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Thursday, 10 May 2007
Page: 41

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (12:00 PM) —I commend Senator Webber for waffling on about however long was required for Labor to get their act in order on this second reading amendment, which seems to have been largely the same as the one in the House of Representatives! Anyway, let us be charitable about this. The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2007 and the Radio Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2007 provide the Australian radio industry with a unique and important opportunity to commence digital radio services. These bills provide for the introduction of digital radio services using the digital audio broadcasting or DAB standard initially commencing in the state capital city markets by 1 January 2009.

Digital radio has the potential to provide a range of new and innovative services to listeners and thereby enhance the quality and diversity of radio services currently enjoyed by millions of Australians every day. Yet I note that the opposition is calling on the government to delay the introduction of the new technology, citing a lack of consultation with industry and suggesting that regional radio listeners have not been included in this process—I will deal with both of those issues a little later. In fact the Australian radio industry has been working closely with government for three years in the development of the policy that is implemented through this legislation. Numerous opportunities have been extended to major stakeholders to contribute to the development of the policy framework, and their valuable contributions and how important this is to the radio industry have been embraced and welcomed by the government.

The Senate committee’s recent report on the provisions of the bills noted that submissions to the inquiry were very supportive of the bill’s intent and the majority of its provisions. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that the interest of these stakeholders in commencing digital radio has been a key factor in bringing this legislation forward. The Australian radio industry, which has to implement this legislation and use this technology, has lobbied strongly for the introduction of digital radio to enable it to respond to the opportunities and challenges of an emerging digital media landscape. It astounds me that the opposition and others do not see the relevance of getting started in digital radio. If you wait until the technology all aligns, you will never start. Technology continues to develop, and the legislation is flexible enough to allow reassessment—and there is a legislative review in 2011, which I will get to.

There are opportunities and challenges presented by this legislation and the adoption of digital radio. These opportunities will simply pass the industry by if we have troglodytes looking at this sort of legislation who do not understand that technology evolves and changes and that you cannot nail it to the floor until it all lines up and then start. It does not work like that with technology because it will be obsolete by the time everybody agrees on it in a Senate committee.

This government is very supportive of the intention of introducing digital radio. It is the last significant broadcasting platform to remain analog only, and digitisation is a key strategic priority for radio—they do not want to be left behind; they want to get on with it. The legislation provides the radio industry with an opportunity to go digital in a manner which incorporates the lessons learned from digital radio implementation overseas. We know from our inquiries and the extensive research that has been undertaken, for instance, that digital radio is generally preferred as a supplementary technology to analog radio rather than as a replacement—different to television. Analog radio shutdown may well be a long-term prospect but only a long-term prospect at best, and the dual operation of analog and digital is a reality for all countries that have commenced digital radio.

In recognition of this, the legislation provides for a progressive transition to digital radio without seeking to mandate both an unrealistic and costly conversion from analog. The first digital radio broadcast is to occur in the state capital city markets on or before 1 January 2009 using the DAB standard. The use of DAB as the primary platform for digital radio in Australia has the strong support of the Australian radio industry, including the ABC. It is widely recognised that DAB is the most developed terrestrial digital radio platform already introduced in a range of countries—and, importantly, for a small to medium country like Australia, there are a range of reasonably priced DAB consumer receivers available on the international market.

Contrary to the suggestions of the opposition, listeners outside the state capitals have not been and will not be overlooked. The legislation will enable the commencement of DAB radio services in regional markets, depending on the interest of relevant broadcasters in providing services. From my conversations as I travel around Australia and talk to broadcasters in rural and regional Australia, there is strong interest, and we aim to ensure that they will be able to access this new technology. However, I am pleased to note that the commercial radio industry has expressed considerable interest in providing DAB services in markets such as Newcastle, Wollongong, Geelong, Hobart, Darwin and the Gold Coast, and it is reasonable to expect that listeners in these markets will be provided with DAB radio services in these areas sometime after 2009. While DAB is the clear choice for the implementation of digital radio in Australia’s larger metropolitan and regional markets, it is acknowledged that the platform—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Troeth)—Order! I would ask that conversations in the chamber cease while a senator, particularly a minister, is speaking. Please resume, Minister.

Senator COONAN —It is, however, acknowledged that the platform may not be able to replicate the extensive broadcast coverage of some AM services. Consideration will need to be given to whether other technologies such as Digital Radio Mondiale, or DRM, are better placed to address the audience needs of some regional areas. I think it should also be noted that, at this time, DRM is not a widely deployed technology nor has it received significant commercial support. Only recently have manufacturers even committed to producing DRM sets in any meaningful numbers. In my view, there would be clear risks if Australia were to draft legislation to specifically support or even mandate the introduction of a technology that is yet to achieve significant commercial support in overseas markets.

This consideration, together with the view of digital radio as a supplementary rather than a replacement technology, supports the conclusion that it would be simply premature for Australia to develop a detailed and specific regulatory framework for alternative digital radio technologies at this time. However, there would be a clear benefit in continuing the assessment of the technology options for regional digital radio, and we think it is a sensible way forward. It is consistent with the government’s stated commitment to ensuring equitable access to new services in broadcasting by people living in rural, regional and remote Australia.

To this end, the legislation provides for a statutory review, as I mentioned, by 1 January 2011 of technologies for the transmission of digital radio broadcasting services and restricted datacasting services in regional licence areas. This review will allow for the appropriate consideration of issues such as the availability of equipment for and the coverage characteristics of various digital radio technologies as well as the types of services that could result from the use of those technologies in regional areas and will thus allow for adjustment to the regulatory framework should that be necessary.

The bills provide for the participation of wide-coverage commercial national and community broadcasters in the first phase of digital radio implementation. This recognises that the strength of Australian radio over recent decades has been based in no small part on the individual contribution made by each of these sectors. To back this up the federal government has provided funding of over $10 million to help community broadcasters establish digital radio infrastructure. It was a very important although quite small initiative in what was a most significant budget.

The government has also committed to funding the rollout of infrastructure to support the delivery of digital ratio services by the national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS. Together these initiatives will enable the sectors to participate with the wide-area commercial broadcasters in the commencement of digital radio services in the state capital cities on 1 January 2009. In Australia, the national broadcasters play a vital role in the Australian radio market and they are a critical source of service diversity, with their services highly valued by audiences across the country. Similarly, community radio is an established player in the radio broadcasting landscape also making a valuable contribution to the diversity of offerings of radio services. This funding package will ensure that the roles of the respective sectors are carried forward in the digital environment.

So, taken as a whole, the measures contained in this legislation cement radio’s important position in the Australian media landscape, providing industry with the opportunity to invest in innovative new digital content and provide listeners with a rich and more diverse radio offering.

I do want to address a couple of matters that have been raised in connection with the opposition’s second reading amendment, the first of which is the suggestion, indeed the claim, that this legislation has been rushed and calling into question the degree of consultation. The Australian radio industry has been working closely with the government, as I have said, for three years in the development of the policy that is implemented through this legislation. Numerous opportunities have been extended to major stakeholders to contribute to the framework’s development.

I just wanted to mention that back in December 2004, which is almost ancient history when you are looking at this kind of technology, the government initiated an extensive process of industry consultation, research and policy development to examine the most appropriate technology and framework for the introduction of digital radio in Australia. It culminated with the release by me in October 2005 of a policy framework to guide the implementation of digital radio which is now being implemented through this legislation. And—to borrow a well-known phrase—guess what? Nobody seemed to suggest that there was anything wrong with the policy framework. I never heard the opposition complaining about any of the policy framework as it was being developed. Indeed, it had the strong support and involvement of industry, and the framework was warmly received by the major stakeholder groups when it was announced. The stakeholders have been further involved in the development of the legislation to implement it through the release of an exposure draft of the bills prior to their introduction to parliament and through the Senate committee’s inquiry.

Somehow or other all this went under the radar, from 2004 until the Senate inquiry. You would think the Senate inquiry happened over 24 hours, but it went from 29 March to 30 April. That is hardly a rushed inquiry, and I reject any suggestion that the committee were anything other than able to deal with the issue. If they could not, it really calls into question their ability to get their heads around what has been on the table now since about 2004.

The government’s policy development process has been open, it has been transparent, and we can hardly take the blame if people do not wake up when they have some issues with it. The committee’s report on the provision of the bills said that the submissions were very supportive of the bills’ intent—and, indeed, industry wants this. I intend, as far as I am capable of delivering this legislation in this place, to ensure that they have it.

In sum, we have an interest in proceeding with the legislation to reflect the industry’s stated desire to get on with it and to actually commence digital radio. The Australian radio industry have lobbied strongly for the introduction of digital radio because they want to take advantage of the opportunities and challenges. The opposition should get out of the way and let them have it, because they actually run the industry.

I have mentioned in my summing-up remarks the fact that we do acknowledge that technology evolves, and it is important that we continue to look at the best way to deliver it in other areas such as rural and regional Australia. We will continue to ensure that consideration is given to other technologies such as DRM. It may not be the best, but we will continue to look at what will be. It is not widely deployed, so we certainly do not want to go down the path of adopting something that might otherwise not be a commercial or, indeed, a proper solution.

This legislation, as I have said, provides for a statutory review, and we will keep it closely under review. It is the intention of this government that digital radio will be available throughout Australia, and we will do it in a measured and a considered way that will allow the industry to adopt the technology that best suits them and certainly to deliver the services that will help to meet the needs of Australians regardless of where they live.

Question negatived.

Original question agreed to.

Bills read a second time.