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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 2400

Mr BILLSON (Dunkley) (18:51): In my few minutes, I would like to point to a couple of issues in relation to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Dividend) Bill 2013. These spectrum sales have been characterised as the waterfront property of the spectrum world, able to attract the highest returns for the benefit of the Australian taxpayer and, frankly, the federal budget. That is the way in which this has been marketed, but, as you have heard from previous speakers, this waterfront property is actually occupied. There are people occupying this property completely lawfully—not licence-free as some have sought to suggest, but with the kind of licence that relates to the device that they are using. The idea that you could achieve optimum returns for waterfront property while there are lawful occupants there already is a little bit of the fiction that is revealed through the hastily convened inquiry into this bill. The government has sought to ram it through as though there is no problem to be found, no issue to be discussed, no need for a more considered process.

What the House inquiry revealed was that there is a range of citizens concerned about what is happening. There is an idea that, once the restacking has been concluded and the simulcasting activities of the broadcast television networks have ended, the spectrum is available for free use, unencumbered, for an attractive price paid by bidders. That has been touched on by earlier contributors. It is not quite so clear and it is not quite so straightforward. In fact, it is disappointing that it has got to this point. After the legislation was introduced, the opposition sought—and, to the credit of the government, was afforded—an inquiry to examine these issues, because they have been percolating away for some time but have not gained any traction anywhere. The Australian Wireless Audio Group and its many members—I think it represents about 120,000 people who use the technology—have been struggling for some time to get their voices heard. They have made a number of presentations to ACMA, outlining a range of things. I have one of the presentations here. They have been engaged in discussions for some two years, but no clarity has emerged about where users of this 694-820 megahertz range should re-establish their activities once that spectrum has been sold for telecommunications purposes, as has been outlined. After years—in fact, five years—of dialogue with ACMA, the department, Minister Conroy and his office, they are no clearer on many of the key issues that confront their sector. This is why we felt it necessary to bring forward this issue so that it could be properly considered.

It is no small thing and it is no small investment for those who are in the radio wireless space that they are confronted with great uncertainty after 30 December 2014. On 1 January 2015, someone else will want to use this space. I have been directly advised by parties interested in this spectrum that they expect it to be free and unencumbered. They do not anticipate having to pay waterfront prices for something where people are already there and suitable arrangements have not been put in place to transition those current lawful occupants of this spectrum band into some other arrangements. So I think it is actually the right thing for the government, for ACMA, for the department and for this parliament to ensure that that tidy, predictable and timely transition occurs. We have lost five years. We have lost two years or more of engagement and still we are here hearing that this is very much a work-in-progress. If you want to get top dollar for the so-called waterfront property, making sure it is unencumbered is a smart thing to do.

It is also the responsible thing to do for those who have done nothing wrong other than simply purchase wireless audio products. Some 150,000 of these units are operating in our economy and in our communities, of which it is thought about 120,000 of them will run into some difficulty maintaining the use of the spectrum they currently utilise.

In the inquiry hearings, department and ACMA officials sought to suggest that this is not such a big deal. Perhaps for low- and mid-range priced devices there is some scope for them to be in the wrong band and that it might not be available after this spectrum is sold. There was not a great deal of empathy for their circumstance. For the more expensive equipment there is a degree of tunability that would enable them to be recalibrated to use another area of frequency for their purpose. It is interesting, though, that that failed to ignore the limitations on that tunability and there is still some uncertainty in some regions across the country about where that white space will now appear to which a device may be able to be tuned. When you look at the actual equipment itself, even the highest specified and most expensive products—of which only a few of those units are operating in our economy—have an agility of about 80 megahertz, depending on which product is being sold. Moreover, the bulk of them have an agility of tunability that is around 10 to 20 megahertz. So if you quote not within a bull's roar of the available white space, no amount of fiddling to retune will get you into that space. So the assurance that people have that there is certain tunability seems to ignore the technical limitations of some of devices that are well and truly in the marketplace, still being sold today, lawfully being purchased and being put to good use by a range of people in our community.

I need to try and communicate to the parliament and particularly to the members opposite: this is no small deal. This technology is used very widely across so many parts of our community and our economy from educational institutions, including schools, universities and TAFEs, church groups, church organisations—a number of whom, I know, have raised funds after many years of effort to make sure that there are good communications where the pastor, priest or vicar can deliver an animated address and engage freely with the congregation. These radio devices of some quality in their sound and their functionality have been seen to be of such a priority that they have attracted a lot of fundraising effort amongst churches.

It is used by those in the performing arts space: I saw a piece pointing to the number of these devices being used at the Eurovision Song Contest over the last little window of time. I think that, at the most recent Eurovision Song Contest alone, some 100 of these devices were being used at one venue, with a broader spread of capability. The use of these devices has grown exponentially over recent years, reflecting their appeal, functionality and quality.

This technology is used by independent musicians and other entertainers; those involved in putting together things like wedding videos; musical theatre groups; the convention industry; the theme parks on the Gold Coast, which often involve music and theatre; events, including major events like the great grand prix in our state of Victoria; auctioneers; and the fitness industry. Some might think it was not from my engagement in aerobics that I became alert to this, but I am alert to it and I need to point out that this is a serious matter.

Across our community this is an area where, clearly, the government itself is simply not tuned in. The efforts to raise these concerns have been manifold. There is still a lack of clarity about what is required. There is poor consumer information out there. Product is still being imported that seeks to operate within a spectrum range that will no longer be available after it is sold. There is no clear transition strategy in place.

The House committee had little more than five minutes to deal with these issues. It is quite remarkable: the parliament decided to have an inquiry and, as I recall, invited submissions to be received the following day. Yet the committee actually started at 11 am, one hour before the time for submissions closed. No-one other than the Commonwealth officials was afforded the opportunity to engage directly with the committee. We have seen time and again that there is some conjecture and difference of opinion between what the officials are saying and what the reality is on the ground.

I am confident this can be resolved. But it has to be taken more seriously than it has been today. I saw this when I was the shadow broadband and communications spokesperson for the coalition, when the CDMA was shut down. It was: 'Oh, don't worry about it. Hardly anyone uses CDMA.' That was nonsense. CDMA chips were embedded in so many telemetry products in the monitoring of water and dam releases and on farms and all sorts of things. They were embedded in all that technology. So, whilst you might have been able to point to mobile phone users, the decision ignored a whole industry where remote communications and control and monitoring devices had CDMA embedded in them.

This is almost a repeat. It is as if the minister for red undies has learnt nothing from that CDMA experience. I urge Minister Conroy to take this more seriously. These are good folks operating right across our economy and our community. They have done nothing wrong and they deserve more consideration than they have been afforded to date.

The government members on that committee had strong sway over the committee's recommendations, but they still recognised that there was a need for some urgent work. They urged the department and ACMA to make 'substantial and rapid progress' on these priority issues. I concur with that recommendation.

The coalition does not want to impede the sale of the spectrum. Whether it is like harbour front or other valuable land—it is Mornington Peninsula real estate!—the reality is that purchasers do not want it to be encumbered at the time it becomes available to them. That is not the trajectory we are on now. In their interest, and to optimise the returns for the Commonwealth, this is something that needs to be dealt with. For the tens of thousands of people who use this technology, whether it be in their business, in their everyday life as a core component of their performance efforts, in churches and community groups, in learning and education, in lectures or in the activities of auctioneers—whatever it might be—they deserve some consideration as well.

The committee's recommendations point to the need for education and an awareness campaign. This is a world in which technology is plug and play. I think most people using white-space wireless audio devices would not have the foggiest idea what spectrum they were operating within. I do not think they would know. All they know is that they have bought a lawful product. They are using it lawfully. Yet the spectrum which they depend on is being sold from underneath their feet and no-one has bothered to tell them. That is just poor form, particularly when some of these organisations have invested heavily and do not have the cash to go and change their equipment and buy something new. They do not have the technical guidance about where retuning is possible, where that new white space might be, and they do not have the responsiveness of ACMA and the department to say, 'Well, we have got some retunability but we cannot get anywhere near the new white space that you are guiding us to.' This is why the education awareness campaign that has been advocated by AWAG and others needs to be activated as a matter of urgency. There needs to be some greater clarity on products that are sold and some product warning system so that purchasers buying this technology know of the fate that is ahead of them, that they may well be faced with technology that is useless because they cannot access the spectrum for which it was designed.

As a matter of some urgency there needs to be finalising of where that restacking and new white space opportunities will be so there will be a much greater collaborative effort than I have seen evidenced in this to date. It is important that that work be done. This is why the government should embrace the coalition's measured and thoughtful amendment that seeks to make sure that the minister satisfies himself or herself in writing that they are satisfied that this broadcasting services spectrum is available and that alternative uses have been dealt with and that there is adequate spectrum available with no interference for potential device class licences. What this is basically saying is, get it organised. Do your job properly. Make sure there is a thoughtful and considered transition strand and do not leave 120,000 devices silent because the government has not had the wherewithal to provide spectrum capability for them.