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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 3000

Mr ALBANESE (Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) (6:52 PM) —in reply—I thank honourable members for their contributions to the debate on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Dividend and Other Measures) Bill 2011. After its introduction on 24 February the bill was referred to the Senate Environment, Communications and the Arts Legislation Committee for inquiry. The committee tabled their report in the Senate on 22 March and recommended that the bill be passed.

The bill introduces amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Radiocommunications Act 1992 that are crucial to effectively implement the restack of digital television channels needed to realise the digital dividend. On 24 June the government announced that 126 megahertz of broadcasting spectrum would be released as a digital dividend, resulting from the switch-off of analog television services.

The switch to digital-only television will be completed in Australia by 31 December 2013, releasing the channels used for analog television. The digital dividend will be released as a contiguous block of spectrum in the ultra high frequency, or UHF, band. The UHF spectrum currently used for broadcasting services is highly valued for delivering wireless communication services, including superfast mobile broadband.

The government aims to auction the digital dividend spectrum in the second half of 2012. In order to release this highly valued spectrum, digital broadcasting services will need to be relocated or restacked out of the digital dividend spectrum and organised more efficiently within the remaining spectrum. The government intends that the digital dividend spectrum be cleared by 31 December 2014.

While ACMA has some scope under its existing powers to commence digital channel restack planning, the bill will give it more flexible planning powers and allow the restack of digital television channels to occur in a timely and efficient manner. The proposed amendments will also improve the regulatory framework for digital switch-over and the delivery of both terrestrial and satellite free-to-air digital television services.

During the Senate committee’s inquiry into the bill some submitters raised concerns that the bill favoured satellite conversion over terrestrial conversion. The government recognises that both terrestrial infrastructure and a satellite service are required to provide all Australians with access to the full range of digital television services. Government policy does not advocate a preferred method of digital television reception.

The bill will amend the conditional access scheme to provide commercial broadcasters in remote Western Australia with the opportunity to roll out their terrestrial digital television services before viewers they intend to serve can access the VAST service. This will protect the integrity of the larger terrestrial television markets in remote Western Australia and avoid the need for viewers to purchase satellite reception equipment unnecessarily.

The bill will also allow viewers access to the VAST service after a specified time following switch-over in their licence area where VAST provides a superior number of commercial digital television services, including digital multichannels, than are otherwise available terrestrially in their area. These provisions will provide the commercial broadcasters with the incentive to roll out all of their terrestrial digital television services before viewers in the area receive automatic access to VAST.

Although commercial and national broadcasters can apply to the minister for exemption from converting terrestrial digital transmission sites under very limited circumstances, it is important to note that this exemption is not automatic. It is within the minister’s discretion, having regard to the statutory criteria outlined in the bill, to grant a broadcaster an exemption. An exemption cannot be granted where a service has already commenced transmitting in digital. These provisions are intended to, amongst other things, minimise situations where consumers need to purchase both satellite and terrestrial reception equipment to receive the full suite of digital television channels.

This bill will progress the government’s digital television switch-over program and will help realise the digital dividend, bringing significant social and economic benefits to all Australians. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.