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Thursday, 17 August 2017
Page: 5931


Senator SMITH (Western AustraliaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (11:27): I rise to speak against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Restoring Shortwave Radio) Bill 2017 this morning. Our public service broadcasters play important roles in the social construction of our communities, especially in rural and regional Australia. However, in today's modern media environment—an environment dominated by online digital platforms that allow content to be accessed by viewers not only all over Australia but all over the world—has placed increasing economic pressures on our rural and regional broadcasters. The new digital media environment means greater consideration must be given to the economic impact of keeping services like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's short-wave transmission broadcasts over the ability to provide quality local content and the provision of information services to regional and remote communities.

According to a 2015 report by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, 100 per cent of Australian homes can access digital terrestrial broadcasts; 30 per cent of all Australian homes now have a smart TV—a TV they can access the internet with directly; and 27 per cent have accessed the internet via a smart TV. It also went on to say that 23 per cent of Australians now have a complex home network that supports multiple devices and connection boxes, and that the number of connected devices is expected to double from 116 million to 220 million by 2019. It also went on to say that 70 per cent of Australians use a mobile phone to access the internet for personal use and 58 per cent of 18- to 30-year-old professionals say that their smart phones are the first thing they look at in the morning.

The role of the television has shifted from being a more collective viewing experience based on a specific time, like the news at 6 pm, and place, such as the living room, to one that now has an individual component of watching what you want when and where you want to watch it. Two out of three commercial broadcasters now provide streamed versions of their services, which are available in both metro and regional areas. In addition, both the ABC and SBS have streamed services and apps, which means regional viewers receive the same amount of content as their metro counterparts due to existing affiliation agreements. The increase of other streaming services like Netflix or Spotify is rapidly impacting on audience viewing and listening behaviours. The ABC's 2015 annual report, aptly entitled All about audiences, documents that digital technologies, particularly mobile devices, are used to access more news than ever before. This is changing the Australian media landscape.

In these rapidly changing times, it's imperative to consider the crucial role performed by the ABC in the production and dissemination of local news in Australia's rural and regional communities. More than one-third of the ABC's budget goes towards content, transmission and infrastructure costs servicing rural and regional audiences. The ABC operates 56 offices and bureaus around the country, and its network includes more than 600 AM and FM radio transmitters. The ABC remains a pioneer in transitioning to digital services, especially in engaging regional audiences online through ABC Open.

On 10 January 2010, the Australian government announced a new satellite service to deliver digital television and radio channels to Australian viewers who reside in remote and rural areas across our country. Viewer Access Satellite Television, or VAST, provides digital television and radio services to viewers in remote areas of Australia, as well as viewers who are unable to receive digital TV through their normal antennae because of issues relating to local interference, terrain or distance from the transmitter in their area. The VAST service has channels for the ABC, the SBS and the Australian commercial television networks. Access to the commercial television services on VAST is governed by broadcast licence conditions, and each application is assessed against those criteria. The ABC and SBS services are available to all viewers with a VAST decoder. Initially, the service was only available to viewers in and around Mildura, Victoria, to coincide with Australia's first analog television switch-off. On 15 December 2010, the service was made available to viewers in the existing remote central and eastern Australia and Mount Isa licence areas, and in April 2011 the western VAST service began for regional and remote Western Australian viewers in my home state.

While the ABC announced its decision to cease short-wave radio broadcasting on 6 December last year, it is important to note that the decision to end short-wave broadcasting was taken by the ABC board, who have legislated operational independence to make these decisions. This decision is in no way related to government funding, which was confirmed for the next three years in the last budget. The government has, however, conveyed to the ABC the community concern about its handling of this significant issue, particularly relating to the limited consultation and notice period that was given to consumers. The ABC has advised that the cost of maintaining the short wave service was considered disproportionate to its use as a broadcast technology.

Currently there are only three short-wave transmission towers in Australia. All are located in the Northern Territory, and each has a broadcast radius of 200 kilometres. The Northern Territory's short-wave service is the last domestic service of this type. The ABC's short-wave services in the other states and territories were closed some time ago, and there are now no similar ABC services in Queensland or Western Australia, which face similar issues of distance and remoteness. The ABC has also assured the government that the cessation of its short-wave service will not leave those in the remote regions of the NT without access to emergency information.

The VAST satellite service is used across other large parts of the remote Australian outback where there are no short-wave broadcasts, such as in parts of the Northern Territory and all of Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales. Many remote workers and travellers already make use of the VAST satellite service when stationary to access all ABC radio and TV in digital quality.

The National Broadband Network satellite services, Sky Muster, will also assist those in remote Australia by providing access to all ABC online and digital content. Sky Muster provides broadband connectivity to regional and remote Australia, effectively covering all of mainland Australia. For those outside terrestrial radio coverage who are mobile or do not have access to VAST, there is the dedicated Bureau of Meteorology high-frequency transmission, which provides hourly weather updates and alerts on its short-wave band. In addition, the Northern Territory Police and emergency services operate short-wave services for two-way communication in case of emergency. The ABC will also donate a VAST satellite system unit to all Royal Flying Doctor Service bases and four-wheel-drive radio club bases in the affected region, allowing these organisations to rebroadcast emergency or warning messages.

In terms of the ABC's international short-wave service, Radio Australia will continue to be available internationally via satellite and online streaming and through a network of FM terrestrial transmitters. The ABC has advised that international short-wave services currently transmit only to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The ABC previously maintained short-wave services to the Middle East, India, China, Indonesia and the Asia-Pacific. However, these services have already been terminated in recent years as audiences have made the transition to newer radio technologies, including FM transmissions and online streaming services. Other public broadcasters including the BBC, Radio-Canada and Radio Netherlands have already closed or substantially reduced their international short-wave services in recent years.

While the ABC acknowledges that a small audience living and working in the Northern Territory favour short-wave radio when accessing ABC services, to assist this small audience following the closure of short-wave services on 31 January, the ABC has offered comprehensive advice on how to best access emergency information, ABC news and entertainment. To date, this information program has included public notices and comprehensive statements in local media; regular broadcasts on ABC local radio, including on short wave; and online articles and advice informing audiences of the decision and how they can continue to access ABC services. The expansion of this service included extra resources from the ABC in the form of an ongoing public information campaign in local media and an easy-to-access information page on ABC local radio websites for the Northern Territory, as well as the About the ABC website, the ABC Local Radio Facebook page and other social media platforms. The ongoing ABC reception advice line, accessible by phone and email, continues to offer dedicated audience assistance with broadcast alternatives and technology advice. In addition, the ABC has established email and phone registration for information packs on broadcast technology alternatives, mailed to home addresses; information on one-on-one phone briefings or tuition delivered through reception advice lines; and the development of how-to videos, accessible online and through social media, detailing how to download and access podcasts and catch-up radio programming.

Australia is using an upgraded version of the digital audio broadcasting digital radio standard known as DAB+ to broadcast digital radio. DAB+ uses a VHF band III spectrum, which is the same spectrum currently used by digital television services. Digital radio services from commercial radio broadcasters and national broadcasters have been operating in the metropolitan licence areas of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth since 1 July 2009. Designated community radio services also began in these areas in April 2011.

In 2015, following the publication of Digital radio report, the government asked that ACMA facilitate the rollout of digital radio in regional areas where licensees make the commercial decision to offer the service. As recommended in that report, a Digital Radio Planning Committee for Regional Australia, chaired by ACMA, was established in the third quarter of 2015 to work with industry to plan digital radio in regional Australia. The committee was tasked with planning the rollout of digital radio in regional areas where industry indicates it is economically feasible to do so, starting with the permanent licensing of Canberra and Darwin trial service areas. The committee comprised industry representatives from peak bodies, Commercial Radio Australia and the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, as well as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the SBS, the Department of Communications and the Arts, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and, of course, ACMA.

The department of communications simultaneously conducted two statutory reviews into digital radio services in Australia in accordance with its regulatory obligations—in particular, section 215B of the Broadcasting Services Act and section 313B of the Radiocommunications Act 1992.

The department of communications' Digital radio report was released in July 2015 and made a number of recommendations to government, including: not setting a timetable for analogue radio switch-off; giving the ACMA responsibility for determining where and when digital radio services can commence; encouraging industry to work with ACMA to establish a digital radio planning committee; not reintroducing the moratorium on the ACMA issuing digital-only commercial radio licences in mainland state capital cities; removing provisions requiring a six-year moratorium on additional radio services; considering whether to allow broadcasters to choose the mode in which they deliver their radio services; and, importantly, considering minor amendments to the current digital radio regulatory regime to provide a similar, more flexible process for planning and licensing of digital radio in regional Australia with a view to permanent services being licensed in Canberra and Darwin as a priority.

There can be no doubt that for some people across regional Australia, and in particular the far north of Australia, the ABC's decision in regard to the short-wave transmission has been an important one. Certainly, I have had representations from people across the Kimberley, most particularly those people near the border between the Kimberley and the Northern Territory who have been concerned about this latest decision by the ABC. But, unfortunately, the decision by the ABC is an important one that can be defended. The ABC has done its best, after some pressure from the government, to make sure consumers are aware of the need for change and the need for reform. As is true across the media landscape, we can't escape the fact that technologies change. A part of that technological change is to bring additional services and better-quality content to people, and this particular decision, I think, is the right one.