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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 2410

Mr HARTSUYKER (Cowper) (19:33): I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Dividend) Bill 2013 and commend the member for Riverina for his contribution to the debate. This bill provides yet another example of the government's complete failure to do anything properly. The switch to digital television is a process that is supported by both sides of parliament. The restack is not a partisan or political issue, and I believe the coalition has been cooperative in its approach to the issue of the digital restack. This process is not something that should be causing concern in the community. In fact, it should be a relatively simple behind-the-scenes technical change that will have a limited impact on the general public. But, once again, the government has got it wrong. The result is that thousands of individuals, community groups, churches, schools, concert promoters, gyms and musicians may need to buy new wireless audio equipment at a collective cost of millions of dollars.

I will talk about these problems in more detail shortly, but I would first like to turn my attention to the substance of the bill. Digital television uses frequency bandwidths much more efficiently than analogue signals. As a result, the switch to digital television will free up valuable blocks of spectrum that can be used for purposes other than broadcasting. This is a substantial block of spectrum in the broadcasting services band, and it will be permanently freed up for other uses from the start of 2015. However, the television networks have agreed to switch off their analogue signals well in advance of 1 January 2015. In the interim, ACMA will consider allocating interim licences to the successful bidders in the government's digital dividend spectrum auction, which will take place next month. However, the current regulatory system would impose significant restrictions on anyone using spectrum in the broadcasting services band for anything other than broadcasting.

In the long term, once the digital dividend spectrum is removed from the broadcasting services band, these regulations will not apply, but there is a need for an interim solution, which this bill provides. At first glance, this bill is a welcome development. Indeed, it makes sense to give the auction winners access to this spectrum as soon as possible so they can begin offering improved services to the public. We know the demand for wireless data services is increasing exponentially, so facilitating access to early rollout of LTE broadband services is a positive step. However, the government's typically sloppy handling of this issue has created another major problem for the thousands of Australians who use wireless audio devices. The Australian Wireless Audio Group at the Australian Commercial and Entertainment Technologies Association is the key body representing the interests of wireless audio equipment users, and they have highlighted a number of problems with the government's current approach to the digital dividend process. Wireless audio devices include things such as wireless microphones, which are used in hundreds of applications around the country, and ear monitoring devices, which are commonly used by musicians and media presenters. Wireless audio devices use the unallocated 'white space' between the frequencies used by licenced broadcasters. Users of wireless audio devices do not need to apply and pay for a licence to use their equipment like a broadcaster, but they operate their equipment on the basis that they must not cause interference to broadcasters operating in the same frequency range.Most people using wireless audio devices are not aware of how these products work. The devices are generally quite user-friendly and are operated on a plug-and-play basis.

The spectrum which makes up the digital dividend is from 694 megahertz to 820 megahertz. This is also the most popular range for wireless audio devices, with an estimated 120,000 devices operating in this range. As a result, frequency that is currently white space could shortly be occupied by telecommunications services. Anyone operating a wireless audio device which interferes with a licenced user on the same frequency is in breach of the regulations. Because the government has failed to develop a comprehensive transition plan or conduct an education campaign on the implications of the digital dividend, many people will suddenly find themselves using equipment that operates on the same frequency as a licenced user—and they will therefore potentially be acting illegally. The list of people and organisations that could be affected by these changes is long: schools, churches, broadcasters, concert promoters, entertainment providers, musicians, the fitness industry, auctioneers, major event organisers and even the spruiker at your local jewellery store or pharmacy.

The key problem here is that the vast majority of people using these devices are not communications specialists. The people using these devices are volunteers, salespeople, musicians, tradesmen, presenters et cetera. They cannot be expected to know how these impending changes will affect them and the legality of their use of those devices. Many of these people will have purchased wireless audio devices in the past few years in good faith and will find themselves with a perfectly functional but illegal device in just over 18 months.

At the very minimum, there is an urgent need for the government to engage with the sector and develop a plan to help educate people who use wireless audio devices about the impending changes. Until some sort of education campaign is launched, retailers will continue to sell these devices and consumers will continue to buy them. As far as I know, the government has not even given formal notification that suppliers should stop importing wireless audio devices that operate in the spectrum above 694 megahertz. Even if someone buys a wireless audio device which operates in spectrum outside the digital dividend frequency—that is, below 694 megahertz—there is no guarantee that it will still be compliant with the regulations once the restack of digital television frequencies is completed.

It has also been brought to my attention that, in some areas where the UHF band is very congested, there may be very little white space available in which to operate a wireless audio device. Particularly for large events, which may use multiple wireless audio devices each of which needs to operate on a unique frequency, there may be insufficient white space available to operate the necessary number of devices. This may prove to be a significant problem in areas like the Gold Coast or the CBD areas of Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. To give you an example of how this may impact on a major event, I have been told that one major Australian reality television show uses up to 60 wireless audio devices at a time. The Australian Wireless Audio Group has made at least nine submissions to the government or ACMA about this issue over the past seven years, so the government cannot claim to be ignorant of it. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but it is very clear that the government needs to improve its engagement with this sector and come up with some answers.

In conclusion, this bill does not, on the surface, appear to be particularly objectionable, but, as is usual with this government, the devil is in the detail. The minister is obviously too preoccupied with regulating the media and attempting to rescue his disastrous NBN project to attend to fine details, such as how musicians and fitness instructors will be able to use their wireless microphones after the digital dividend process is complete. Thankfully, the coalition has done the hard work for the minister and we will be moving an amendment to this bill which will require the minister to ensure that ACMA has made suitable provision for wireless audio devices before allowing any alternative uses of the broadcasting services band.