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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 2916

Ms ROWLAND (1:26 PM) —I will address some of the issues raised by the member for Wentworth and the member for Cowper and the concerns they say they have with the operation of the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Dividend and Other Measures) Bill 2011. If you want to look at a party that addresses digital black spots, look at us on this side of the House. In fact, almost a year ago it was the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy who announced a landmark agreement about VAST—a landmark agreement that would provide digital TV services to viewers who could not receive terrestrial digital TV. What Senator Conroy said was very true—that is, that we are the party, the government, of equality of opportunity when it comes to the cities and the regions. He said:

This is a significant breakthrough in the provision of digital TV services to all Australians, particularly for those in remote and regional areas who for many years have had to put up with less choice than people in the cities.

The new VAST service will make available to all parts of Australia, for the first time, the same number of channels as those in the capital cities. So if you want to talk about equality of opportunity, if you want to talk about what is being done to ensure that viewers in regional and remote areas of Australia have the same opportunities as everyone else in the digital environment, you need look no further than us.

The member for Cowper comes in here and talks about this digital switchover, the digital dividend being conducted in Australia, as being rife with uncertainty. What absolute rubbish! I defy anyone in this place to find me a better strategy being executed anywhere else in the world. Where is the regulatory uncertainty? You will find that the fulfilment of this digital dividend has the support of all aspects of the communications sector, from broadcasters to telco operators, to carriage service providers—the list goes on.

It was recognised as early as January 2008, more than three years ago, that there would be an issue with the switchover timetable regarding black spots in self-help retransmission sites. So what did the government do? This government convinced broadcasters to upgrade more than 100 self-help sites to digital capacity. So it is not the first time that we have addressed this issue for the benefit of rural and remote constituents.

This proposed legislation forms part of one of the most significant developments in Australia’s digital economy and it is an integral step in the process of planning and enforcing the restack of certain broadcasting services that currently occupy what we call the digital dividend spectrum—the analog television spectrum which, when liberated, is going to enable all Australians to utilise the highest quality future communications services. As I said, when we look at developments in all aspects of this government’s ICT agenda that have led to this point—including the digital dividend consultation, the switchover, the National Broadband Network, the upcoming convergence review and the work being done by ACMA in its role of regulating the process of radio communications management, the auction of the digital dividend spectrum and the renewal of existing spectrum licences, which we legislated for in this place late last year with amendments to the Radiocommunications Act—one quickly realises there is a guiding goal towards which every agency, department policy maker and, may I say, element of the telecommunications and broadcasting sector is working. That goal is to maximise the benefits of the digital economy for all Australians: for all individuals, irrespective of where they live or work; in the utilisation of ICT by all sectors in our economy, both government and private and both large enterprises and small businesses; and for all types of players, such as the carriers, carriage service providers, ISPs, broadcasters and other innovators.

The spectrum path that is being pursued by this government is a fabulous opportunity for Australia to enjoy significant wireless broadband services, utilising the sweet spot of that liberated spectrum as a complement to the NBN. In fact, the two work hand in hand. You would think, given this, that it would be something that those opposite would be embracing, would be speaking on and would be welcoming. But, no, those opposite only have one strategic direction in relation to ICT, as we all know—that is, to destroy the NBN. On that point, I turn to the coalition’s policy platform on the digital dividend, and I use the term ‘policy platform’ loosely, because it is a bit hard to find any actual semblance of it. When you do look at their policy which they took to the last election, surprise! It is still their policy today. You look for some semblance of spectrum management, something that has to do with the digital dividend, and you actually do not find very much. You find statements such as:

To assist in achieving the most rapid possible rollout of services, the Coalition will take a proactive approach to spectrum allocation to support its broadband initiatives.

You actually do not see anything in that policy about the concerns that members opposite have brought here today. You do not see a single thing in that policy about rural and remote Australia having quality of access to digital television channels. You do not see anything in that policy about a strategic direction when it comes to fulfilling the digital dividend. It was so important to them that it does not even rate a mention in what is still their policy.

At this point I think it is very useful to look at the context of both this bill and the broader digital dividend framework, the fact that spectrum is a finite resource that is used but not consumed and the ways in which we regulate spectrum. We regulate spectrum to avoid interference. We want to ensure that appropriate rent is paid for a scare resource and we want to provide certainty for existing and future users of that valuable space. The objects of the Radiocommunications Act are very instructive on this point, and they include maximising, through the efficient allocation and use of the spectrum, the overall public benefit derived from using the radcomms spectrum. There are lots of public benefits at stake here and lots of public benefits in the decisions governments will make in fulfilling those statutory objects. We as a government—we as a legislature as a whole, in fact—bear those statutory obligations. Looking at the overall public benefit, I want to remind all of us here that one of the public benefits is to maximise the financial return on this spectrum. That is why we seek a return on this scare resource through a simultaneous multiple-round ascending auction process. In particular, I want to reiterate that we only get one opportunity to do this. We only get one bite at what is called the ‘sweet spot’ of the spectrum—one opportunity to get it correct.

Turning to the restack and the nature of this bill and its role in the realisation of the digital dividend, this government took the bold decision to put 126 megahertz of the 700 megahertz band into the digital dividend, using a process that is internationally harmonised with our neighbouring countries. The services that will be offered are significant and exciting, and we are already seeing Telstra trialling some of those services and looking to roll out wireless services of similar great potential. I want to turn to the process and the green paper that the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy released and consulted on which gave rise to the current strategy that is being pursued. In June last year, when he announced the size and location of the digital dividend, the minister noted:

Wireless broadband is an important complement to fixed line services, and the release of this spectrum will enhance and support the services that will be enabled by the Government’s investment in the National Broadband Network.

Extensive consultation was undertaken on the green paper, and what the minister announced reflects the importance of the decision that was made again—only having one chance to get this right when the liberated spectrum is reallocated. The release is in a contiguous block in the UHF band, and a contiguous dividend means substantial connectivity and productivity benefits will flow. It avoids what engineers will call the ‘swiss cheese’ problem: irregular holes in the spectrum that are not suitable for advanced wireless broadband services. As the minister said in his announcement, this is indeed a historic microeconomic reform. The auction process will be conducted in the second half of next year, and the clearance of that space will be as soon as possible after the analog switch-off on 31 December 2013. This process has been one of certainty and sound strategy—again, consistent with the imperatives of spectrum management.

I want to turn to the restack and the process of clearing out those broadcasting services currently occupying the sweet spot of the spectrum and how they are going to be organised more efficiently. ACMA has been working on these complex issues associated with the restack and the switch-off. There has been significant coordination with broadcasters. In terms of a digital dividend for television, there are essentially two ways of restacking in channels 52 to 69, commonly referred to the block approach versus the minimum move approach. Either everything above channel 52 gets moved or you have a block move—all six digital channels are moved next door to each other. You can see the good outcomes that could possibly flow from that option, such as all antennae being able to work. Amongst other things, ACMA is taking these things into account and is cognisant of the need to minimise viewer disruption. In fact, it is currently consulting on these two proposed planning approaches for the restack. ACMA has also made it clear that the broadcasting industry will need to coordinate its efforts to avoid disrupting services. This again reflects the very sound approach being taken by the regulator, working in conjunction with the industry, to ensure that all consumers benefit from the digital dividend.

I want to say some other things about the ACMA process. I think Giles Tanner from ACMA summed it up very well when he described the digital dividend and how the advances in digital communications technology allow us to do more with less. ACMA’s role in the digital dividend is threefold: the conversion process, moving from free-to-air analog to digital; the restack of those digital TV services into a smaller amount of the UHF spectrum band slots; and the reallocation of the liberated spectrum left vacant after the TV restack. As I said, that reallocation will take the form of spectrum licences.

In Australia our approach is to have an auction process, consistent with the recognition of the value of this spectrum and the imperative of achieving an appropriate rent for such a valuable, scarce resource. Also, consistent with the statutory objects of the act, 15-year spectrum licences will be auctioned. This reflects intelligent planning. It will avoid having a period when there is spectrum lying unused between the analog shutdown and the start date for the new uses of the digital dividend spectrum. Reallocation will occur in parallel with the planning and implementation of the restack.

I said earlier that I defy anyone to find a strategy that has been carried out in a more orderly and structured way. I want to turn to the overseas experience in this area and the importance of harmonisation. It is very useful to contrast the successful transition that is underway in Australia with the European experience. So much of the time European countries take action on certain policy issues only when they are directed to do so and are threatened with action under the European Union sanctions process. In contrast, Australia is actually helping with the harmonisation. We are reflecting the true nature of radcomms management as a global management issue of standardisation and interference management. In this radcomms area it is actually counterproductive to insist on a uniquely Australian solution. The result of the approach we have taken is that other countries actually are going to look to Australia as a model of how to do this task successfully. This is a very good news story for Australia.

The spectrum auction process will deliver benefits for consumers, including economies of scale, achieved by harmonising our use of the 700 megahertz spectrum with the uses in major overseas markets. There are headlines in Europe, for example, that say that the digital dividend may not pay off as well as it should. There are risks in some countries where spectrum is being freed up that only uses a fraction of that required for analog transmission. From initial auctions, the trend is not encouraging for consumers. The Swedish auction has only confirmed the status quo, to preserve what some have analysed to be an oligopoly in the domestic mobile business. Australia has very sound spectrum management rules to overcome that.

The bill confers on ACMA and indeed clarifies some aspects that have been interpreted as statutory impediments to carrying out its planning functions in this digital dividend task. The broadcasting sector and the telcos are on board. The amendments that have been made through the Radiocommunications Act and the Broadcasting Services Act continue a very clear strategy that is being held up as world’s best practice. All of us in this place should embrace the realisation of the digital dividend.