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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 2393


Ms ROWLAND (Greenway) (18:23): The realisation of the digital dividend is, indeed, one of the most exciting and historic developments in Australia's communications history, but, in classic Turnbullian know-it-all, the member for Wentworth could not help but be negative, calling this process 'a monumental failure'. I will talk about monumental failures in a moment, when I talk about the Howard government's handling of the datacasting debacle.

The member for Wentworth raised a few points—firstly, the base price at the upcoming auction—and noted that Optus complained about there being a reserve price. Of course it is going to complain; it is about to bid in an auction. As if it wants to have the highest price! As a purchaser it is seeking as low a price as possible. As to the delay of the auction that has occurred, the member would well know that the government took advice on the competition rules and framed the appropriate competition rules from the auction based on what the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission advised it. So be under no illusions here about whether or not the proper process is being followed in this auction. As for the 23 megahertz per pop that is being peddled here this evening, and has been peddled also by the member for Bradfield in public, that is just plain wrong and I will show you in a moment why that maths is wrong.

As to the number of registered bidders, it is no surprise that Vodafone's focus is elsewhere when you consider where it is standing now in comparison to Telstra and Optus as mobile carriers. Vodafone is even on the record as saying it does not believe that it needs any more of this new spectrum that is being auctioned. As to the changes in the block size, again, based on the competition rules and advice received on this auction, enabling the maximum sale and minimising the number of unsold lots is purely logical spectrum auction practice. As to the United States and what they achieved in their auctions, let's remember this: not only is the regulatory structure of the Federal Communications Commission, the regulator in the United States, very different to Australia but the FCC was widely criticised for the process it undertook with its own digital dividend path.

I note, too, that the member for Wentworth is continuing this furphy of fixed versus wireless broadband. He is still incapable of understanding that they are complementary and that fixed wireless services are those which are being used and go through a short-range wireless router. One does not use one's iPad simply in a vacuum; one is using it to connect to a short-range wireless router. So limited is the member for Wentworth's understanding of all these issues that, again, he is peddling this myth that the National Broadband Network is all about the download. It is not about the download; it is about the upload and the new applications beyond your typical, non-imaginative thinking that is incapable of going beyond the internet as a sole application.

He then went on to discuss the National Broadband Network because he could not help himself. The member for McEwen and I attended the committee hearing when this was being debated a few days ago and we note that the member for Wentworth was not. He talked about the ramp-up. I know it is being ramped up because every time I go down the streets of Blacktown I can see the cable being rolled out. It is plainly obvious that it is being ramped up. As I said in the Federation Chamber during the debate on the committee report, the backbenchers opposite go into their electorates and complain that they are not getting the NBN fast enough and take up petitions calling for the NBN, and then they come in here and say something completely different. When they are outside they complain that they want it; in here, they vote against it.

I note that the member for Wentworth, having discussed the National Broadband Network, could not help but then mention media rules and free speech. I will not go into too much detail, Madam Deputy Speaker Livermore, considering your view on that, as you made clear, but the member for Wentworth wants free speech for everyone else but no free speech when someone is criticising him. As we can see from Delimiter on 13 March 2013, amongst other places:

… the ABC's Media Watch program went into detail to examine the coverage of ABC Technology + Games Editor Nick Ross with respect to the NBN.

I will not go into too much detail now, but, if people want to look that up, they can see that it is one rule for the member for Wentworth and another rule for everyone else. But I digress.

The digital dividend is, indeed, one of the most important aspects of our communications policy. Those opposite would do well to take lessons from their own standard, set by Senator Helen Coonan when she was the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. On 29 April 2007, she made this criticism:

Labor is making a habit of creating policy on the run … Whether it is on broadband, climate change or digital TV, Labor think that it can make it all the way to election day with glib lines and no detail on anything.

On the digital dividend, the coalition would do well to take a leaf out of their own Real Solutions prop, where the word 'digital' appears twice and, even then, is used in a completely nonsensical context. They have no policy for the digital dividend; they simply come in here with negativity.

For the benefit of those tuning in to debate, I want you to know that this measure is a really positive thing. There is a block of spectrum in an area called the broadcasting services bands that is currently occupied by broadcasters and designated to be used for broadcasting services as well as parts of the radio frequency spectrum designated for some use by digital radio broadcasting services and certain datacasting services. This spectrum will be vacated of its current use and auctioned for advanced communications services. This bill will enable the possible commencement of those services in that spectrum while the spectrum is still part of the broadcasting services bands. I note that these telco services, if this bill goes through, can commence in the broadcasting services bands in the spectrum identified as the digital dividend while that spectrum is still classified as being in the broadcasting services bands.

This bill was referred to a committee, which recommended that it be passed. It is clear from the comments of the member for Wentworth that he is very ready to judge the ACMA when it comes to interference issues, of which he made a great deal. The point is that this is not the first time in Australia's history that contiguous blocks of spectrum have been cleared, and indeed one of the primary objects of the radiocommunications regime is to minimise interference and for the regulator to take an active role in ensuring that interference is minimised wherever possible. Quite frankly, that is what regulators do: they prepare, they monitor and they establish best practice when it comes to minimising interference. I take it that the member for Wentworth has no confidence whatsoever in the regulator to do that, despite the fact that it does it on a daily basis. On this side of the House, we tend to have confidence that the regulator not only understands its role under the legislation but is also capable of performing it.

The bill before us contains some relatively minor but highly significant amendments to give effect to realising the digital dividend, which I have previously described in this place as an integral step in the process of planning and enforcing the restack of those broadcasting services occupying the spectrum in the broadcasting services bands. Indeed, as I have described, the spectrum path that is being pursued by this government—contrary to everything you would have heard from the member for Wentworth—is a fabulous opportunity for Australia to enjoy significant wireless broadband services, utilising the sweet spot of that liberated spectrum, complementary to the innovative benefits delivered by the NBN.

Further, Australia is recognised on a world scale as being best practice in terms of not only these spectrum options but also the process of delivering the digital dividend. The LTE, or long-term evolution, path in Australia is well and truly best practice in a regulatory sense. At its heart it recognises that spectrum is a scarce resource—like numbers, it is used but not consumed. It is a valuable public resource for which government seeks to maximise its returns. The release of TV spectrum in these bands is a significant benefit for the digital switch-over process, and the auction of spectrum in April this year will pave the way for next generation mobile services.

Specifically, the bill will be amending the Broadcasting Services Act and the Radiocommunications Act to facilitate this commencement before the spectrum is removed from the broadcasting services bands. One of the important things to note is that the amendments in the bill will in fact not affect the existing regulation that applies to datacasting services currently provided by the commercial broadcasters, such as the Seven Network's 4Me or Win Television's Gold and Nine's Extra and Ten's Television Shopping Network, which of course is a great relief to anyone who is obsessed, as I am, by FlavorStone Cookware as it is broadcast on the TV4Me channel. They will agree with me on this point.

It is important that the passage of this bill be facilitated without delay; otherwise, bidders in the April 2013 spectrum auction will not have the regulatory certainty or confidence about the rules that will be applied. I will turn to the issue of the auction price for this, because the member for Wentworth sought to make a deal out of it. We can see that the government in December 2012 provided the rules to give certainty for the digital dividend auction, setting a reserve price for the 700 megahertz spectrum at $1.36 per megahertz per pop. We then saw the member for Bradfield come out recently and argue that this is an extremely high reserve price—$1.36 per megahertz per head of population—and that, at a similar auction in the UK, it sold at the price of 23c per megahertz per head of population, one-sixth of the price that the government is expecting to get.

There are two points here. Firstly, spectrum is a scarce resource and the amount that was set by the minister, as has been noted in various places, is indeed in line with analysts' expectations. Secondly, the maths is simply wrong. Contrary to what the member for Bradfield published in Communications Day and elsewhere, the price paid, when you look at price per megahertz per population, is: 800 megahertz, 0.618 Australian dollars; 2.6 gigahertz FD, 0.104 Australian dollars; and 2.6 gigahertz TD, 0.06 Australian dollars. So although the amount in the UK—bearing in mind the UK is a vastly different market structure from Australia—is down, on the $1.36 per megahertz per population set by Minister Conroy, it is certainly not the 23c that the member for Wentworth and the member for Bradfield would have you believe. On top of all this, the market will decide the amount that is paid for the spectrum.

I do not think anyone on this side should be taking lessons on convergence, spectrum policy or auctions from those opposite, because this bill deals with datacasting services. The litany of public policy failure when it comes to datacasting under the watch of Senator Richard Alston, when he was minister, is unbelievable. On 17 January 2001 he issued a media release calling for competition in datacasting services. He decided to impose competition limits on the auction of datacasting transmitter licences. He said:

At this early stage of a new industry, it is important to encourage the maximum amount of competition in the market, and this is best done by imposing a limit on the number of licences that can be purchased by one player in each market.

They need not have bothered. In a round figure, guess how many people wanted to bid for this? Zero. By 10 May 2001 you can see that Minister Alston cancelled the auction of the datacasting transmitter licences because of lack of interest. Critics say the auction was always going to fail, because the government's list of rules over content was too restrictive to make the licences commercially appealing.

By December 2001 we had the announcement of a datacasting rules review. 'The federal government will commence a review of the datacasting rules in early 2002 and has released an issues paper', according to PC World. It went on to say, 'The purpose of the review is to ensure that the legislative framework for datacasting services provides the maximum scope for development of new and innovative digital services', but no one wanted it. Where do we go from there? By 2 April 2002 the headline in the Age was 'Datacasting deals look doomed again, says minister.' It said:

The government's attempts to revive datacasting are doomed, Communications Minister Richard Alston has acknowledged.

And:

But Senator Alston told The Age he did not believe the review would contain any viable propositions for rescuing datacasting.

No-one on this side will take any lessons from those opposite about spectrum auctions and the need for innovative planning and best-practice regulatory management in this area. The digital dividend and the LTE path that is being pursued by this government is regulatory best practice and those opposite have nothing to say when it comes to best practice in this country.