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Wednesday, 16 August 2006
Page: 30

Senator EGGLESTON (11:47 AM) —The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2005 [2006] is great news for the future of digital television in remote areas of my home state of Western Australia, and I am very pleased to see this bill introduced. It will provide a framework to implement the model agreed with WIN Television and Prime Television for the conversion of their commercial television broadcasting services in remote and regional Western Australia from analog to digital.

Section 38B of the Broadcasting Services Act will be amended to allow remote area licensees, who have elected to provide jointly a third digital service, to multichannel the three digital services on a single radio frequency channel. Importantly, this will also include an exemption from any high-definition digital television quotas that might otherwise be applied. This will mean they will have the benefit of standard digital television multichannelling throughout Western Australia.

This will allow for the joint provision by WIN and Prime of a third, digital-only, commercial television service for people living outside Perth. This service will operate alongside the two current services received in rural, remote and regional Western Australia. It will simplify the digital conversion process. All areas outside Perth have in fact been classified as remote. This is great news for regional Western Australians, who will, for the first time ever, be able to access the same level of television services available to those in the metropolitan area of Perth.

It is also great news for WIN and Prime because it represents a significant cost saving for them. Instead of having to establish and maintain two or three sets of digital transmission infrastructure with capacity for high-definition digital television, they will be able to establish only one shared set of infrastructure without the additional cost of investing in high-definition digital television equipment and significant and costly additional satellite capacity. The point of that, of course, is that the Australian digital regime does mandate that television companies in metropolitan areas at least should broadcast a certain amount of programming in high definition.

This decision represents a balance between the public interest in having access to a greater range of television programs and the special circumstances of remote area commercial television broadcasters, who face significant cost pressures due to the wide geographic area they serve and the sparseness of the populations in those areas. The low population creates very special problems for broadcasters in remote areas. For example, in Western Australia the broadcasters in remote areas are only able to reach a market one-third or one-half the size of the large eastern aggregated regional markets, but the geographical areas they service are often 10 to 25 times larger and, therefore, of course require a larger number of terrestrial transmitters. In fact, the remote-regional WA licence area has a population of only half a million in an area covering 2.5 million square kilometres, whereas the northern New South Wales licence area has a population of 1.9 million in a region covering only 132,000 square kilometres. So it is a very different commercial equation.

In 2004, the Australian Broadcasting Authority reported that the profits for remote area broadcasters were significantly lower than for those in major regional markets. The annual average profit per station in 2002-03 for aggregated regional stations was $9.1 million, and for remote area broadcasters it was only $900,000. In the same period, the average profit per head of population was $21 in aggregated regional markets but only $8 in remote area markets.

The bill will also provide significant savings to taxpayers because funding assistance to the broadcasters under the Regional Equalisation Plan is reduced. As a result, the total level of assistance to the WA broadcasters is approximately $10 million less over eight years than the original estimate, which was based on the broadcasters providing high-definition television services from their terrestrial transmitters.

This bill was introduced into the Senate on 23 June last year but, because Labor and the Greens have not been prepared to grant it non-controversial status, and, due to the weight of the government’s legislative program, debate on it has not been possible until today, more than a year later. As a result of the extensive delay, item 3 of schedule 1 to the bill will be deleted—meaning that ACMA will be able to use its existing discretion to set a revised date for the allocation of a third commercial digital service. ACMA has indicated that it will set a date within six months of the bill receiving royal assent, and is already in consultation with WIN and Prime to set that date. WIN and Prime have been developing plans for the introduction of their digital television services in remote Western Australia. I am advised that that planning is now well advanced. Provided that this legislation is passed, the broadcasters are planning to commence the digital transmission of their current services in 2007, with the new third service starting shortly thereafter. As I said at the beginning of my speech, this bill is further proof of the Howard government’s determination to ensure that those people living in rural, regional and remote areas of Australia have access to high-quality services and do not miss out on the advent of digital television.

I will quickly refer to Senator Conroy’s remarks about the government’s slow progress toward a date for digital conversion. Senator Conroy is misrepresenting the situation completely.

Senator Kemp —It is not the first time.

Senator EGGLESTON —Indeed, Senator Kemp. Progress towards digital conversion has not been slow at all. It is a process under which agreements have to be reached with existing free-to-air television companies. And, of course, there has to be public demand, which is growing slowly. I am sure that once the public become aware of the benefits of digital television—better picture, the opportunity for multichannelling—then the demand for digital television will be very rapid indeed.

I spent some time in Sydney last Friday. I went to Foxtel in the morning. Foxtel offer a very large multichannelling digital service. They tell me that they now have one-third of the homes in Sydney on their service, which shows that digital television’s penetration is increasing. In the afternoon, I went to an exhibition that Sony had at the Hordern Pavilion, in Moore Park, where they were demonstrating their high-definition digital television product, which, I might say, was absolutely brilliant. The cost of the television sets is now dramatically reduced. As people realise the benefits and the quality of high-definition digital television, the demand for access to those services will grow very quickly indeed. Senator Conroy need not worry further about the conversion date, because, when we get there, the Australian public will be very happy to have digital television.