SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (17:09): I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Dividend and Other Measures) Bill 2011. This bill has two main components, one being to effect a reorganisation of digital television channels to realise what is commonly referred to as the ‘digital dividend’, and the second being to deal with amendments to the regulatory framework which provide free-to-air television via the new VAST satellite service as part of the digital television switchover. The switch to digital-only television will make the present spectrum used for television in the analog space in the frequency ranges between 694 and 820 megahertz available for other uses. Beyond that is a capacity and opportunity to restack the spectrum used in the digital space, further making capacity available.

Spectrum is of course a valuable commodity, and I expect significant competition for this spectrum including from providers of superfast broadband, which we all know is increasingly the internet platform of choice for many Australians. This will of course provide a windfall of sorts to the government when that spectrum is allocated, auctioned or otherwise disposed of. I wish that I could say I have confidence that when this government receives windfall gains such as from the sale of spectrum it knows how to use the money wisely. However, I can but hope-given its history in pink batts, school halls or other areas-that there is a change of government in place by the time the dividend in financial terms to government from this spectrum reallocation is made available.

To enable this digital dividend, a more efficient organisation of broadcasting services spectrum is required, which will be overseen by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, otherwise known as ACMA, through a process, as I mentioned, known as restacking. This reorganisation requires amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act and Radiocommunications Act, which are presented in this bill. The coalition recognises the need to provide ACMA with the regulatory changes it needs to complete the restacking process effectively. However, as coalition senators outlined in their additional comments to the report of the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Dividend and Other Measures) Bill 2011 inquiry, the coalition does have some concerns in relation to the realignment of the broadcast licence areas. Before I move onto those concerns, I place on record my thanks to the members of that committee for their work in that inquiry and, of course, to the committee secretariat as always.

The concerns raised by coalition senators in particular highlight the power that the amendments in this bill provide to the minister to direct ACMA to make or vary television licence area plans. These licence area plans, of course, set the boundaries into which different television broadcasters operate. While it is likely that there will be some change to licence areas, it appears the powers provided by these amendments offer, to some degree, free rein to the minister and ACMA in terms of those boundary changes, with few restrictions put in place. While I would not expect ACMA to just draw random maps for the sake of it, this is still a concern in terms of the lack of boundary and direction provided for in the bill. I also note that ACMA could allocate additional licences in some broadcast areas, potentially to significant industry players, which of course would come with a detrimental effect on existing broadcasters. In fact, in the Senate inquiry, the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy testified that the bills contained:

… no express prohibition on ACMA allotting broadcasting spectrum in whatever way it sees fit.

Of course, these are important issues, and local stations with local programming content and local advertising provide a great community benefit and help to foster strong, vibrant regions. They are good for regional business, good for regional people and good for regional communities as a whole. While the legislation and these amendments that provide for this capacity may all be of good intention, sometimes good intentions go astray and there is nothing wrong, of course, with taking a precautionary approach in relation to such amendments. On this basis, I would invite the minister to provide some response to those issues raised by coalition senators and to provide some comfort in regard to the overall capacity of the minister and ACMA to exercise these powers in relation to the boundaries and the allotting of broadcasting spectrum.

Prior to the finalisation of the restacking exercise and to achieving the entire dividend, critically related to this is the switch-over itself-the switch-over from the analog signal to the digital signal, which has already taken place in parts of my home state of South Australia as well as parts of Victoria and Broken Hill. It is quite clear that the planning for the switch-over and preparation for it has–certainly in my experience dealing with parts of regional South Australia–been somewhat lacking. Hundreds if not thousands of people in the regional switchover area in SA are experiencing problems. They have contacted my office; I have spoken to them through media outlets and received their calls in many, many cases. We have written on many, many occasions detailing dozens and dozens and dozens of particular examples-and I am sure there are many more for all those who have contacted my office-in regard to problems people are having with the switch-over. Many of these problems remain and we are still getting new calls and inquiries some six months after the analog signal was switched off in parts of regional South Australia.

Unfortunately, the government seems to have failed to provide sufficient information to many households about how their antennas are set up and what things are needed for the switchover other than just getting the technology of a box or a new television in place. This failure has left them with poor or no television reception. In other cases there are technical reasons for why people are not getting the quality of television service that they previously enjoyed under the analog system. While Senator Conroy is well aware of my concerns in this area, I hope he is aware that these concerns are shared by many of my coalition colleagues, especially surrounding the preparation of further communities for the switch-over in regional areas. There is a real concern in many communities that not all current analog terrestrial transmission sites will be replaced with digital terrestrial transmission facilities. This, of course, will mean that many people who currently receive a terrestrial signal will have to switch to the VAST satellite service.

The government’s VAST satellite service program-to cost some $375 million over 12 years-replaces community funding models which allow communities to invest in self-help transmission or retransmission services that allowed them to access terrestrial facilities. The minister ought to be aware, and others have made these points, that of the 680 current self-help sites it is estimated that around 570 will not be upgraded to provide for digital retransmission. This will affect hundreds of communities in regional Australia and will see some 127,000 households move from a terrestrial television service to a satellite television service, losing the local connections and content which, as I highlighted earlier, are so significant and important for many regional communities. With another budget to come this evening-another budget, no doubt, of further waste and incompetence on the government’s part-you would think that Senator Conroy and the government might have paid some attention, and I can live in the hope that perhaps they have, to the views and submissions of the Local Government Association of Queensland, which stated in its submission to the exposure draft of this bill:

converting many if not most existing analogue self-help transmission sites to digital is a more convenient and cost effective way to approach a conversion to digital TV .

Indeed, moving from terrestrial to satellite television will not be a cheap exercise for taxpayers, households or, in particular, for many small businesses-especially for retirement homes, motels and caravan parks. Last week I was in Georgetown, in Northern Queensland, where the motel owners expressed their concerns about the expense of changing over from a terrestrial service that they currently have on a self-help basis to a satellite service that will cost them greatly to transform every room in their motel. With no subsidy scheme for businesses, unlike for households, there is a real question for people like the motel in Georgetown as to how such businesses are to provide television services and, in doing so, fund the considerable cost of the new satellite equipment. Many simply will not be able to afford the expense or will see it as another hit to the bottom line, especially in the tourism industry, as well as for all those other small businesses.

There is an alternative that others have outlined, and that is that the government should move to allow communities to pool their VAST subsidies to pay for upgrades to their existing retransmission sites to a digital retransmission service. This would be a sensible win-win outcome for communities who would get to keep a terrestrial service and in many cases for many taxpayers who would actually save on cost. For instance, in Normanton, also in Queensland, some 552 households will be eligible for the $700 Satellite Subsidy Scheme, which, in addition to the householder co-payment of between $200 and $350, could total up to $600,000 in costs for Normanton households to access the VAST satellite system. Meanwhile, the minister himself has stated that setting up a digital terrestrial facility to retransmit all of the VAST channels would cost between $110,000 and $270,000. I think we can see in this example that there are opportunities to save money in relation to this switchover from the types of programs the government has proposed.

Also, on the total cost for households, it is likely that in many instances the $200 to $350 co-payment ,which applies to upgrading only one household appliance, will not be enough given that we know many households have multiple televisions as well as recording devices, so this will be a considerable cost to households in those communities as well. Keeping a terrestrial signal in place wherever possible is simply good for communities, good for small businesses and good for tourism operators in particular. It is unfortunate that the government is not taking this approach and I would again urge the minister and the government more generally to reconsider and to look at ensuring, wherever possible, that it does support the maintenance of terrestrial facilities.

Communities are not just concerned about the cost of the switch-over; many are also worried about the time they have to prepare. Broadcasters who have undertaken to convert existing analog transmission facilities to digital are required to do so six months before the switch-over date in any particular given region. This is to ensure that households have enough time to ensure that their digital reception equipment is working correctly. Without this time, many people are left with no TV services when the analog signal switches off. Indeed, my office has received calls from many people who, following the switch-off of the analog signal in South Australia, were left with no signal and felt they had little information about what to do to upgrade and in some instances had not had access to a digital signal so far in advance. In fact, the six-month rule was not observed in South Australia or in Mildura, and I would hope the government does ensure in future that it is observed in all switch-over areas in all cases. The six-month opportunity for people is important if they are to ensure that all of their equipment is working correctly before the switch-off occurs. It is simply not good enough and, as I indicated before, my office is still receiving many, many calls from South Australians receiving poor reception who really could have done with extra time to ensure their equipment was working before the switch-over.

The coalition does recognise the need for the switch-over to digital-only television and we recognise this bill’s role in this process. We do, however, implore the government to look at some of the measures I have outlined today that would enable more people to receive a terrestrial signal, would save taxpayer dollars and would ensure that people could continue to receive the terrestrial signal as well as ensure that those matters that have been debated in this place previously, such as the six-month rule for the switch-over, are maintained and observed by the broadcasters and by the government in the setting of the switch-over dates.

The coalition also recognises the importance of local content wherever possible, and this is another reason why the opportunities of terrestrial services should be maintained. Overall we do not oppose this bill. We do recognise that it provides the necessary framework measures, particularly to achieve the financial dividend for taxpayers and the benefits of the spectrum becoming available for new technologies and new uses and to ensure that we get out of that public good of spectrum the best available return for all Australians in an economic sense, in a social dividend sense and also for taxpayers. We would urge the government, in relation both to how it manages that process and in particular to how it continues in managing the digital switch-over, to heed some of the concerns, to look for opportunities for cost saving and to show us that it is up to managing this process effectively into the future.