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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 2397

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (18:38): I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Dividend) Bill 2013. The government has previously announced that it will release 126 megahertz of broadcasting spectrum as a digital dividend. The general purpose of this bill is to address some discrepancies in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Radiocommunications Act 1992 regarding the auction of the digital dividend spectrum, which is due to take place from April 2013.

Although the licences for the use of this spectrum are intended to be available from 1 January 2015, it is anticipated that the responsible body, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA, may issue interim licences to make the spectrum available for use before the final clearing at the end of 2014. I understand that at this stage only three companies—Telstra, Optus and Vodafone—have even registered an interest in the auction.

During this interim phase, the auctioned spectrum would still formally be part of the broadcasting services bands. The bill amends the current datacasting regime by introducing the concept of 'designated datacasting services', which will be defined under the legislation to be those provided by a commercial television broadcasting service, a commercial radio broadcasting service or a national broadcaster.

Datacasting is defined in schedule 6 to the BSA as a service which delivers content in the form of text, data, speech, music or other sounds, visual images, or in any other form, or in any combination of forms, to persons having equipment appropriate for receiving that content, where the delivery of services uses the broadcasting services bands.

Datacasting licensees generally transmit information and education programs—parliamentary and court proceedings among others—but are unable to broadcast a range of material that may be considered to be the equivalent to television news, drama et cetera. By limiting the scope of datacasting, the bill will facilitate the commencement of telecommunications and broadband services in the digital dividend spectrum before it is removed from the broadcasting services bands.

The bill will also provide the minister with the ability to specify by legislative instrument another service of a specific kind to be a designated datacasting service. This will prevent a service provider providing a service similar to that of a commercial television broadcaster. The digital dividend will be removed from the broadcasting services band spectrum once the spectrum has been restacked.

This bill was introduced into parliament on 13 February 2013 and was then referred to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications by the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport on 13 March 2013—last week. The committee, of which I am a member, was given only five days—three working days—to call for submissions, consider the substantive impacts of the bill and then deliver its report today, 18 March 2013.

Of particular concern is that this means the committee had only three working days in which to receive submissions from stakeholders. The committee has, however, received a very detailed response from the Australian Wireless Audio Group, AWAG. The Police Federation of Australia have also published their concerns. I want to place on record my appreciation for the very considered input that these organisations have contributed in responding on their concerns with this bill, as well as for the input from the public hearing. I note that AWAG requested the opportunity to provide evidence and their point of view at the public hearing and were disappointed that they did not receive an invitation. Their letter says: 'Much of the key evidence given to the inquiry during its hearing was either factually incorrect or quite misleading. As you would be aware, we requested the opportunity to provide expert evidence to the hearing, but, for whatever reason, we were not afforded this opportunity.'

The central issue is whether the 694 to 820 megahertz spectrum that it is planned to sell will interfere with the estimated 120,000 wireless audio devices which currently operate in that spectrum. This means 120,000 wireless devices used in gymnasiums, churches, school halls and convention centres. Every single day, these organisations and many others use and rely on wireless audio equipment. They may use it at fetes, exercise classes or major events such as concerts.

Without a significant education campaign to retailers and users of wireless audio products about what the changes mean, this could have a major impact on the more than 32,000 wireless audio products sold to Australians every year. AWAG is seriously concerned that any individuals and organisations who have to replace or buy new equipment will not know that, from now until 31 December 2014, anything they buy will not be concordant with operable spectrum. If it then becomes essentially illegal for users of these products to operate in this spectrum after 31 December 2014, the question is: how many of the products currently used will essentially become useless?

On this issue, there are real concerns that the vast majority of the products purchased up until 2011 in this 700-megahertz range will no longer be able to operate. AWAG has estimated that 80 per cent of users will 'legally time out at the end of 2014' and:

In performance terms the products they currently use will continue to work and the products that they will be required to replace their existing product will offer little or no technical benefits to them …

This has the potential to cost the community hundreds of thousands of dollars in replacing equipment that in performance terms works perfectly.

We still do not have a definitive answer from the government about what will happen come 31 December 2014. For five long years, AWAG has been in negotiations with the Labor government but have had no firm commitment as to whether the sale of the spectrum will not interfere with wireless audio devices. Instead, they have this Labor government being reckless and unresponsive to the major ramifications of this spectrum auction.

The committee's report does indicate that some of the concerns raised do not specifically address the technical elements contained in today's bill. The committee report states:

AWAG's concerns generally go to the implementation of the broader 'digital dividend' policy rather than to the substance …

Insofar as the bill is specifically about the time line of granting licences in an interim period, the great interest from a stakeholder organisation such as AWAG and its members does reflect their genuine concern about the consequences of the sale of this spectrum and the impact of this spectrum reallocation past 31 December 2014 on wireless radio. The committee's report itself states:

The Committee considers that while these concerns do not attach to the substance of the bill under review, they indicate broader concerns about spectrum reallocation and its impact on consumers. To this end, the Committee looks forward to seeing DBCDE and ACMA making substantial and rapid progress—

on priority areas including the 'possible limited utility after restacking' and the 'government's decision about restacking and new whitespace for wireless audio technology'.

In reality, after years of fruitless negotiation with the government, only to suddenly face changes brought on so suddenly and without adequate forewarning, of course affected individuals and organisations will continue to raise their concerns in any appropriate forum afforded to them. AWAG stated quite clearly in their letter to the committee: 'We reiterate that a hearing called on less than a day's notice, after years of inactivity, is a recipe for bad public policy. We implore you to consider the full implications of this bill very carefully.'

Furthermore, the Police Federation of Australia has written to members of this House outlining their concerns about the impacts that this bill may have for police and emergency services across Australia and their vitally important need for radio spectrum. They want to know what will happen for their 56,000 police officers in Australian states and territories and the communications capabilities of these first responders during times of natural disasters and other emergencies. They believe that the sale of the spectrum to telecommunications companies does not meet the objectives of the Radiocommunications Act 1992, that the act is to 'provide for management of the radiofrequency spectrum in order to', as per section 3(b)(i), 'make adequate provision of the spectrum for use by agencies involved in the defence or national security of Australia, law enforcement or the provision of emergency services'. There still remains a lot of doubt about how these emergency services will be able to use telecommunications devices during natural disasters, and to date they still have not received an adequate response from the minister or the department.

I would also like to share the concerns raised by AWAG about the approach taken by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy towards so-called reforms in his portfolio. Rushing through this legislation today, giving the committee only five days to consider the bill in detail on an issue that has the potential to impact on so many thousands of community groups across the country, is simply not acceptable. The minister is also trying to ram through parliament other atrocious and undemocratic legislation—the very Orwellian-sounding News Media (Self-regulation) Bill 2013, which will legislate that a body be regulated to self-regulate itself and will be overseen by the government's Public Interest Media Advocate. These are further changes from a communications minister who, in his own political interest, wants to hamper free speech and significantly degrade the way in which the media is able to operate in this country.

Rushing through legislation without the parliament having enough time to adequately scrutinise their proposals, is not a new practice from the Labor government. In this case, it is representative of the arrogant way in which this minister operates. Last year, the communications minister visited New York and spoke at a conference there, telling his audience that he had unfettered legal power. To quote the minister:

That means I am in charge of spectrum auctions, and if I say to everyone in this room, 'if you want to bid in our spectrum auction, you'd better wear red underpants on your head', I've got some news for you. You'll be wearing them on your head.

This again demonstrates the minister's very arrogant and bullying attitude towards this industry. We see it today with his attitude to wireless radio users in what has occurred in this government's failure to follow proper parliamentary process in the sale of digital spectrum. His attitude and his clear desire to wield power is also evident in his attempt to control and regulate the press and destroy freedom of speech—the only time in this country's history in peacetime. If the Labor government passes these draconian media proposals, freedom of speech will be at the whim of some government official, telling Australians what we can and cannot see in the media.

It is always concerning when this Labor government introduces legislation and brings on debate before the parliament without following proper parliamentary processes and scrutiny. After much inaction in this area, the Labor government gave the infrastructure and communications committee three working days to call for submissions, hold hearings, investigate issues and to report on this bill today. It is vital that, in the interests of those who operate more than 120,000 devices from schools, churches and convention centres, the government provides clarity on the issues I have raised today and certainty for thousands of community users.