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Thursday, 13 May 2010
Page: 3585

Mrs MOYLAN (5:21 PM) —Conversion to digital television is the most fundamental change in broadcasting since the introduction of television more than 50 years ago. It will give viewers access to multiple high-definition channels and an expanded range of programs. I know that the coalition broadly supports this because we did a lot of work on this in previous years when in government. However, I would echo many of the comments of the member for Wide Bay, particularly in relation to regional and rural areas, because I represent many of those areas and outer suburban areas that we continue to have concerns about. We continue to have concerns about them because it appears this is another ham-fisted rollout by the federal government. I have a number of concerns to raise.

I was interested to read the press release of the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. He said:

All television viewers in Australia will now have access to the full range of free-to-air digital television services as a result of the new satellite television service.

I think there is some doubt about whether all Australians will have access to this service. That definitely remains to be seen. Certainly, a lot of people who are knowledgeable in this area doubt that it is a possibility.

In my electorate, I constantly echo the concerns of some of the of the member for Wide Bay’s constituents—the people of Lancelin and Northam, for example. Northam is only an hour and a half from the city and Lancelin is a couple of hours from the city. These are people who do not have postal services. They do not have newspaper deliveries. They do not get mobile reception and they do not get television reception. So they are cut-off. In a modern world and in a country like Australia, I think that is totally unacceptable. I have spoken in this place before about it and I have written to the minister about it.

In 1998, the foundations for digital television were laid for Australia to enter this realm of digital television, under the former coalition government, 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, and more basic implementation legislation has progressed since. The progressive rollout of digital TV has already occurred, with many metropolitan viewers able to enjoy its benefits, but the final switchover is due to occur for Western Australia on 21 December 2013, at which point standard analogue reception will no longer be available. It is a long time to wait. As I said, a lot of my constituents do not have access to reasonable television reception now and it appears they will be waiting for at least another three years, if they get it at all.

Currently, the TV signals most people receive are from terrestrial towers. To broadcast digital TV, those towers need to be upgraded by the network providers; however, not all of these towers are actually being upgraded. There are 698 terrestrial tower sites around the country and I understand only 87 of those have been identified for upgrading. That is only 12.5 per cent. Advances in television antennae reception and the strength of the digital TV signal mean that the signal coverage will be larger than that of the analogue signal. However, there will be a large number of people who will not have the benefit of a terrestrial signal. Affected individuals will be in outlying suburban, rural and remote areas, for the most part—a description that applies to most of my electorate.

Instead, the government will fund the provision of a satellite service to broadcast digital TV. With a country as expansive as Australia, some sort of satellite signal to service black spots would be inevitable. However, the scope and cost of that should not be exorbitant. A cost-effective balance should be struck, but it appears that the government has decided to allot considerable funds and rollout the system without a simple cost-benefit analysis, much like the NBN. Simple, prudent cost investigations have taken a back seat. It is interesting to read the Senate inquiry’s report on this.

This fact has not been lost on industry. In its submission to the Senate inquiry on this legislation, which has just been completed, AUSTAR argued that it was surprised by preliminary funding estimates to support this project. The government has estimated its costs for funding the satellite network to be $40 million per annum, for the potential benefit of up to 247,000 households across Australia. Broadcast Australia, which is a commercial owner and operator of approximately 600 terrestrial broadcast facilities, questioned whether the appropriate balance has been reached by the government between the conversion of existing terrestrial sites to digital and satellite platform. Broadcast Australia’s submission argued:

… it is overwhelmingly in TV viewers’ interests that digital free to air TV services potentially available to homes from the satellite are made available through local digital terrestrial transmission facilities—unless it can be demonstrated it is simply not cost effective to provide the full range of terrestrial digital transmission facilities to achieve this.

The committee questioned officers from the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy about what other solutions to digital TV black spots had been considered, and about the comparative costs and benefits of alternative options. Mr Andy Townsend, Deputy Secretary of Broadcasting and Digital Switchover, responded:

The government certainly looked at a number of different ways of meeting the problem of signal deficiencies. The satellite solution that has been formulated has been designed to provide the maximum number of services to people in the most cost-efficient way.

Note that he does not say all people. However, the department declined to provide the Senate committee with details of the models considered. If multiple models were considered, where is the proof? Surely, it would simply be a matter of producing the material on the models? We have been left in the dark. Broadcast Australia said:

[we are] unaware of … any cost benefit study that has underpinned the decision by government to spend $40 million per annum in 2010 dollar terms for each of the next 4 years … to provide the full range of so called Freeview services from the new satellite platform, compared with rolling out a greater number of digital terrestrial transmission TV facilities.

The Broadcast Australia representative also stated:

The second point I would like to emphasise is that we are not aware of how the balance between terrestrial and satellite has been arrived at by the government.

Senator Conroy’s Budget 2010 Digital Switchover press release champions the fact that the government has allotted $375.4 million over 12 years to provide transmission of digital free-to-air television services from the new satellite platform, but the department will not show the modelling used to demonstrate that this is the most cost-effective figure. To remedy the signal deficiency, individuals who cannot receive terrestrial signal will now be forced to purchase a satellite kit. This raises a number of concerns. How much will the individual have to pay to get the equipment and what is the cost of installation? And when will people know that they must purchase a satellite dish?

The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy estimates that households should pay, on average, $650 for equipment and installation. The government will provide $400 in compensation to affected households and $550 to those in very remote areas. Already, that is $250 in out-of-pocket expenses. If the estimates of $280 for installation and $100 for the satellite dish are correct, I would caution that these figures may underestimate the actual cost. Some vendors are selling the necessary equipment for $600 plus installation, and regional areas are likely to experience much higher installation costs. I fear that the actual out-of-pocket expenses to householders will be much more than that estimated.

Another issue which could end up costing many regional and rural constituents unnecessarily is the lack of certainty over which method of digital reception—terrestrial or satellite—will be available. This is particularly concerning for residents near terrestrial towers which will not be upgraded but may be on the edge of the signal of other upgraded towers. In its submission to the Senate inquiry, Broadcast Australia confirmed this problem and cautioned that residents cannot be certain they will be within the new digital coverage footprint. They said:

Until the full suite of digital services are available at those sites, you cannot make an informed decision as to whether you are going to have digital terrestrial or you will need to buy, at a significantly higher cost, digital direct-to-home satellite services.

Essentially, viewers will not know until they attempt to switch to digital or the analog signal is switched off and they get a black screen—as the member for Wide Bay said and as the minister admitted at Senate estimates. This is the exact problem faced by one of my constituents. A resident in Northam, Western Australia, just a 90-minute drive east of Perth, wrote to me frustrated at the costs he has incurred to receive an intermittent digital TV signal. Spurred by advertising about making the switch, he did so. All of the digital stations he watches have broken, pixelated pictures or even a loss of signal. One television station he watches loses signal 70 per cent of the time. The constituent is frustrated that, just as he gets into a program, the signal is lost. Apart from being simply annoying, it also means that he misses out on his relaxation time. He consulted two independent antenna installation providers, who both assured him that the signal was at fault. I represented my constituent’s concern to the minister. In return correspondence, the minister’s adviser replied:

It appears that the constituent may be receiving fortuitous digital television reception form the broadcast site at Toodyay, which is located approximately 20 kilometres west of Northam. However, this is a low-powered site established to provide coverage only to viewers in Toodyay. The constituent is located outside of the coverage area for this site and this may be the reason why he has intermittent loss of signal and poor digital reception for the commercial free-to-air digital channels.

The letter goes on to suggest that, in the interim, ‘the options are to access analog reception from the Northam site, or possibly to continue to receive the poor digital signals from the site at Toodyay’. So the options available at the moment, after the constituent has spent a considerable amount of money to upgrade to receive digital television reception, are a poor digital signal that is not worth watching or no digital TV, reverting to what he had before.

This is a very unsatisfactory situation for many constituents in my electorate. This problem will be faced by many more constituents around the country unless the government can more effectively communicate who will require a satellite system. That process should start now, as people are switching, not six months before the official turn-off date at the end of 2013. By that time, many will have found out, at their own expense, that they are required to pay even more money to access free-to-air television. Even those who currently have a set-top box and satellite dish to receive pay TV will have to pay more if they require a satellite service. This issue was raised by Ms Heap, from AUSTAR, at the Senate inquiry. She commented:

We do not want to inconvenience AUSTAR’s existing customers by them having to pay for a second satellite dish and set-top box, when our set-top box should be completely capable of delivering that to them today.

Mr Andy Townend, Deputy Secretary, Broadcasting and Digital Switchover, Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, agreed that the new satellite service would create a situation where householders who wished to receive the full range of services available on the new satellite network, in addition to subscription TV, would require two satellite dishes and two set-top boxes. In an advanced economy, with cutting edge technology, it truly is laughable that a person should have to purchase two separate set-top boxes and two separate satellite dishes when either system should be capable. I find it incredible that such a situation has been able to prevail.

But the department obviously does not see the extra cost, the extra burden and the illogical nature of this to be a problem. Mr Townend argued that having the two necessary sets of equipment ‘would be the consumers’ choice, and that would be a completely separate matter’. People in outlying rural and regional areas do not deserve to be the victims of their geography. The need for a satellite service is acknowledged, but it should not come at an unnecessary cost to individuals. It is obvious that the government has not put in the appropriate amount of effort to identify those who would be disadvantaged by not upgrading more terrestrial towers. There is no evidence of costings or modellings or a simple cost-benefit analysis. This is a continuing feature of the current government and especially this particular department. With $375.4 million being allotted to the digital TV switch-over, the Australian public deserve to be satisfied that they are getting value for money and the TV signal that their hard-earned tax dollars are paying for.

To further emphasise some of the concerns, I quote from the comments of the coalition senators in the report of the Senate Environment, Communications and the Arts Legislation Committee which has just been released:

Uncertainty—terrestrial or satellite?

Coalition Senators are concerned at the lack of certainty for rural and regional households who may not know which methods of digital reception will be available prior to switchover.

This will be of particular concern to residents in the vicinity of the forty four self-help towers identified as likely to be made redundant by the extended footprint of other upgraded towers nearby.

They go on to raise a number of concerns. In their concluding remarks, Senator Fisher and Senator Troeth, who signed off on this, said:

In the absence of sufficient evidence or cost-benefit analysis, Coalition Senators remain concerned that the use of a satellite broadcasting service may not be the most satisfactory or appropriate or cost-efficient means to address the issue of digital television black spots.

We worry about potentially significant out-of-pocket preparatory expenses for rural and regional digital reception, exacerbated by uncertainty about whether they will access digital TV from terrestrial or satellite means.

It finishes by saying:

Coalition Senators consider that television viewers in remote, rural and outer-metropolitan areas deserve equivalent access to equivalent television services as their city counterparts, ideally through upgraded terrestrial services where practicable.

On behalf of many of the people of Pearce who, I said, do not have postal delivery services, who do not have access to mobile phone cover, who are denied access to television services and who also do not have local newspapers delivered, I raise the concern that this situation may not improve in the short term for them.

I support the second reading amendment which has been moved by the member for Casey, particularly that which ‘warns the government that its failures to date risks leaving some Australians without television reception’.