Ever since its inception in 1996, we have consistently maintained that the government’s digital TV policy, which includes datacasting, is flawed.
Digital TV has very little to do with traditional TV – it is another access technology with a capacity for a full range of new media services. Notwithstanding this, the government heeded the advice of former ABA boss, Peter Webb, and provided the broadcasters, not only with free spectrum for digital TV (valued by us at around $800 million), but also with a 10-year monopoly on all services that could be developed around this technology.
Unfortunately, in 1996 few people understood the potential impact of this course of action, and the government did not encounter much opposition when, led by its Communications Minister, it introduced one of the most undemocratic media policies ever implemented.
Universal condemnation of the policy ensued. From the World Economic Forum down to the local industry it was seen as a device to protect the profits of media barons like Kerry Packer. The policy is basically a lockout under the guise of competition. You have to be a politician to come up with something like this! There is no evidence to indicate that the government had the interests of the country at heart.
At no stage did the free-to-air broadcasters seriously intend to implement an aggressive digital TV strategy. Their only objective was to protect their vested interests in commercial TV. Digital TV, which was originally based on High Definition TV (HDTV), would have required all the available spectrum to be set aside for digital TV, making it impossible for others to take part in the industry. With a 10-year monopoly, Australia’s richest man would get a further licence to print money and the rest of Australia would pay the price.
As an example, digital TV could offer TV users in rural and regional Australia a new platform for video-based interactive service, very much like the Internet. This would be a welcome alternative to the poor quality telephone lines that are now used to access the Internet. Furthermore, interactive TV and multi-channelling (different camera angles during sporting matches, simultaneous games on different channels, delayed news bulletins, etc) would all become available to TV viewers.
However the government completely ignored these opportunities and forged ahead with what has been described as the most complex and unworkable TV policy in the world. In the end it cut digital TV into segments and invented separate rules and regulations for each of these segments (datacasting, television, multichannelling). With every attempt to ‘fine-tune’ its policy the government dug itself deeper and deeper into the digital TV hole.
Nevertheless the Minister stubbornly persisted in talking up digital TV. As recently as early 2001, he issued a statement that he would increase competition in datacasting through his ‘fabulous’ licensing policy, in spite of the fact that the industry had clearly indicated that his regime offered little or no opportunities for viable datacasting services in Australia.
Finally, after a 4-year battle, the government had to admit defeat – a waste of four years for Australians eager to participate in the global developments of the information highways and for an industry robbed of business opportunities to develop Australian-based products and services.
If the government had been serious about its policy, it would have recognised that the only way to protect competition is to allow it in the first place. The only way out of the mess is a total reversal of the policy; however there appears to be very little chance of this. The criticism that the government has received from all quarters has made little or no impact. Convinced that their datacasting policy was not going to be an election issue, they felt secure in continuing to protect the interests of a handful of very rich and powerful individuals.
It is unlikely that the current government will initiate a total overhaul of its digital TV policy. Unfortunately, a new government will probably feel compelled to launch an investigation, which means it could be 2003 before any action is taken. This, of course, is exactly what the broadcasters would like to see – more delay.
An unhappy state of affairs for Australians and for Australian media policies.
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