BILLS;Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2012 – 22 Jun 2012

I rise in support of the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2012. The Australian government announced, in 2008, that all free-to-air television broadcasts in Australia would be required to complete the switch from analog transmission to fully digital transmission by the end of 2013. The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, announced the timetable for the digital switchover in October 2008, the transition to occur progressively, commencing in 2010.

Digital television will provide the benefits of improved picture and sound quality and greater program choice. For viewers, this means new equipment is needed to receive the digital signals. For retailers, this will require understanding the changes to the technology to better advise customers on the available options. The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy has worked closely with the broadcasting industry, the retail sector and other stakeholders to ensure the smooth transition to digital-only television broadcasts so that viewers enjoy the associated benefits.

We know that many people already have digital television, because they have purchased the necessary equipment such as a set-top box or a new television or they live in one of the first areas to transition to full digital services. However, not everyone has been able to afford a new TV or a set-top box and is still making do with an analog television. That is why this government provided financial assistance to people receiving a maximum rate age pension, disability support pension, carer pension, Veterans’ Affairs pension or income support supplement payment.

With the transition process well underway this bill is important to ensure that the switchover is completed by the end of 2013. This bill is important to ensure that Australia moves with the times and embraces modern technology. The move to digital television from analog will provide viewers with the benefits of improved picture and sound quality, as well as greater program choice. The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2012 amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, the BSA, to improve the regulatory framework for digital television services.

This bill will facilitate earlier access in particular circumstances to the digital commercial satellite television services licensed under section 38C of the BSA. This is known as Viewer Access Satellite Television, VAST. This access will be made available to areas where it is considered viewers will not be able to receive adequate digital reception once the switchover has occurred.

The amendments being proposed will benefit viewers in regional and metropolitan areas who do not receive adequate commercial digital television terrestrial reception. Currently, viewers in Australia who do not receive adequate commercial digital television terrestrial reception are ineligible to access the VAST service until six months before the switchover is due to occur in their area. The changes proposed by the government will enable these viewers to obtain early access to the VAST service.

The bill will also allow for retransmission services provided digitally by third parties who represent commercial television broadcasting licensees to be taken into account by a scheme administrator when administrating the Conditional Access Scheme for the VAST services.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority will be able to make a declaration that an area is service deficient so that viewers in that area can access the VAST services. It will enable the VAST licensees to provide digital commercial television satellite services to specified external territories of Australia, including Christmas Island and Norfolk Island. In addition, the bill will allow licensees in remote central and eastern Australia, RC and EA, terrestrial licence areas to nominate multiple places in their licence area by which their compliance with time based broadcasting obligations will be assessed. Licensees can then accommodate different input feeds from the VAST services for the terrestrial transmitters in different parts of their licence area.

On 2 November 2009, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator the Hon. Stephen Conroy, made the Broadcasting Services (Simulcast Period for Metropolitan Licence Areas) Determination (No. 1) 2009. This determination stated that the digital switch-over would occur in the Brisbane TV1 and Perth TV1 licence areas on 30 June 2013, with the Adelaide TV1, Melbourne TV1 and Sydney TV1 licence areas to follow on 31 December the same year.

This bill allows the minister to have greater flexibility to vary the timing of a simulcast period relating to a metropolitan or regional area, so that the variation may be more than three months earlier or later than the period originally specified, provided that the date determined as the end of the simulcast period is before 31 December 2013. The minister will also have greater flexibility to vary the timing of when a local market area becomes a ‘digital-only’ local market area, so that the variation may be more than three months earlier or later than the time originally specified.

This bill has been prepared in accordance with part 3 of the Human Rights (Parlia­mentary Scrutiny) Act 2011, which refers to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which Australia is a signatory to. This bill engages the right of freedom of expression and the right to take part in cultural life. The Human Rights (Parlia­mentary Scrutiny) Act 2011 also makes reference to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and this bill meets Australia’s obligation.

The amendments made by this bill will not result in any direct financial impact on the government. It is important that this bill be passed in this session of parliament as failure to do so will delay earlier access to VAST services for some viewers in digital television black spots in Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney as well as in Hobart in my home state of Tasmania. It will also prevent the minister from varying the switch-over dates in metropolitan licence areas. We need to ensure that switch-over occurs progressively throughout the year, and that the switch-over dates are varied in time to provide certainty to both viewers and the broadcasting industry.

On 19 June 2012, Minister Conroy announced further details about the auction of spectrum that delivers the ‘digital dividend’. This will take place in April 2013. The date has been decided as a result of the expert advice provided by the Australian Media and Communications Authority. The advice of the ACMA is that an April 2013 auction will maximise product certainty for bidders prior to the auction. Further to this, new licensees will have adequate lead time to plan and deploy networks before their licences commence.

The digital dividend auction includes spectrum in the 700 megahertz band as well as spectrum in the 2.5 gigahertz band. This spectrum will become available mainly as a result of the switch to digital-only television broadcasting by the end of 2013. A number of digital TV services will then need to be moved to new channels or restacked before the 700 megahertz digital dividend spectrum can be made available to successful bidders.

The release of television spectrum is one of the significant benefits to occur from the digital switch-over process. The sale of this spectrum is a unique opportunity to clear the way for next generation mobile broadband services in Australia, such as 4G mobile services. The Gillard government committed $143.2 million in the 2012-13 budget to ensure that the spectrum is released in a timely fashion and so that viewers experience minimal disruption. The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy is working with the ACMA and the broadcasting industry to implement the restack.

The government expects that this reorganisation of affected digital TV services will be completed by the end of 2014. The government has appointed Broadcast Australia to develop an indicative nationwide restack timetable, in consultation with industry and the ACMA, by July 2012, with a more detailed timetable to be delivered in November. The ACMA will then complete television licence area plans containing restack windows that are consistent with these dates before proceeding to the auction. A project and implementation manager will work with broadcasters to ensure the reorganisation of affected digital TV services starts as soon as possible. Funding has also been provided to ensure that consumers are well informed about any changes in their local area and the impact those changes will have on them.

I note that the House of Representatives passed this bill on 30 May 2012, and I hope that the Senate will join the other place in voting in favour of the government’s proposed legislation. A Senate vote in favour of this bill will ensure that the rest of the transition process goes as smoothly as possible. I commend the bill to the Senate.