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Tuesday, 29 May 2012
Page: 6201


Mr HARTSUYKER (Cowper) (21:07): I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2012. The bill before the parliament today deals with the switch to digital television. Digital television has been broadcast in metropolitan areas since 2001 and in regional areas beginning in 2004. At the end of 2007, the Australian government announced that the switch to digital television would be completed by the end of 2013. We are now halfway through the process of switching off the analog signal. The end of this very long process is now in sight. The analog signal in the southern part of New South Wales will be switched off in just a few days, on 5 June. The northern part of New South Wales, including my electorate, will go digital only in November. The capital cities and remote licence areas will switch to digital only next year.

The switch to digital television is a complex and expensive process, and I commend Free TV Australia and Regional Broadcasting Australia for their efforts to ensure that the switch has been as smooth as possible. Australia is a very large country, so it has been an significant undertaking by Regional Broadcasting Australia to send technicians up and down suburban streets to fine-tune coverage and identify coverage black spots. Hundreds of broadcasting towers have been upgraded to digital standard by the broadcasters, and scores of self-help retransmissions sites have been upgraded or installed.

Of course, the switch has not been without its problems, and I know that some of my colleagues have raised concerns about specific locations. It is impossible to overlook the government's gold-plated set-top box scheme, which somehow managed to provide cheap set-top boxes to pensioners at an average cost equivalent to the price of two widescreen televisions. But, with that notable exception, the switch to digital TV seems to be running as well as could be expected.

The bill before the House today makes a number of sensible amendments to improve the rest of the switchover process and to remedy some minor issues which have arisen during the switchover. The most important changes included in this bill are amendments to the conditional access system which will allow earlier access to the VAST satellite system for people who will never receive a good terrestrial television signal. Presently, most people are not eligible to apply for VAST until six months before the switch-over date for their area. Many of these people live in reception black spots and will never receive reliable terrestrial television reception. For these people it makes sense to permit access to VAST at the earliest possible opportunity.

The television industry is not opposed to this change, and it will be a major benefit for many people in television reception black spots. The coalition believes that people living in regional and remote Australia should have access to high-quality services, which is why we support this bill. The VAST service has proven to be a significant improvement on the old satellite television services available in remote Australia. Instead of just providing a couple of free-to-air channels, VAST provides a full range of digital channels and local news channels. Making this service immediately available to everyone who cannot access a decent television signal is a good policy which will be welcomed by many people in regional Australia.

The bill also makes consequential changes to a number of sections in the Broadcasting Services Act to facilitate the change. The bill amends section 38C of the Broadcasting Services Act, which governs the allocation and operation of satellite broadcasting licences. This amendment will allow satellite broadcasters to provide VAST to Australia's external territories—Cocos Islands, Christmas Island, Coral Sea Islands and Norfolk Island. At the moment, broadcasters with a section 38C licence are not able to broadcast into these territories. Australians living in these external territories should have access to a decent television service, and I support this amendment.

The bill also amends section 211AA of the Broadcasting Services Act to allow broadcasters who operate in remote, central and eastern Australian licence areas to nominate more than one specified place in the licence area. The specified place is the location from which all time-based broadcasting obligations are determined. With the switch to digital television, some remote broadcasters are using the VAST service as the input feed for their terrestrial broadcasts. Different input feeds may be used in different parts of the broadcaster's licence area. Using different satellite feeds in different parts of the licence area allows broadcasters to better tailor their programming needs to the viewers. For example, a broadcaster may want to show rugby league programming in Queensland but AFL programming in Victoria and Tasmania. However, using these different satellite feeds could potentially result in remote broadcasters breaching their time-based broadcasting obligations. This amendment will allow the licensee to nominate more than one specified place in the licence area to ensure compliance with time based obligations. The amendment will ensure that viewers in remote licence areas are receiving appropriate programming for their time zone.

A significant change introduced by this bill relates to the timing of the final switch-over to digital television. At present, digital switch-over dates for different licence areas are set in a series of legislative instruments made by the minister. The minister has the authority to vary the switch-over date by up to three months, as long as the final switch-over date is no later than 31 December 2013. This final date can be varied to 30 June 2014 if switching off the analog signal by 31 December 2013 would result in a significant and unforeseeable technical or engineering problem. It is likely that the final switch-over dates for metropolitan areas will need to change significantly to allow a staggered approach to the switch-over process. A staggered approach will allow the broadcasters to better manage the engineering resources needed during a switch-over. A staggered approach will also ensure the government's assistance scheme is not overstretched. The bill will allow the minister to vary the switch-over dates as required; however, 31 December 2013 will still be the last possible switch-over date that is scheduled, in the absence of technical difficulties arising.

Digital television has provided a great improvement in viewing quality for many Australians, and the wide range of channels on offer these days, particularly in regional and remote areas compared with what they received previously, has certainly been welcomed. The coalition supports quality access to a range of technology services right across the country, no matter where people live. This legislation builds on that principle. It certainly works to ensure that people in regional and remote Australia have the very best television services available through this great new technology. I commend the bill to the House.