SONYA FELDHOFF: If you live in a regional area, as you’d be aware, coming up in the next couple of years there is going to be a big switch to digital TV and we’re gearing up for that and many people are being helped out with that switch but there are concerns starting to be raised about a number of tourism operators across South Australia, anywhere from Kingscote, Kimba, Wudinna, Streaky Bay, Marion Bay, Elliston, Hawker, Woomera, Leigh Creek and Andamooka – all areas where this digital switch could be costing local tourism operators a stack more than they were hoping. They’ll be forking out big bucks if this is true. The concerns have been raised by Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia, and we’ll speak with him in just a moment, but if you are one of those people who’s going to be affected, if you’ve been looking at some of the costs associated with that, we’d love to hear from you. 1300 222 891 is the phone number. You can also text us on 0467 922 891. Not only how are you going to be affected but how do you feel about this? Love to hear from you. As I said, Liberal Senator for South Australia Simon Birmingham has raised these concerns. He’s my guest on the program now. Good to you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon, Sonya. Good afternoon to your listeners.
SONYA FELDHOFF: Now, what is it exactly that these people are going to have to fork out money for?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Sonya, these are very particular examples of situations around South Australia. What’s happened is, already, for most of the major regional centres of SA, digital switchover has occurred and that’s fine in those instances because in most of those areas the television stations themselves have upgraded and switched over the towers and so that all you’ve had to do in your own home is, of course, make sure that your television set is digital ready – that you’ve got a set top box or a digital compliant television set – but for the towns you’ve mentioned – the places like Wudinna and Streaky Bay and Marion Bay and Kingscote and Kimba and the like – these are places where the tower won’t be switched over and they will have to switch on to getting a satellite signal instead of a standard terrestrial signal…
SONYA FELDHOFF: Why won’t the tower be converted?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Because in these instances they’re what’s known as self-help towers, so the communities themselves, often with a bit of government support along the way, have paid for their own local tower to be in place, so…
SONYA FELDHOFF: So it’s almost like a community tower, is it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It is a community tower, essentially, and it’s often… the ongoing maintenance costs are usually met by the local council or the community by other means and they’ve put them in place and, of course, they don’t have the funds available to them to change those towers over. The television stations don’t own the towers – they’re not about to do it – and what the Federal Government has said is instead of changing over those towers, these communities are going to be offered a satellite service instead. Now, for individual households, they get a subsidy to connect to the satellite service but businesses don’t and so if you’re a tourism operator… and The Advertiser today features the Gawler Ranges Motel at Wudinna… 35 rooms in their motel, about $750 per room to switch over to getting a satellite signal and connection, it could potentially cost them about $26,000 to keep television services going into their motel rooms.
SONYA FELDHOFF: Now, these are places where people from Adelaide also would go to holiday possibly – they may be passing through – but they’re services that are going to affect some regional people but also those from the city as well, if they’re travelling?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, that’s right, Sonya. It will particularly affect, of course, holiday makers and you’re not just talking about motels or hotels. Caravan parks with cabins on site and so on often offer television services, of course, nowadays and so a lot of, especially, tourism operators will be hit and my concern, and I’ve been considering this in the Senate for quite some time and it was the Gawler Ranges Motel got in touch with me and my office and that gave a good example for what the costs will be. My concern is that it could be fixed if there were a little more flexibility available because in many of these areas, of course, hundreds of households will often access the Government subsidy that’s available and if only the Government allowed them to pool that subsidy together in the local community, these towers could, in fact, be upgraded and then everybody, including these businesses and tourism operators, could get the benefit of a terrestrial signal and not have to switch over to the satellite service.
SONYA FELDHOFF: Simon Birmingham, do you estimate that that pooling of money may not cost a lot more than what is already being handed out?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: In many instances it seems as if it could manage to cover the cost of changing the tower over and, even where it couldn’t, it would often get a long way towards it and I suspect then you’d have local councils or the like looking to be willing to meet that gap. Certainly I’ve had councils say to me they are happy to cover the ongoing maintenance costs… they’re happy to cover the electricity costs and so on that come with it… they just, of course, need, a bit of help with the start up costs, with the capital costs of switching the tower over and, of course, the taxpayer is already putting a lot of money into these satellite connections that could be diverted instead, with a little more flexibility from the Government, into providing a switchover of tower instead.
SONYA FELDHOFF: I’m speaking with Liberal Senator for South Australia Simon Birmingham. We’re talking about areas like Kingscote, Kimba, Wudinna, Streaky Bay, Marion Bay, Elliston, Hawker, Woomera, Leigh Creek and Andamooka – all regions that won’t have their transmission towers upgraded because they’re essentially community towers. If you’re a business or a person who is likely to be affected by this, we’d love to hear from you. Give us a ring, 1300 222 891. You can also text us on 0467 922 891. Simon Birmingham, do you think this is just an oversight of the new laws or is there a sort of a deliberate policy here on excluding these towers?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It seems that this must be a deliberate policy because it is an issue that’s been raised many times over. Some various remote parts of Queensland have already switched over and these issues were pursued extensively during Senate Estimates and Senator Conroy, the Labor Minister for Communications defended these arrangements. He doesn’t think the pooling should be allowed. He argues that it’s more efficient to switch the people over to satellite services when it, of course, has less ongoing costs to the community and it is right that it has fewer ongoing costs to the community but communities also lose the sense of community that comes with getting a local service because, of course, the satellite service is uniform across Australia so no longer will the communities like, say, Wudinna or Kimba receive adverts that might link them into what’s happening on the West Coast. No longer will they have those community announcements of what’s happening on the West Coast. It becomes a more generic, standardised service and that’s a real problem for those communities as well as, of course, the costs for local businesses and I think it’s a failure to understand the importance both of minimising the costs to business and of keeping a community sentiment intact and those community linkages intact.
SONYA FELDHOFF: Is it just these communities, Simon Birmingham, because we’ve had a texter saying ‘how about the case of Truro – no subsidy there?’
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Truro, indeed, is one that I have also highlighted. Truro is, of course, a remarkable example, just an hour or so from Adelaide, so it in fact currently has a self-help tower that retransmits the station into Truro. I’ve had Simon Royal, your colleague from 7.30 SA up there a couple of months ago highlighting the particular case of Truro but it’s the same issue as these remote communities as well, where the tower won’t be switched over and so you’ll have a remarkably unusual situation for a town so close to Adelaide… will be getting a satellite television signal because they can’t pick it up any other way.
SONYA FELDHOFF: But, Simon Birmingham, why have they had to have these community-type transmission towers in the first place? Why isn’t the Government providing transmission towers that broadcast to all areas?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, previous governments have supported communities in taking up the opportunity to get these retransmission towers so the towers themselves, the main towers, are not owned by government. They’re owned by the television networks, so the television networks themselves are the ones who have installed them to broadcast to the major metro areas and to the major centres and, of course, they’re the ones who are paying the cost of upgrading it. Previous governments – and the Howard Government did a lot of this – paid money out to help regional communities who wanted to get a television signal into their community to build a tower on the basis that those communities would then fund the maintenance of that tower and that was something that many communities across Australia took advantage of and, unfortunately, they’re now looking and staring down the barrel of these towers becoming redundant.
SONYA FELDHOFF: One of our texters also says Cudlee Creek also has a community tower. Brad asks Simon Birmingham can’t the analogue signal be kept going? I think that’s a definite ‘no’ to that one, isn’t it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Now, look, eventually not because, in the end, the benefits of switching over to digital are real in terms of the consumer benefits of people getting more channels and a greater diversity of service but it also will ultimately allow for the spectrum – that thing we can’t see but the thing that transmits the signal that everyone’s listening to us over as well, Sonya – that will allow that to be ‘restacked’ as such and used more efficiently so, ultimately, the analogue spectrum that is used will go back into being used for other telecommunication services and with the growth of iPads and digital devices there’s awful demand on that spectrum so it’s important to get to a point of this switchover happening but it’s important it happens in as fair and coordinated a way as possible where people don’t miss out and don’t find they have massive costs like many small business are facing.
SONYA FELDHOFF: Speaking to Liberal Senator for South Australia Simon Birmingham. We also put in a call to Senator Stephen Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. He wasn’t available to speak with us today but we’re hoping to speak with him later in the week on this issue but let’s go to your calls now. Out at Aberfoyle Park… hello, Neil.
CALLER, NEIL: Oh, hello. I’m just wondering why Kingscote’s being included in this because there’s a rock solid digital signal from Mount Lofty in Kingscote and a lot of the north coast of Kangaroo Island.
SONYA FELDHOFF: Simon Birmingham, do you know the answer to that one?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’m advised that there’s a self-help tower there on the island but certainly, of course, if you can pick up a strong digital signal from Adelaide then happy days because you should still be able to do that afterwards so that’s good news, at least there for people in Kingscote but it may not be the case across the island.
SONYA FELDHOFF: Yes, indeed, it may be just in Kingscote there. Thank you for your time, Neil. Let’s go to Valley View now. Hi, Grant.
CALLER, NEIL: Hello, how are you?
CALLER, NEIL: I’m a bit disturbed by what I’m hearing because, you know, the whole reason years ago the Government set up the ABC and, you know, put it into law in the charter was to provide a service to every Australian regardless of where they were living, you know, first in radio and then in television, and it sounds like that that’s no longer the case – they’re not interested in giving everybody, particularly people in remote areas, the service. Am I right or am I mishearing?
SONYA FELDHOFF: Well, I think they’re guaranteeing a service but it’s a satellite one which then will come at a cost and I think that’s the issue here. Simon Birmingham, have I got that right?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s right, Sonya. Look, every household will still have the opportunity to have a service into it. They’ll just have to have a satellite connection on their household and the Government, for individual households, is providing a subsidy in those communities where the terrestrial tower is being switched off to allow them to get those satellite facilities there on individual households so households will still be slightly out of pocket but businesses will be significantly out of pocket where they’ve got multiple sets to change over because they’re offering motel or hotel or caravan park-type facilities.
SONYA FELDHOFF: Well, thanks for your call, Grant. Out at Peterborough… hello, Paul.
CALLER, PAUL: G’day. I’ve got a question to ask, if I can really into this stage, but up here in Peterborough, our system… every individual house is different if you get what I mean, but what I really want to know is why have we got to sit there while all the adverts are on and listen to three minutes of music showing us the eastern states every advert break?
SONYA FELDHOFF: So you’re getting eastern states ads through your satellite connection?
CALLER, PAUL: No, no, this is since the digital started. I’ve just come back from Adelaide and you don’t have it down there but imagine, like, you’re watching the TV and every advert break that comes on, you know, we’re all used to them, but we get maybe one or two adverts, then we get three minutes of this showing us eastern states, showing us a tree or a waterfall or everything else and then we get another couple of adverts and then it goes back to whatever program is and you’ve usually forgotten what you were watching by then!
SONYA FELDHOFF: Look, I don’t know how technical Simon Birmingham is on this one but can you help Paul out on that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’m not sure I can help Paul on that one. As I said before, local communities are going to miss getting their local ads in some instances here and, although none of us like necessarily watching ads and that’s why we all love our ABC, of course, Sonya…
SONYA FELDHOFF: We may as well have our own ads, though, if we’re going to watch them, hey?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s right. If you’re going to have ads, you’d rather have ones for your local shop than places you’re never going to get to.
SONYA FELDHOFF: Alright, well, I’m not sure whether these questions all perhaps relate to questions you may not be able to answer but we’ll see… let’s run through them and see if we can tackle them. Out at Cudlee Creek… hi, Jeffrey.
CALLER, JEFFREY: Hello, Sonya. You don’t have to go to the east coast or other areas of South Australia to have a problem with satellite television. We’re at Cudlee Creek which is 35 minutes from the city. There are some areas of Cudlee Creek which do get the digital television but there are many areas that don’t because of the terrain of the hills… the hills around. Now, quite a few years ago a tower was established at Cudlee Creek. It transmits an analogue signal. It cost about $400,000, I believe. I think it was about 15 years ago but it meant that everybody could get television. That tower’s going to be closed down at the end of next year. According to the Government, Cudlee Creek is well and truly satisfied with digital television but it’s not. Now, they’re saying ‘alright, well, there may be some areas that don’t get it so you’ll get what they call Viewer Access Satellite Television. It’s a satellite TV. It would cost $75,000 to make the Cudlee Creek tower accessible to digital television but they’re not going to do that. They won’t do it. They say that they’ve given the commercial channels rebates on their licence fees to do upgrades and maintenance on the television channels…
SONYA FELDHOFF: Alright, Jeffrey. Okay, well, we get your point. Thank you very much for giving us a call. Let’s get to Gary in Orroroo. Hi, Gary.
CALLER, GARY: Hi, how are you?
SONYA FELDHOFF: Yeah, now, you’ve got a terrible signal there, too, you reckon?
CALLER, GARY: Oh, look, we’ve had to change over, I think it was the 15th of December, not last year but the year before, I think it was, and the reception that we get is absolute rubbish. The ABC is actually the worst and I rang up the ABC at Ultimo in New South Wales, at their head office, and I spoke to some lady and she said to me ‘well, there’s nothing we can do until we get at least three people complain about it’. Now, we’re out in the middle of nowhere and where am I supposed to get three people? Am I supposed to go around to my neighbours and say ‘oh, how’s your reception?’
SONYA FELDHOFF: Do a ring around? Yeah, well, Gary, look, I’m sorry to hear that. Just… let’s go back and finish up with Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia. Obviously people are having concerns with their reception and various digital issues but the concern you’re raising is particularly about the cost to some small businesses in our regional areas, Simon?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, that’s right, Sonya. Look, for people like Gary from Orroroo and others in especially the regional centres of SA and the like who have already had the switchover occur, if you’ve got signal problems please feel free to get in touch with my office. You can give us a buzz on 8354 1644 and we will try to take those up with both the Government and the television networks but my real concern on this one is that a simple change to Government policy for a bit of extra flexibility could fix problems, whether they are in Cudlee Creek or Wudinna, that would allow communities to upgrade these towers themselves and spare these small businesses significant costs in the process.
SONYA FELDHOFF: Thank you for your time today. Simon Birmingham is the Liberal Senator for South Australia and, that number again, 8354 1644 if you’d like those problems addressed.