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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 22803

Mr BILLSON (9:04 PM) —Last week I was delighted to launch Broadcast Australia's digital radio trials on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, the Hon. Daryl Williams. Radio has been such a big part of the communications scene in Australia for so many decades that it is difficult to imagine that anything could happen to alter the place it occupies in our lives. By and large, radio does for the listener in 2003 what it did for the listener in the 1960s, only with better sound quality, thanks to FM, and smaller, more portable equipment. Essentially, radio remains the communications technology we turn to when we need instant confirmation of breaking news or updates during an emergency. We listen to it while we do other things, most notably while we commute. More than 20 per cent of our radio listening is done in cars. We listen to radio for an average of two hours a day. It is a big part of our lives.

Digital technology promises a range of potential benefits for both listeners and broadcasters in Australia. For the radio listening public the potential benefits include better audio fidelity and the possibility of ancillary services. These might include images and texts about song titles, news updates, sport results, stock exchange information and even weather reports. Benefits for the commercial radio industry include greater advertising and sponsorship opportunities through text and images and the potential for subscription services. It seems that digital technology has the capacity to reshape just about every aspect of the way we communicate. It is already revolutionising the way we make films, how we watch television, how we conduct research and how we play games. Digital technology has the potential to transform Australian radio, but we do not yet know the extent of the changes and the improvements it offers.

Which of the available digital technologies will be most appropriate for our country? Of the many potential `extras' digital technology can offer the radio listening public, which are the ones that will be embraced by the public? What role will Australians want radio to play in their lives in 2005 or 2010? These are just some of the big questions confronting the industry and regulators. Digital radio services are in their infancy around the world. A number of different systems and business models are being put to the test, and no country has yet achieved a successful commercial service.

One of the big issues facing Australia is: of the available technologies, which one would best suit our circumstances? The United States favours the `in band on channel'—IBOC—technology for free-to-air terrestrial digital radio. This system delivers a digital signal alongside an analog signal, allowing incumbent broadcasters to use their existing channels to deliver both analog and digital services.

The US is also moving ahead with subscription services. Two companies—Sirius and XM Radio—each deliver about 100 subscription channels via dedicated satellite networks. In the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and parts of Asia, the Eureka 147 technology has the edge. Advocates believe its higher data-carrying potential greatly increases its capability to deliver innovative services that will differentiate digital radio from analog. A hybrid model using Eureka technology and the still largely untested Digital Radio Mondiale technology has also been suggested.

In considering the way for Australia, the government want to ensure that the implementation is in the public interest. We want to know that the technology would promote the quality of services, particularly in regional areas. Spectrum is a valuable public resource that can be loaned but cannot be given away. Any implementation would need to take into account this fact. It is obvious that the kind of technology we choose will affect the implementation strategy that we put in place. Other factors include the types of services it is envisaged we will be offering and the type of spectrum used to deliver the digital service. These are matters that require careful consideration.

That is why trials like the one I launched in Melbourne last week are very important. They will contribute to the fact base which the government can use to make decisions on digital radio policy into the future. That is why the government, through the Australian Broadcasting Authority, has made spectrum available in the VHF band for these trials. The Broadcast Australia trials in Melbourne and the Commercial Radio Australia trials to be conducted in Sydney, and possibly also in Melbourne, involve the Eureka 147 digital technologies. The government has taken a very ecumenical approach to this, welcoming all comers to the trials. In fact, I am surprised that no telco has become involved at this stage to road test the return loop possibilities that digital radio offers.

It is important to bear in mind that these trials in no way lock us into any particular framework for the future or necessarily make any commitments about the availability of spectrum. The process of formulating future policy settings for digital radio will be an exhaustive one and will involve all those with an interest in what digital offers the Australian radio industry and radio community. We look forward to engaging with the industry and the regulators to work through these complex issues. I wish Broadcast Australia and its content partners—the ABC, SBS, Digital One, 3UZ and World Audio—the best of luck with their first foray into the digital future. (Time expired)