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Thursday, 17 November 1960

Mr FAIRHALL (Paterson) . - For many years I have been urging a divorce of the Postmaster-General's Department from control of telecommunications in Australia, and the establishment of an independent authority to handle this very difficult problem.

It is not inappropriate at this stage to review the history of television to date and to draw from it some support for the proposals which I advance. In 1953, as the House will recall, we had a royal commission into television. The commission concerned itself to a great extent with the sociological aspect of this new medium of entertainment and education, but it said very little about the technical background. As we now know, we are becoming heavily involved in that subject. Somewhere there is a guilty man who failed to give to the Government the right advice on the terms of reference for that royal commission. How much that will cost the country in pounds, shillings and pence, to begin with, and in inconvenience and loss of service is almost incalculable. However, the report stated that there should be a technical inquiry. Unhappily nothing has been done about it.

In due course, applications for television licences were called. City stations were licensed and, after a few years, we have come to the extension of television to country areas. Once again applications for licences were called and we had the protracted hearings which have been the subject of so much complaint and adverse criticism throughout the nation. When we reached the point of issuing licences it suddenly dawned on the powers that be that all of this is bound up with our inability to settle the technical problems of the industry. So perforce the applications had to be put on one side while we set up a half-baked technical inquiry conducted, in this case, by the Australian Broadcasting Control Board. The technical committee, which it was fondly hoped would produce a solution to this problem, submitted a report which did two things. First, it illustrated in great detail the enormous technical difficulties involved in television and, secondly, it suggested that the problem be referred to another committee.

We have the completely ludicrous situation in this country to-day of the Government having licensed a number of companies to operate country television services but, at the same time, saying to the companies, "We cannot tell you on what frequency your station will operate, therefore we cannot tell you where you can establish your station ". The Government says something less than that to the people in country areas who have been waiting an inordinate time for television services. This is the sorry pass that we have come to because, some one blundered back in 1953. It is to avoid this kind of thing in the future that I urge the Government to give urgent and close attention now to this question of separating the control of telecommunications from the PostmasterGeneral's Department and vesting that control in a completely independent authority.

What is the situation in Australia at present? About 40 or 50 years after the commencement of broadcasting services we find that we have no frequencies available for the extension of country broadcasting. It is most interesting to read the relevant portion of the report of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board which is in these terms -

The Board is examining various methods, such as the use of directional aerials and other techniques of improving the broadcasting service in country areas' . . .

In any normal country which appreciated the difficulties of the problem and where the department appreciated its responsibilities, this matter would not be regarded, now in the way in which this Government is regarding it. It would have been locked at 40 years ago, as other more advanced countries were obliged to do.

We commenced operating television on the very high frequency band, and at thai time it was stated that there were enough frequencies to meet requirements in the foreseeable future. Yet within a few years of the commencement of the service we suddenly find that we have run out of frequencies and we have to go into this panic consideration of what frequencies we shall use for the extension of television services.

The delay in dealing with country television licences is perhaps the smallest problem that we have to face in this case because in its report the Australian Broadcasting Control Board has stated that unless we can find thirteen channels in the v.h.f. section of the radio spectrum we shall not be able to operate the kind of television service which we envisaged. Why did we have to wait till this time to find out about this? Clearly, the authorities should have been aware of this many years before television began in Australia. If the necessary action was not taken then, it certainly should have been taken in the two or three years which intervened between the commencement of television in the capital cities and the extenson of television to country areas because - this is the important point - the Australian Broadcasting Control Board has stated in its report that if thirteen frequencies cannot be found in the very high frequency section of the band we must decide to use ultra high frequencies immediately.

It is very interesting to learn what will follow from this. I shall deal with my own area - Newcastle, the Lower Hunter and the

Hunter Valley - because at present there are between 5,000 and 6,500 licensed television receivers in use. The people watch Sydney programmes on v.h.f. If the decision is made to use u.h.f. for country services - this is quite possible from what the board has stated - the 6,000 people in that area will not be able to watch programmes from their local station unless they spend an amount estimated at from £10 to £25 to modify their receivers. Based on experience in America, this will mean that probably 6,000 viewers will be denied the opportunity to watch programmes from the licensed Newcastle station. The point I want to make - I raise it more in sorrow than in anger - is that this is precisely what happened in America. This is the matter about which I and others have been warning the Government for the past six or seven years. Because the Government has overlooked its responsibilities in this matter we have landed in a great deal of trouble. What is the Government's method of getting out of it? It set up a technical committee of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board to solve the problem, but the committee merely said how involved the problem was and referred it to the Radio Frequency Allocation Review Committee. This committee is sitting on the matter at the moment. It is composed of men of undoubted technical ability, yet they are part-time employees of the Government in relation to this particular problem. They are employed in private industry and they cannot give full time to the problem. Nevertheless, the whole development of country television services is now to await the determination of this committee, and inevitably if there is not to be an inordinate delay the committee will have to deal with this particular aspect of the problem ahead of the whole question of the frequency spectrum which is its responsibility. This is dealing with things piecemeal.

I am not at all impressed by the proposals in the Australian Broadcasting Control Board's report in which a recommendation is made from the technical side of the board that a television advisory committee should be set up. This television advisory committee, it is suggested, should be limited to one or, at the most, two members from each of the appropriate sections of the industry. In other words, these are going to be parttime technical officers of the Government.

The time available in which to deal with this subject is all too inadequate. But it ought to be raised at this point because the longer we delay - even for a week - the more trouble we are going to get into on this matter. When one looks at the great evolution of telecommunications in this country one realizes the great loss which arises from inadequate use and from bad technical decisions, and the loss which arises from overlapping. We have men in the technical sections of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board looking after television and broadcasting, and we have technical men in the Postmaster-General's Department looking after telecommunications, and all sorts of other people denied reasonable access because we have fumbled the allocation of frequencies. The time has come when the Government must here and now come to the setting-up of a permanent agency consisting of high-class technical people to deal with this problem as it should be dealt with.

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