeners to benefit from the introduction of digital is enormous. The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2008 amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Radiocommunications Act 1992 to smooth the transition. I commend the bill to the House.