Regional Australia is the biggest loser from legislation to limit competition in the digital television spectrum. It allows the three commercial broadcasters to retain control of what you watch on TV to 2008. New players are prevented from delivering cheap Internet services to home television sets. The impact on regional Australians still grappling with poor bandwidth on the copper wire network is severe. You have been denied a second Internet platform and access to the information and knowledge economy.
What is this deal, how was it done and why were our rural lobby groups so quiet about it? In this article we assess the true impact of data-casting legislation on regional Australia.
By Claire Braund
People living in regional Australia will miss out on cheap unlimited Internet access through their television sets under new Government legislation. The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television and Data-casting) Bill prevents data-casting, the delivery of Internet through home television sets, in the digital part of the spectrum. The legislation passed through Parliament in June with the support of Labor and the Democrats.
Digital television is a cheap, effective way of delivering Internet services to country areas suffering from bandwidth problems and lack of competition to Telstra. Using digital technology, information to display the picture and play the sounds is compressed into smaller packages that do not require as much capacity to transmit. This opens up the possibility of sending four channels out where one currently exists. Many in the industry believe that this would have created a second, vital Internet platform for regional Australia.
Instead of being opened up to competition the spectrum will now be used by the existing free-to-air operators, Channels Seven, Nine and Ten, the ABC and SBS, to transmit analogue television and 20 hours per week of High Definition Television (HDTV) until 2008.
HDTV was mandated in 1998 in a deal between the Government and Kerry Packer. While it delivers an excellent picture to those with the thousands of dollars to buy the necessary equipment, HDTV is a bandwidth hungry white elephant that has been used as a convenient excuse to support a monopoly on broadcast licences. This cost to the taxpayer of allowing the existing TV networks to keep control of the 21MHz of digital spectrum is approximately $3billion.
People living in regional Australia, who do not have access to high-speed Internet connections, are largely tied to the Government owned Telstra. Increased competition would have given Australian consumers access to affordable high-speed, interactive information and entertainment products. Data-casters would have been able to stream audio and video through a data-casting service over the broadcasting bands. In layman’s terms we would have been able to get the Internet on our televisions. It follows that this would have led to packages of free-to-air TV, multi-channelling, pay TV and Internet services to be offered to regional customers by competing telecommunications providers for a monthly fee. It was feasible that subscribers to this service would have been provided with a set-top box or a new digital television, in order to ‘buy’ their loyalty.
What the players say:
The legislation has been heavily criticised by media, Internet and consumer groups as protective, backward and harmful to the development of digital technology in Australia.
Telecommunications Consultant, Paul Budde, said digital television is more important to people living in regional areas as they do not have access to options available to urban consumers, such as cable TV. Mr Budde also points out that the digital part of the spectrum is the only area where the Government is regulating technology. In the wireless, cable and satellite parts of the spectrum, the Government regulates content rather than technology. Video and audio can be streamed over all of these other networks. This is creating an artificial distinction between access technologies. For example broadcasting technologies can’t be used to access the Internet, but telecommunications, cable TV and satellite networks can.
The Australian Consumers Association CHOICE, believes that the legislation is likely to stifle potential technological opportunities for Australian consumers. Potential data-casters, News Ltd and Fairfax maintain that in regulating the digital spectrum the Government is preventing people living in regional areas and low income earners from receiving the Internet through a set-top box on their television. (50% of the Australian population do not have a PC and a large proportion of them will never have one. Almost all of them however, have a TV.)
News Ltd has said that "If they’re not stopped Alston’s ‘datacasting’ laws will widen the divide between the information-rich in the city with their high speed cables and the information-poor in the regions with no viable bandwidth options."
The Government’s own Productivity Commission basically advised against all of the elements that the government has legislated. For close to a year the Commission received submissions from across Australia, but none of the recommendations from this very broad-based inquiry have been implemented.
Rural lobby groups, such as the National Farmers Federation, the state farm bodies and local government, have been virtually silent on the legislation.
Reasons for this could include:
- A lack of understanding of what is a highly complex issue;
- The timing of the legislation (it was brought in just before the GST); and
- Lack of cooperation and coordination with Internet groups and data-casters.
Another reason may be an unwillingness to upset a Government that has been and is keen to continue, throwing money at rural and regional Australia. With funds such as Networking the Nation ($400m), Advancing Australia ($525m), the Natural Heritage Trust ($1.5bil) and others, the perception may be that this is worth more to regional Australia than opening up the $3bil digital TV spectrum. Frustrated Internet users in regional Australia may not agree.
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