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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee

BAKER, Mr Gary, Private capacity

HOLMES, Mr Nigel, Private capacity


ACTING CHAIR: Welcome. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Would you like to add anything about the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Baker : I was the district manager based at Radio Australia in Shepparton seven years ago for about six years.

Mr Holmes : I am appearing today in a private capacity. I am no longer in the employ of the ABC, but I worked there for, latterly, 20 years in technical management in international broadcasting. I have particular expertise in high-frequency radio, which we are often referring to here as shortwave radio, both as a broadcasting conduit and for two-way communications.

ACTING CHAIR: I invite you to make brief opening statements and then the committee will ask you questions.

Mr Baker : As I said, I was the district manager at Radio Australia looking after 32 sites, but Radio Australia's HF site was one of them. That is where the district base was and still is for the field team. I was in there the other day because I know those guys personally, so I dropped in for a bit of a chat. One thing you notice straightaway is that, after 75 years of broadcasting, that place is now silent. It used to be like this place—alive, with a pulse—but now it is dark and it is quiet. But it is probably not as quiet as our neighbours in the Pacific and our Australians in the Northern Territory are finding it at the moment, because things have gone a bit quiet over there. That is a bit of a shame. I have a lot to say, but Nigel has too.

I want to talk a little bit about cost-effectiveness of HF and where saving lives comes into play. Yesterday, I was driving down the Hume Highway to Melbourne to catch an aeroplane up here. They are spending millions of dollars putting barriers down the highway to save lives. I was wondering if the ABC are turning HF off because they think they need the money somewhere else, but HF reaches such a vast number of people in remote areas, and that can save lives in times of cyclones as well. I think that the ABC should look towards what a life is worth out in the outback of Australia or in countries in the Pacific and PNG.

There is one other thing I want to raise before Nigel speaks. I think we need to act now in respect of the Radio Australia site in Shepparton. The ABC in their submission thinks that the transmitters are probably gone, but they have not; they are still there. I have heard a rumour that next month the antennas are going to be dropped to the ground. The other thing is: that place has been up for sale for the last couple of months. I have sent a couple of emails out to say that it is a high risk if that place is sold and the site is demolished and gone—except for the building itself, which is heritage listed. I think, Senator Xenophon, you were the recipient of one of them. But once that is gone, it is gone. I think to build a new HF site would cost tens of millions of dollars. So I think that is quite an urgent thing. How do you fix that? I do not know who has the power to do what, but the ABC probably should be paying Broadcast Australia, who own the site, to not sell the site and just keep it as it is.

Senator XENOPHON: It is a private company, though.

Mr Baker : BA is a private company that the ABC—BAI owns all of the sites that the ABC use. Radio Australia in Shepparton is just one of them. However, I understand BA's situation. They are a commercial company. They need to make money off the land—that is why they are selling it—and they would need some sort of income if they were told to hold it. I am not sure how that can be addressed, but I think that is an urgent thing that does need addressing. I do not know how to do that. I will just let Nigel have a word.

Mr Holmes : The main points I want to make today are, firstly, that HF radio propagation demonstrates unique and useful properties, and it has many state-of-the-art applications today. The ABC and other detractors from HF or shortwave broadcasting would have you believe that it is a relic from the horse-and-buggy days. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In my submission to this inquiry I mentioned Defence once, and I laboured the application of HF as a data telemetry and two-way communications vehicle and its worth to enterprises such as large mining corporations, commercial transport operations, Qantas, maritime communications. I also mentioned that it had a role for civilians travelling in remote areas who could use it for email and indeed internet access. I did not mention Defence.

Defence is the largest user of HF in Australia and around the world. Defence regards it as a minimum equipment emergency network. It couples this useful broadcast conduit with state-of-the-art modulation techniques—digital encoding techniques—that enable it to send load data rates, perhaps in the order of 10 to 20 kilobits, at very high reliability with very simple equipment. This is the virtue of shortwave to both Defence and, for example, a broadcaster like the ABC. All the effort, the expense and the operation falls upon the ABC in this case, but there is no intervening area that can cause a problem or an outage. Solar weather impacts on shortwave from time to time. Solar weather also affects satellites. Satellites are not immune from this, as we discovered during the first Gulf War. In the wake of the first Gulf War there was a rush by the world's military back to HF.

The cost of an HF receiver—what I have here is a splendid little device. Gary bought one on my recommendation. This is my third one.

Senator XENOPHON: Which brand is it?

Mr Holmes : This is a Tecsun. It is made in the People's Republic of China. It is reliable. It is economical. I could go on. I can have no commercial relationship with Tecsun. This receiver is made in China. It is well made. It uses American DSP—digital signal processing chips—which gives it a very high order of performance. It is compact. You can put this in the glovebox of your four-wheel drive. You can stick it in the cantle bag of your stock horse. You can have on the map table of your yacht. It is there when you need it. You can lose this in your pocket. Try doing that with the vast receiver, for example.

Senator XENOPHON: Just make sure you do not hit the chair by mistake.

Mr Holmes : Indeed. No; I like this radio. It is economical. It is reliable. You can equip it with rechargeable batteries, or else it takes three AA cells. I am running my non-nonrechargeable batteries.

Senator XENOPHON: I think we have got enough information on it.

Mr Holmes : You can charge it from your computer or you can buy a separate little unit, which I did not build. There is a little solar panel here and a battery inside. I got mine from a golfing supply shop, would you believe? They use them to charge up the GPSs that golfers use. A friend of mine had a receiver similar to this one and one of these little solar units. He was working as a volunteer worker in a remote area of the Solomon Islands, near Choiseul, and he was not dependent on batteries. He had his little solar charger and rechargeable batteries in the radio, and he was listening to Radio Australia and Radio New Zealand on shortwave for 18 months. I am getting off track here—

Senator LUDLAM: Sorry—how much is a unit like that?

Mr Holmes : You can buy it online from a shop in Hong Kong. It is A$52 delivered, including postage.

Senator XENOPHON: Is that with or without the low-value GST?

ACTING CHAIR: Senator Xenophon, come on!

Mr Holmes : At this stage that is GST exempt, but even at an additional $5.22 I do not mind; it is still exceptionally good value. You can buy this: one of your submitters—Tecsun Australia or Av-Communication—will sell you this for a few dollars extra. It is about $15 extra. Or you can get it from bricks and mortar and you can pay your GST for the benefit of the Australian economy.

At the expense of dispersed and mobile populations in both remote areas of Australia and in the Pacific region, the ABC seeks to gold-plate a European distribution system, DAB+, for inner-city dwellers like me. Do I need it? I currently have access to the ABC via four or five layers of radio distribution. You have MF AM, you have Radio National, you have local radio and you have NewsRadio. That is ubiquitous. On FM you have Classic FM and Triple J, and in some areas you have infill for Radio National. Then you have both streaming and podcasts online and now we are putting in DAB+, with another 30 or 40 channels—not all of them ABC, thank goodness.

DAB+ is a European solution to a European problem, and if the ABC and, for that matter, commercial radio in Australia, want to go down that path they should implement it in the way that certain European countries have done it. Yes, it costs money to put in these stations, because a DAB+ installation typically has a much shorter range of coverage than an MF service and an even shorter range of coverage than an FM broadcast service. You do what they have done in Norway: if you want to fund DAB+ turn off an existing network that it can then replace comprehensively. Turn off AM, for example—2BL in Sydney or 3LO in Melbourne. We still use those old terms within the ABC because on the jack fields and the in fields on computers it is much easier to write 3LO instead of ABC 774 Melbourne. These stations are working very well. It is 1930s technology, but if you want to replace older technology was something newer because you think it offers advantages to the audience then seek funding to replace like with like. Why would you want to disadvantage remote and mobile populations? I think that is elitist and unbecoming of a public service broadcaster.

Let's look at the content of Radio Australia—and a former colleague of mine will be talking to you in much greater detail about that later on. I have travelled widely, both privately and professionally, across the Pacific region. It is our back door: the Pacific is to Australia what Africa and the Middle East are to the Europeans and the Americans. And they are both markets for HF, which I will expand on in a moment.

Many remote populations across the Pacific have looked to Radio Australia for timely warnings of tsunamis and cyclones. They have also looked to Radio Australia when their own local sources and access to accurate and timely news and current affairs have been cut off. The content of Radio Australia stood as a pinnacle. During the heady periods of the sixties, seventies and eighties, when you did not have the internet, people around the world would listen to Radio Australia. We punched way above our weight, and it was not because of the quality of the signal—our signal was weak compared to Voice of Russia, Voice of America, Radio Moscow or British, French and German broadcasts. But our content was scintillating. It was fresh, it was relevant and it was informative. During that period Radio Australia and Radio Netherlands alternated for the top two spots: one of us was first or second and BBC World Service was third. People like the Chinese, Radio Moscow and Voice of America were well down the list, because they were seen—quite rightly—to be merely the voices of their particular governments.

Since I left Radio Australia—I left the ABC in 2013—there has been an appalling degradation in Radio Australia program content. Illuminating and timely programs crafted by people with expert knowledge of the region have been replaced by irrelevant and sometimes culturally offensive Australian domestic content. Can I give one example?


Mr Holmes : One of your submitters is Keith Perron of PCJ Media. He is an expat Canadian. He has lived for many years in both the People's Republic of China and Taiwan. In Taiwan he runs quite a substantial broadcasting network, broadcasting English and Chinese language programs. He would take Radio Australia's programs, just with attribution; we never charged. Our programs were always free to air, off satellite—unlike some ABC satellite content, which is encrypted even though it is meant for an international audience. Our program was always available we did not seek payment. It had already been paid for by the taxpayers. He would broadcast this content in peak morning times on his local networks, and it had a big audience amongst the English language seeking audiences in Taiwan, and in Taipei particularly.

Many fine Radio Australia program makers were retrenched. Programs were increasingly sourced from the domestic streams. Classic FM, would you believe. FM is lovely. It is a thing of beauty when you carry classical music on FM; you have a wide dynamic range, the quiet passages alternating with the high-intensity passages. It does not work on short wave; you get 30 or 40 seconds of silence. Triple J—interestingly, because of the smaller dynamic range of that sort of music—actually goes quite well on short wave, and apparently it did have some audience amongst the younger family members of Pacific families, must to the chagrin of their parents.

Radio National content was plugged into Radio Australia. I got an email from Keith saying: 'Nigel, I am at my wit's end. I have just received my third fine from the Taiwanese equivalent of ACMA for inappropriate or offensive content.' He had been taking the stream off satellite of what he thought was Radio Australia programming, and it was f-ing and c-ing, going out into a breakfast time audience in Taipei. It did not go down well with the audience. It did not go down well with the authorities. There is Australia's reputation going to hell in a handbag. Keith got in touch with the then head of ABC international, Lynley Marshall, and explained his predicament. He said: 'Lynley, please, we want to keep carrying your program. It has been great hitherto. What can you do? Can you please at least just organise the program stream so it is something that is compatible with our tastes and values, and let me continue to provide a window on Australia?' Lynley said: 'Well, no. That programming is what goes out on ABC Radio. It is representative of what we provide to ABC audiences.' Yes, sure—on Radio National perhaps, at one o'clock in the morning! But you do not hear that kind of programming going out on Jon Faine's program or Red Symons' program in the breakfast period. That is just one example.

ACTING CHAIR: Mr Holmes, I am reluctant to cut you off, but there has been quite a long opening statement and we do need to move to questions. I am sure you will have a lot of opportunity to elaborate in questions. Senator Xenophon, are you ready to start?

Senator XENOPHON: I have just a few questions. The opening statements have been pretty comprehensive. Mr Baker, it has been very useful, and I will go online and find a brick-and-mortar retailer with a Tecsun. I understand that Tecsun shipped 500 solar power receivers like that to the Solomon Islands. So it is used quite a bit. I do not think it has been stated on the record—your respective experiences. Mr Holmes, you were transmission manager for Radio Australia from 1990 to 2013. Mr Baker, you also have extensive experience in short wave as well, given your role as a former manager.

Mr Baker : Not as much as Nigel. My role at the Shepparton base was the district manager, and that was after a period of 18 months working in the field.

Senator XENOPHON: But there is no question that both of you have significant experience with short wave?

Mr Baker : Yes, we do.

Senator XENOPHON: So there is no question of your expertise. What I want to understand is: you are saying it is time critical because once those transmission towers go down that is it. Is that what you are saying?

Mr Baker : Yes. So millions of dollars—you just take an angle grinder out to the guy wires and you cut them and the towers fall down, and millions of dollars just drop on the ground. I say 'millions of dollars' because to replace them at another site, to put them back up, would cost tens of millions. These are vast antenna arrays. You can see them on satellite photos. They are quite huge. Then there is all the equipment in the building that would have to be replaced or relocated. There is a whole gamut of things that need to happen to build a HF radio broadcasting station. It is very expensive.

Senator XENOPHON: Have either of you had feedback—you might not have—from the bush, from the Northern Territory or from remote parts of Queensland, WA and the region about cessation of the broadcasts?

Mr Baker : I have not personally.

Senator XENOPHON: Have you, Mr Holmes?

Mr Holmes : Yes, I have. Separate from my experience with the ABC, as a broadcast professional I have involvement with state emergency services and I have contacts with the Queensland State Emergency Service. They would program those Northern Territory frequencies into their radios. This was done at the whim of local units—nothing official. The frequencies that were used—around the 2, 3, 4 megahertz region—are entirely compatible with the frequencies used by emergency services and others for that same sort of short range—0 to 400 kilometre—communication. So they could be listening, essentially, to ABC programming, even though it was coming from another state. And this was important. If you look at the cyclone tracks that go across this country—they are not respecters of boundaries. The ABC broadcasts Bureau of Meteorology warnings. And quite rightly; I think that is something that a public interest broadcaster should do; it should be an emergency broadcaster because how else are you going to get that information out in a timely fashion—if your mobile phone networks have collapsed, for example?

So people in Queensland have contacted me saying, 'Can we listen to Radio Australia?' No, I am afraid you cannot because the northbound services from Shepparton en route to Papua New Guinea also put in very strong signals right across Queensland. I said: 'No, you can't. They've also gone off air at the same time.' That is one example.

Senator XENOPHON: So Radio Australia's broadcasts are only via digital radio, online or FM in those regions?

Mr Holmes : No. Radio Australia does not specifically target audiences within Australia. That is not our remit—

Senator XENOPHON: That is right. But overseas—how does Radio Australia get broadcast at the moment?

Mr Holmes : At the moment it is online and via satellite. There is reduced satellite coverage of the Pacific. Satellite can be used for direct to home. If I was living in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, I would spend $2,000 or $3,000 and maybe a bit more for some solar panels. And I would put in a C-band dish, which is a big dish—2.4 metres—and a receiver. And I would get good quality—when it existed—RA programming 24 hours a day. That is how we feed the FM transmitters. I proposed, planned and, in two instances, installed and commissioned Radio Australia's FM transmitters in Honiara and Port Vila.

Senator XENOPHON: But you cannot get it with a little 50 baht Tecsun radio—

Mr Holmes : This has got an FM receiver in it. You can pick up 3LO; you can pick up—

Senator XENOPHON: No, I am saying—

Mr Holmes : You cannot pick up satellite with that. No. You need a whacking great big dish. There are two different sorts of dishes for the domestic and international environment. The domestic environment uses satellites that transmit in the Ku and Ka band. You are looking at a dish of about that much—for the benefit of Hansard, that is about a metre in diameter. And those signals in Ku and Ka band are deeply affected by rain fade; a shower of rain completely knocks your signal out. You only get small subcontinental footprints off those sorts of frequencies.

Senator XENOPHON: So it is not as reliable as HF. That is the long and short of it.

Mr Holmes : It can be highly reliable, and it is better quality, but it can be interrupted by other weather events.

Senator XENOPHON: Okay. Mr Baker, once someone puts a chainsaw to that tower in Shepparton, it is going to cost a fortune to reinstate it?

Mr Baker : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: If the decision is made.

Mr Baker : Yes. To me, that is urgent. Can I just address one other thing while I have the chance. The ABC's FM transmitters, some of which are there and some are proposed—one of the odd things to me is that that ABC turned off HF first and then they propose to fill some gaps with FM, which has not happened yet. But FM radio stations use some electricity in those countries—PNG and the Pacific. I have personal experience of the reliability of powering PNG—it is off half the time. I have done some missionary work up on the north coast of PNG. You go up there, and there is no power during the day—it comes on at night, but it is off during the day. So we are putting in FM stations to cover a lot of PNG. One is power and the other one is weather. Certainly, in the Pacific, if you are relying on FM or satellite for information about what is going on with the weather, then you can probably forget it because a satellite will go off because of rain fade, or the satellite dish will get blown away. Then the power will go off, so your FM will be off as well. HF out of Australia does not get affected by any of those problems—it is super reliable. The reason Shepparton was chosen in the first place to cover these types of areas is the weather is great. We do not have cyclones. It is very stable weather—I live there, so I can tell you that firsthand. The power is very reliable. Radio Australia in Shepparton is across the road from a major substation which feeds the whole district.

Australia is very stable politically. When I was at Radio Australia in Shepparton, there was a coup in Fiji. The first thing that those guys did was turn off the FM transmitters that the ABC had running.

Mr Holmes : It was not quite the first thing they did. We had installed a FM transmitter. Remember that the range of FM transmitters is limited—we put in one-kilowatt, or 300-watt, transmitters with a range of maybe 20 kilometres. We put one in at Suva, the capital, and also one in at Nadi, the main airport. This was done for the benefit of Australians who would be coming in with FM receivers, perhaps unfamiliar with the shortwave environment, and they could listen to Radio Australia. After the good colonel came to power, our FM transmitters in Fiji remained on air for a period of time—six months, perhaps a bit longer—and then they were turned off at gunpoint. They remained off air for over two years—they went off in 2007 and they came back on in 2009. So do not worry about a cyclone bowling your satellite dish out to sea; worry about local political instabilities, which we have also experienced in the Solomon Islands.

Senator XENOPHON: I think I have got the point. There will not be any shutting down at gunpoint!

Mr Holmes : We have had a precedent in the Pacific.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you.

Senator LUDLAM: Thank you both for your evidence this morning. I feel like I learned 90 per cent of everything I know about shortwave radio in the last 15 minutes, so I appreciate your expertise.

Mr Holmes : May I make one final comment on the ABC's submission?


Mr Holmes : The ABC has talked about contractual arrangements. The submission says that the ABC is distressed at the prospect of being forced into negotiations where it would have a commercial disadvantage, having little choice. Really, Broadcast Australia—and I love Broadcast Australia like a brother; I had a better working relationship with them than with level 12 and 7 in Ultimo—is a near-monopoly provider. The Mount Coot-thas, the Gore Hills, the Mount Wellingtons, the Mount Loftys, the Mount Dandenongs, and the Sydenham and Liverpool sites are all owned by Broadcast Australia. Every time the ABC sits down at the table with Broadcast Australia, it is facing a near-monopoly situation. I just want to refute that point.

Also, on the point on money, the ABC has already incrementally reduced its expenditure on Radio Australia's services to the point where it is less than half, nearing a third of what it was a few years ago. Presumably, that money has already been diverted into propping up the DAB+ expansion. In the 2012-13 financial year, Radio Australia in Shepparton cost $4.1 million to run, and the small Radio Australia site at Brandon in North Queensland—which has already closed—cost $600,000 a year to run. I have no idea what the costs were for the three Northern Territory stations, but the Radio Australia site at Shepparton is well situated to provide a domestic shortwave service at a fraction of the power cost, and at a much greater order of reliability and consolidation of spares and staff than the three Northern Territory sites. There is room here for BA to both maintain and improve margin, for the ABC to save money, and for the domestic HF services to be restored along with the Radio Australia shortwave services.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Holmes.

Senator LUDLAM: I have got a couple of questions, but one technical question follows on quite well from that—if they were to reboot the Shepparton site. Do you need retransmission to be able to reach all the way out to the Pacific, or can you actually hear Shepparton from Vanuatu?

Mr Holmes : Very few Australians are aware of what a one- or two-hop shortwave signal sounds like. The signal goes up there on a sphere 300 kilometres up there and down. The net distance in between can be thousands of kilometres. It is a boomer of a signal. It is massive. It is not snap, crackle and pop; it is a massively strong signal in the south-west Pacific. We are the pre-eminent broadcaster. That is our backyard.

Senator LUDLAM: I think you have answered that question.

Mr Holmes : I will just refute one more ABC comment. The ABC says that BBC World Service ceased broadcasting to the Middle East in 2008. Well, evidently the ABC's definition of the Middle East differs from the BBC's, and this might be of interest to our colleagues from DFAT. If you look at the current BBC World Service schedule, the schedule that was broadcast yesterday and will be broadcast tomorrow, I see here that we have these arcane maps called CIRAF zones. The BBC is broadcasting to CIRAF zones 40, 39 and 37; 37 is around Morocco and Tunisia, 39 is Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq—is any of this in the Middle East?—and 40 is Iran, of course. They also use satellite, but the problem with satellite—and Iran has done this in the past—is that it is very easy to jam a satellite: you just poke a big stonking signal into the delicate, shell-like ear of that satellite, and you effectively turn it off. The Iranians have jammed both American and BBC satellite broadcasts in the past. That is why these countries retain HF delivery for their international services.

England has a massive HF site at Woofferton. It is a big complex. It carries not just BBC but also Deutsche Welle, Radio France Internationale and American programs. Germany has two HF sites, which are analogous to Shepparton: Wertachtal and Nauen. Austria has a big site at Moosbrunn. America has three sites: North Carolina A is currently fully operational, one site is mothballed, and the third site is used for test transmissions on digital HF. I will not touch on digital HF; I do not want to muddy the water. That is an entirely separate and interesting area. The point is that these countries know the use of HF shortwave delivery for international broadcasting. They do not broadcast to each other—BBC no longer broadcasts to France or Germany on shortwave—but they have substantial shortwave schedules. I provided you with a link to some of those schedules. NHK—

Senator LUDLAM: Is it okay to come back to a couple of questions? Let's just start with our audience out in the Pacific. You have given us a bit of a scope of the different kinds of audience: expat communities around the place. If you can, just sticking with the Pacific for the time being, how big is the audience, and how would you characterise it? I am happy for either of you to take it on. It sounds as though there are military applications and emergency preparedness and disaster relief applications. What are your main audience cohorts, and how big is each of them? Do we even know?

Mr Holmes : It is hard to quantify. I have walked through New Guinea in the Highlands, way beyond the reach of ABC's Radio Australia FM services, which are only at Moresby and Lae, in a 20-kilometre reach, and there was an awareness of Radio Australia there. NBC, the national broadcaster in PNG, has problems paying electricity bills and salaries and obtaining spare parts. It is often off air, so we are the de facto broadcaster.

Senator LUDLAM: We have limited time. How big do we think the audience is for HF radio in the region, and what are the main audience cohorts, if you like?

Mr Holmes : It is down to village level. One person will have access to a good receiver and have a personal interest in current affairs. He or she will listen to the programs, and then they will discuss it. They will send each other texts. They send each other texts a lot. No-one, in my experience, listened online to streaming data. Even today, it still costs $1 or $2 a meg in Fiji. You do not listen to a 20-meg-an-hour program at those sorts of fees. They listen to the program on radio—shortwave or FM—and they will discuss it and send texts to each other. It is ubiquitous. It is hard to gauge. There is a link in the ABC's submission which will direct you to a report commissioned by the ABC which indicates that the listenership for Radio Australia across New Guinea was in the order of two per cent of the cohort that they had surveyed. Bear in mind that the only routes would be shortwave and the two stations at Lae and Moresby, with a very limited range.

Senator LUDLAM: The cities, yes.

Mr Holmes : To have that kind of awareness across PNG is telling, I think. Bear in mind that these countries—Vanuatu, Solomons and NBC, and Indonesia for that matter—still have domestic shortwave. So, the receivers—some of them 30-plus years old—are ubiquitous. The receivers are out there and they are economical to run. Digital radio receivers are notoriously heavy on batteries, and that is a significant limitation and drawback to any kind of other radio, other than a shortwave or FM radio.

Senator LUDLAM: We are hearing from the ABC folk fairly shortly. I suspect that they are going to tell us that the audience is diminishing and that the people are taking up new technologies. And they may have some data to back that up. I guess that is why I am pressing you on this—

Mr Holmes : Okay. The ABC gave a presentation to the 2015 HFCC meeting. That was held in Brisbane. At that an ABC transmission engineer highlighted the problem of poor frequency management for the Radio Australia shortwave service and the adverse effect it had on RA's coverage of the Pacific. That was a situation entirely of the ABC's own making—

Senator LUDLAM: What does that mean? 'Poor frequency management'?

Mr Holmes : With shortwave transmission, you do not use the one frequency like Classic FM or 2BL: you do not have the one frequency 24 hours a day. Generally, you need a higher frequency during the day and a lower frequency at night. So the Radio Australia schedule that I managed had about 40 or 50 frequencies across six channels of transmission—144 hours of transmission a day. That was also going into South-East Asia.

The ABC did two things. First of all, they halved the number of transmitters from six to three on air. That is going to have an impact on your coverage and the reliability of your service. Then on each of those three transmitters they only had one frequency change. They had adopted the domestic model of frequency management. This meant that in the morning period you would be using too high a frequencies that would punch through the ionosphere, never to be seen again. During the day, if they were using too low a frequency, the lower HF frequency would be attenuated and dissipated uselessly in the ionosphere. Either way, the listener is not getting a signal.

Senator LUDLAM: Right.

Mr Holmes : Gee! What is that going to do to the audience coverage? You are going to lose the audience in spades. So the ABC has actually, disingenuously, engineered a decline in listenership. If you couple that with program content—

Senator LUDLAM: For its own services, I certainly think that would be arguable. But right at the very outset of your evidence—and, actually, from some of the evidence that the DFAT folk gave—it was pointed out that China broadcasts into the area. DFAT were not sure about Japan. There was the BBC and I think they mentioned Deutsche Welle and a couple of others. So there is an audience out there, whether or not the ABC is part of it any more. Obviously, we have cut away. But I am just trying to get a read on how big that audience is.

Mr Holmes : Only China—only PRC—has aerial plant to direct shortwave broadcasts into the Pacific and the South Pacific. They have already taken up some former Radio Australia frequencies. NHK, which still has a big HF service going into north and South-East Asia—

Senator LUDLAM: That is the Japanese broadcaster—

Mr Holmes : NHK is analogous to the ABC. They broadcast from their own HF site—again, at Yamata. I think I provided you with a link to their schedule; if not, I can certainly do that. They wanted to broadcast to the Pacific using Radio Australia's facility at Shepparton. The Shepparton site is the best-placed site—

Senator LUDLAM: Sorry to keep coming back to this: I am trying to get some idea of the scale of the audience, that is all. If you are not sure, or if there is no way of knowing, I will cop it—

Mr Holmes : I am not sure—I do not know. But I—

Mr Baker : I think it is hard to know. But the thing is that it is available to everybody. Internet streaming is available to very few people because of the demographic type of the people—the expense and the availability, lack of power for FM and so on. So that is intermittent-type radio, whereas HF is available all the time to everyone. You do not have to climb to the top of a hill to get the signal or anything like that, it just goes everywhere.

Senator LUDLAM: Yes, I find those arguments quite compelling, I am just trying to throw some—

Mr Baker : The other little snippet is that yesterday I was tuning around the HF band and all I could get was China. We know that China is broadcasting in here. I am just wondering if the ABC is going, 'We don't want interference from the government, even though they pay us a billion dollars a year funded by the taxpayer.' But the Chinese are moving into the Asia-Pacific—our back door—and we are going, from the ABC's point of view, 'We don't want to talk to the Pacific or New Guinea so much anymore. We'll just fill it in with some other stuff which is cheaper.'

Senator LUDLAM: What we are hearing, and what I suspect we are going to hear a little later in the morning, is that we are still talking to those people, we are just using different technology. But—

Mr Baker : Yes, but it is not as effective and it is unreliable.

Mr Holmes : And rubbish content.

Senator LUDLAM: That has come through loud and clear. Thank you both.

Senator URQUHART: I have some follow-up questions. Do you think that ABC radio should have a presence in the Pacific?

Mr Baker : Yes.

Mr Holmes : ABC radio, but not with the content that they have been providing until recently and which now is presumably still available on satellite or will be rebroadcast on FM. The FM network is not as big as it was when I was at the helm. It has been allowed to degrade. The content is inappropriate. It is unhelpful. It is not timely, and in many instances it is not relevant. I think that you could reasonably assess international broadcasting to our near region as a special broadcasting service, and I think that it could be handled by another agency. I use the expression 'special broadcasting service', not necessarily SBS but perhaps some agency.

Senator URQUHART: Let us come to the landing that they should have a presence—

Mr Holmes : Absolutely. Australia should have a presence in the region. I think it is important that we have a presence in the region.

Senator URQUHART: or that Australian radio in some degree should have a presence. So what would the most effective way be for that to be achieved?

Mr Holmes : A carefully woven mixture of broadcasting conduits. You put it onto satellite so that a wealthy expat like me, perhaps, can get 24-hour high-quality access. And, because the amount of satellite bandwidth you need for a radio channel is minuscule compared to that required for television, it is quite cheap. It is best if you couple the radio with a TV service, but, put onto satellite, that also can feed some FM in certain markets. Put it on FM, for example in Nadi, so that someone goes in with their phone from Brisbane or whatever and they have an FM receiver here; they can listen to Radio Australia on FM. If it gets turned off at gunpoint again, probably that Australian tourist has more immediate concerns than not hearing Radio Australia. That is a separate issue.

Short wave is ubiquitous. There are only two mechanisms available to you to cover large geographical areas economically. You either do it through a satellite, which is expensive, is subject to rain fade and can be jammed, or you put it onto short wave. That is the most simple scenario I can paint for you, and that is a scenario recognised by Defence and by Qantas. You can listen to eight-megahertz channels in the aeronautical HF band, and you will hear Qantas flights going backwards and forwards across the Pacific. They also have access to satellites. They are not poverty stricken. But they use HF. So HF and satellite are your two vehicles for reliable, ubiquitous coverage of a large geographical area.

Senator URQUHART: Mr Baker, would you concur with that?

Mr Baker : I would, except to say that, in the Pacific, if you have bad weather, a cyclone, your satellite system is gone. HF is still there. HF is the most reliable radio vehicle to get communication into these countries, especially coming from Shepparton, because it is so secure.

Senator URQUHART: My final question is in relation to the Bureau of Meteorology. Mr Holmes, on page 5 of your submission you comment on the method of broadcasting information and the ABC's response, and you have some concerns about that. At another inquiry that we held, we heard evidence in Darwin from local fishermen who, once they get beyond a certain distance from the shore, have no communication at all in terms of concerns about weather et cetera. Can you just elaborate on what your concerns are there?

Mr Holmes : The most commercial and organisational use—emergency services, Defence et cetera use—of short wave does not use AM, or amplitude modulation. It uses single side band, which is a little more efficient use of the spectrum. Simple receivers like these $50 receivers here will not resolve a single-side-band service. Tecsun make plenty of receivers that do, but, instead of costing $50 or $60, they cost $80 or $100.

The fishermen typically have their own two-way radios to communicate to each other or to communicate back to a base, as do recreational sailors. These receivers use the lower HF frequencies between two and five megahertz, and it is dead easy to program in the broadcast channels. The transceivers used by fishermen for their own purposes can resolve the AM broadcasts as well as the single-side-band broadcasts, so it is feasible that they could listen to the Northern Territory services. I know for a fact that many intrepid trans-Pacific sailors programmed their HF transceivers with Radio Australia channels so they could get some information and entertainment.

You can integrate the two, but a simple receiver like this will not resolve the Bureau of Meteorology broadcasts or indeed—and there are other meteorological broadcasts. VOLMET is one that comes out of Sydney for aeronautical purposes. These are meant for a higher order of user—someone on a big trawler or on planes doing coastal work or New Zealand or PNG or flights like that—to get weather in the region. You are not looking at a low-end user that you might say is typical of the ABC audience.

But we know that the short wave goes for miles. I could listen to the stations. Okay, I was using a large outdoor aerial. I could listen to those Northern Territory stations easily at night-time, particularly after the use of that poor choice of frequency for the Alice Springs station. That is—what?—1,500 or 2,000 kilometres away. When CAAMA was first started up—and I have here an in-house magazine from Telecom broadcasting where they describe the commissioning of the Northern Territory services—initially a lot of the program content came from Aboriginal media associations. The one at Alice Springs was utilised by the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. There was a Top End one which used the Katherine service. Those broadcasts actually prompted concerns from Indonesia because—they may not have been in English; I do not know what the concern really was—they were talking about land rights or these sorts of issues, so there was a momentary concern, but this was during a period in the late eighties and the nineties when we had a bit of drama between Australia and Indonesia from time to time.

The footprints of the commissioned services are also significantly greater than the ABC are currently admitting to. I have done some measurements, and I find that the ABC—or Broadcast Australia, possibly with the support of the ABC—have actually reduced the power of those Northern Territory services prior to switching them off. This obviously saves BA money. Electricity is horrendously expensive in these areas. It improves the reliability of the transmitter, and I suppose it degrades the reach and the coverage of the services. I do not know why the ABC would want to do that. You would have to ask them that. But that was confirmed by on-air measurements of the field strength at certain locations.

Senator URQUHART: Great, thanks.

ACTING CHAIR: As there are no further questions, I thank you, Mr Holmes and Mr Baker, for your evidence.

Mr Holmes : Thanks very much.

ACTING CHAIR: We were scheduled to go to a break at 9.30, but, since we are ahead of time, let us press on.