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Tuesday, 2 February 2016
Page: 100

Mrs GRIGGS (Solomon) (18:22): I rise today to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2015, which has its focus on stripping away some of the red tape that has been applied to digital radio transmission since its rollout in this country back in 2009. It is fair to say, I think, that digital radio is yet to capture the hearts and minds of radio listeners in the same way that, say, the introduction of FM radio did in in the 1970s, significantly impacting listeners' habits.

As I will talk about in a minute, Solomon, and indeed the Northern Territory as a whole, is yet to get digital services almost seven years after their introduction in the five mainland state capitals. That said, I do not see a strong groundswell in customer demand for the service, which suggests to me that radio audiences are generally happy with the existing analogue AM-FM services. But the technology is out there, and I am extremely hopeful that as a consequence of this bill digital radio will be coming to Darwin and Palmerston in the not-too-distant future. Having said that, I am also aware that the rollout of digital radio should be driven by the market and that the role of government in this space is to provide the regulatory regime to allow this to take place. That is what the Turnbull government is hoping to achieve with the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill.

Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth have had digital radio services for some years, and while Canberra and Darwin have had trials, we still do not have regular digital radio services on our home or car radios. Of course, national services such as the ABC's music-oriented Double J are available digitally and even via our digital televisions, but Darwin does not have the extra capacity that a localised digital service can deliver. As it now stands, the Northern Territory has a vibrant radio sector that caters to our remote communities, regional towns, Alice Springs and the two cities Darwin and Palmerston, both of which are in my electorate of Solomon.

I will provide a quick run-down of these services by way of illustrating the strength of the commercial, community and public broadcast sectors in Solomon. Bear in mind that the combined population of Darwin, Palmerston and the rural area is approximately 130,000. Music enthusiasts in the Top End are well catered for through the Grant Broadcasters Hot 100 as well as the dance-techno station KIK-FM. In addition to music, Hot has a commitment to local news and broadcasts local and national bulletins throughout the day. Hot's sister station, Mix FM, provides—as its name suggests—a mix of current affairs and music. The station was rocked last year by the far too early death of one of its leading lights, Pete Davies, who I am sure many people in this House have come across; they have certainly locked horns with him on issues affecting Territorians, particularly things that he was most passionate about, and one of those was health services. A respected former Northern Territory politician, Daryl Manzie, fronts the morning microphone on Territory FM, a community radio station based out of Charles Darwin University. The station is broadcast on 104.1 in Darwin and Palmerston and on 98.7 in Alice Springs. It can also be heard across the Territory in Batchelor, Katherine/Tindal, Tennant Creek, Nhulunbuy and Adelaide River and, as far as community radio goes, is regarded as having one of the biggest audience reaches per capita in the country.

ABC Local radio runs a primarily talk based format but also spins plenty of tunes, and the national broadcaster's footprint in Darwin and the Territory also includes News Radio, RN and Classic FM. Rhema provides faith based radio, and Darwin is also host to the excellent Radio Larrakia, which first broadcast back in 1998 and now provides content in over 40 Indigenous languages. I will dwell for a few moments on Radio Larrakia, which operates in Cavenagh Street in Darwin's central business district and also broadcasts national Aboriginal radio, which reaches Indigenous communities right across the country. Its operators recognised some years ago that digital radio was coming and converted from analogue to digital technology. The only part of Radio Larrakia and national Aboriginal radio that is not digital is the transmitter. This means that its thousands of listeners around the Northern Territory's Top End are still tuning in on analogue receivers. In addition to the news and entertainment functions they perform, all radio stations in the Territory provide emergency warnings in the event of an impending cyclone, fire or flood threat. So, as it stands, there is no shortage of existing radio stations in Solomon, but as Darwin and Palmerston continue to grow so too will demand for expanded radio services. There is plenty of scope for the rollout of digital services when the time is right.

Now to the nitty gritty of the bill, which amends in one fell swoop the Broadcasting Services Act and the Radiocommunications Act and is, as I said earlier, designed to reduce regulatory complexity and simplify the planning and licensing of digital radio in regional Australia. The bill specifically includes repealing the restricted datacasting licence category; removing the role of the minister in the setting of the digital radio start-up day for each regional licence area; removing the requirement for a six-year moratorium on the allocation of additional digital commercial radio broadcasting licences in a licence area following the commencement of digital radio services in that area; amending the definition of 'non-foundation' digital radio multiplex transmitter licence; and making minor amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act and the Radiocommunications Act to repeal spent digital radio provisions.

As I said earlier, digital radio services commenced in the five mainland state capitals in 2009, and I think I am correct in saying that there was an expectation that the rollout of additional services outside these main centres would follow in turn. Some seven years later, this has not been the case. In fact, in the intervening period the only digital radio services that have been provided in regional areas were trial services, as I said, in Canberra and Darwin. Digital radio was introduced in a staged manner, with broadcasters first providing digital radio services in areas that were most likely to be commercially viable. So, the changes we are debating today reflect a need to streamline and refine the current arrangements to create a simpler process that the Turnbull government believes will facilitate the rollout of digital radio services in regional Australia.

Much of the content of this amendment legislation was contained in the government's Digital Radio Report, which considered the regulatory framework for digital radio as well as arrangements to facilitate the rollout of services in regional areas. A key finding of the report was that digital radio will continue as a supplementary technology, rather than a replacement technology, for the short to medium term. This means there are no plans to switch off the existing analogue AM and FM services, which should provide an incentive to the existing operators to contemplate a digital future. This recognises the importance of the ongoing provision of local news and local emergency services information by these radio services.

The Digital Radio Report also found that it is primarily a commercial decision for broadcasters as to whether they should extend their digital radio services to regional licence areas. The government considers that broadcasters are best placed to make decisions about which services are likely to be commercially viable. The report recommended that industry members and the Australian Communications and Media Authority establish a Digital Radio Planning Committee for Regional Australia to focus on the rollout of digital radio to regional areas where it is commercially viable to do so. The committee has now been established, and I am pleased to say it is currently giving priority to the licensing of permanent digital radio services in Darwin and also Canberra.

In answer to the question 'Will digital radio be available in my region?' I say this: the government considers that the broadcasting industry is best placed to identify regional markets that could support a commercially viable digital radio service. On that basis, I encourage residents in regional markets, such as those found in Solomon, to discuss the provision of digital radio with the local broadcasters.

The report also urged that the digital radio moratorium period be removed for regional licence areas and that the restricted datacasting licence category be removed to simplify the digital radio regime because no licences had so far been issued under this category. Another of its recommendations was that that the government consider minor amendments to the current digital radio regulatory regime to provide a simpler, more flexible process for planning and licensing digital radio in Australia.

As I said earlier, the Turnbull government considers that the broadcasters and their listeners are in the best position to determine the most appropriate mix of digital radio services and the proposed amendments do not impose any restrictions on the content that can be provided. The precedent set in the mainland state capitals suggests that the new digital-only services have provided listeners with more specialised music and information services than were previously available.

It is the view of the government that removing the minister's gatekeeper role will simplify the arrangements relating to the planning of digital radio services in regional licence areas and make them more consistent with other broadcasting services. This is consistent with the Turnbull government's view that ACMA is best placed to decide when and where the rollout of digital radio services in regional Australia should occur. It will also remove unnecessary government intervention in the commencement of digital radio services in those areas.

These amendments will change the landscape of digital radio regulation in Australia in line with what we know, six years after the first digital radio stations commenced operations in the five state mainland capitals. It is the government's view that the provisions contained here are overwhelmingly positive, and with amendments such as the removal of the minister's intervention role it is plainly obvious that they are focused on unshackling the digital sector for the benefit of all Australians.

From a personal point of view, I am happy that ACMA will be actively giving Darwin priority when it comes to the licensing of permanent digital radio services, and I urge local analogue operators to work with the community in coming months and years to make this happen. I commend the bill to the House.