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Tuesday, 29 May 2012
Page: 6205

Mr TRUSS (Wide BayLeader of The Nationals) (21:24): I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2012 and I do so because half of my electorate has just gone through the analog TV closure and I want to share some of my experiences with those Australians who still have this experience ahead of them—and that of course is most Australians. The closure of analog television must be the first government policy ever delivered to regional Australia ahead of the cities. When something good is to happen it almost always comes to the cities first and country areas have to wait years to catch up, if it happens at all. But analog TV closure is coming first to the country, and next year it will happen in the city. The country has been the test tube, and I hope that a lot has been learnt from the experience. Otherwise there is going to be chaos in the cities of Australia next year.

Digital television is certainly a new experience and delivers more programming choice and usually better quality pictures. Viewers with good signal like it, and our deeply indebted government likes it because it wants to sell off the analog spectrum, raising billions of dollars. But digital signal has different characteristics from the analog signal. It is less robust and flexible in hilly and forested areas, and some people who have perfectly good analog signals may have trouble receiving digital TV at all. I know that occasionally the opposite can occur: some people can get digital signal who were not able to successfully get analog. But it seems that it is more common for digital signals to cause trouble in areas where the signal is marginal than for the old analog system to do so. Of course, part of that is that analog signal would drift off and still leave something of a picture and sound on people's television screens, whereas when digital goes bad it cannot be seen at all; it pixelates and disappears. It is particularly likely to be impacted by heavy rainfall, as well as even some other weather conditions, and that can certainly have an impact.

Of course, everyone needs a new television set or a set-top box. On the basis of experience, I encourage anyone who is weighing up the difference between buying a new digital television and buying a set-top box: if you can possibly afford it, buy the new television set. Set-top boxes cause trouble. They are complicated to use, particularly for older people. The investment in a new television set would be looking much more towards the future than settling for a set-top box. I know the government's assistance program is built around the set-top box, but I think that if they could do it again it would be better to start by giving people the $400 for a television set to avoid a whole lot of the problems that have actually occurred.

The most important thing, however, is the antenna. Many people will need a new antenna. Nearly everybody needs some kind of adjustment and maybe even some new cabling. It is often said—and viewers often resent this fact, but it is sadly true—that most of the problems that are incurred in the changeover from analog to digital television are with the antenna. I know it can sometimes mean many calls, but if you have the antenna working right then reception problems are unlikely to be from your television set or any other part of the equipment in the house. In my own personal experience in my own home, in a regional city that has only moderate reception, it took several service calls. We have an external and an internal booster and we generally now have pretty good television reception. It fails us occasionally, but it is a pretty good effort. Digital reception is vulnerable to the weather, and of course in some places it cuts out altogether.

In some regional areas, TV had come from local self-help transmitters, most of them funded under the coalition's Television Black Spots Program. These provided television in areas which otherwise would never have received television provided in a commercial way; they needed some financial support. Labor, with its program of conversion, chose not to convert any of those transmitters, and I think that was an error. I think that a lot of the trouble could have been avoided if the expenditure had been put into simply converting those existing transmitters to digital. But in most cases that did not happen. In some cases the television stations did put in the money, but in others they were simply closed down and people had to migrate to the satellite.

There have been many, many difficulties in the conversion. Many people have had problems. I think the Digital TV Ready service were helpful. They were friendly, and generally you did not have to wait all that long on the phone. But on many occasions the problems were outside their expertise. Technicians were run off their feet. People were inevitably in the end directed towards the VAR satellite system, but it was always seen as a second-best option. People were saying, 'I had a perfectly good TV. Why was it switched off? Why have I got to spend all this extra money on a satellite system?' It is costly and the government subsidy was only available to pensioners and people migrating from self-help transmitters. But those caught in black spots, particularly those who had had an analog reception but now cannot get a digital reception, naturally felt aggrieved by these changes. However, once people have got the VAR satellite system connected, I have to say I think it is a pretty good service. It offers all the channels, it offers regional news from around Australia. It took me a long time, many questions on notice and many letters to the minister without being able to find out what was actually going to come on to those channels, and it was only when the commercial broadcasters themselves came to me only a few weeks before my area was closing down that I learned what was going to go on those channels and I was satisfied with the answers that I received.

There is a new issue developing, however. The VAR service is so good that in areas still receiving analog signal many people now want access to the programs that are available on the digital network and they cannot get them even if they are in one of these black spot areas where the digital services do not come through. So now I am getting pressure in my electorate from those who have not yet been converted that they would like to access the VAR satellite. They will be entitled to it because they are in areas which are not getting any decent digital signal and they would like to be connected now. This legislation will enable that to happen and I am pleased that that is occurring. It has become especially pressing because the digital carriers are now taking a lot of the football coverage and people who have only got an analog signal and will never get a digital signal would therefore be denied those pictures. I am pleased that this bill is addressing those issues.

I had a number of problems in my electorate which I would like to refer to briefly. Only half of my electorate has been switched off. The other half has to wait until the metropolitan changeover next year. That caused a number of complications, particularly in a city like Gympie where two-thirds of the city is not turned off but the other third is. There is all sorts of confusion occurring. I had a particular problem on the Cooloola Coast, where there was a fairly unusual and difficult changeover and troubles have lingered on for months. On the Cooloola Coast there was no trial period of concurrent analog and digital signals before the analog signal was turned off. The existing transmitter at Cooloola Cove was one of the self-help transmitters and because of a spectrum issue the transmitter had to be swapped from analog to digital on the same day. In addition, the TV channels decided at the same time to install two new transmitters to better service the area—all on the same frequency. There were some anecdotal reports that it worked okay for the first couple of days but it seemed to be nothing but trouble from then on. There was denial. No-one would take responsibility for the fact that it was not working properly. Time after time technicians were called. Others simply dismissed the concerns. But they were real. New equipment had to be installed and I think that broadly now it is working okay. New parts have been fitted but it has been a very tortuous and difficult experience. If anybody else is going to have to live through one of these changeovers that involve multiple transmitters using the same frequency, they can expect a good deal of trouble.

I have a caravan park in my electorate which had permanent residents but there is no television reception following the switchover. This is a small caravan park and they cannot afford to install satellite services. They are now suffering financially because people do not want to stay at the caravan park because they cannot get any television. And there is no support available, no matter how impoverished the small business man might be, to enable a hotel, a caravan park or places like that to make the conversion. I think that is an area where there does need to be some support for the local people.

I have already acknowledged the effort that was put in to helping us with our conversion by the telephone service. But I also want to commend Emma Dawson. She comes from the communications minister's office and she is sitting in the gallery. I very much appreciated her efforts to help address our problems, particularly the problems we had on the Cooloola Coast and in other parts of my electorate. We were on the phone to Emma and she to us almost every day. I am sure that she endured some of the same pain that local members endured during the switchover. The advantage for us is that members of parliament only have to do it once. It seems that she has a life sentence, as this work goes on. But having helpful, friendly people who tried to do something was a great assistance to us and, Emma, I thank you very much for the service that you provided. I hope you will be around again when the other half of my electorate gets switched off fairly soon.

Another point I want to make—and it concerns quite a serious problem—is that I am currently in the process of surveying my electorate on a whole range of issues. One question I have asked is: are people satisfied with the quality of their digital television reception? We are still collating the results, but we have done enough to know that this issue is indeed going to be a significant one for us. Thirty-eight per cent of those who have responded to the survey say, four months after the switch-off, that they are dissatisfied with the quality of their digital TV reception. There will be people amongst that group who probably did not have a very good analog signal, but it strikes me as though that is a very large number. I can break down the number into those who have had a switch-off and those who still have the analog. But the dissatisfaction is probably stronger in areas where there has not been a switch-off. That will just be a coincidence and the numbers are not all that different. But 38 per cent of the people in my electorate, four months after the switch-off, are dissatisfied with the quality of their digital reception. That is an issue and I suspect that other members of parliament will run across similar issues. I will certainly be raising this with the television channels, because they have a responsibility to ensure that there is a good-quality reception available. There may be technical issues also that have to be addressed in association with the changeover in other parts of Australia to ensure that some of these problems do not occur.

In years to come we will look back on this and say that it was only a momentary issue, and people will grow up used to digital television and the better quality pictures, better sound and so forth that it delivers. But, for those who still have the digital switchover ahead of them, you can expect some troubles and some trying times. It is probably worth it in the end, but you will wonder about that every day while the changeover is occurring.