We have a proud record of free-to-air terrestrial television broadcasting in Australia. From its inception in the mid 1950s, through the introduction of colour television in 1975, we have built a world class free-to-air system with both publicly funded and commercial broadcasters, with a substantial proportion of quality Australian content.

However, as we approach the new Millennium, we stand on the threshold of new and exciting broadcasting opportunities. The era of digital broadcasting has arrived, in which television becomes part of the digital revolution which is sweeping every aspect of our society.

The digital television era provides a quantum leap in television technology. Viewers will have the option of viewing high definition pictures of startling clarity, and with CD quality surround sound.

But digital broadcasting offers much more than just better pictures and sound. It provides the capacity for the humble television set to become a central information point in every home. Users will no longer be limited to looking passively at a box in the corner of the house. Digital transmissions will enable a host of new information services, including interactive services, to be provided along with the main television programming.

This Government is committed to ensuring that all Australians are able enjoy the benefits of digital free-to-air broadcasting as we move into the next century.

To achieve this we need to ensure that broadcasters have clear sign posts along the road to digital television, and are able to embark on the risky conversion process with a degree of certainty about Government policy.

The Television Broadcasting Services (Digital Conversion) Bill takes the first steps towards this objective by setting in place the basic framework for the conversion of free-to-air terrestrial commercial and national broadcasters.

The Bill amends certain provisions of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, and the Radiocommunications Act 1992, and introduces a new Schedule 4 to the Broadcasting Services Act dealing with digital television broadcasting.

The mechanism by which the digital conversion process will be implemented for broadcasters is through the formulation of television conversion schemes by the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA), which must meet certain Government objectives as set out in the Bill.

Under the scheme, commercial broadcasters will be required to submit to the ABA, for approval, implementation plans. National broadcasters are to submit such plans to the Minister.

This approach has been adopted to ensure that the Government's objectives are clearly enshrined in the Bill, but at the same time the ABA has some degree of flexibility in the administration of the fine detail of the provisions, given that digital broadcasting is still a new and developing science.

The Bill provides for the allocation of additional television channels to free-to-air broadcasters, so that they can commence delivery of digital terrestrial television services. This is achieved by requiring transmitter licences to be issued for digital television broadcasts, through consequent amendments to the Radiocommunications Act 1992. It is intended that these licences be issued free of charge having regard to the high initial costs that free-to-air television broadcasters will be required to meet in relation to digital conversion and simulcasting.

Digital broadcasts will commence on 1 January 2001 in metropolitan areas and from that date in regional areas, such that all areas have digital services by 1 January 2004. Broadcasters who do not meet these targets will be required to surrender their transmitter licences unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Broadcasters will be required to simulcast the same programs in both the new digital channel and their current analog channel, for a period of at least 8 years from the commencement date.

At the end of the simulcast period, the spectrum used for analog transmissions will be returned to the Commonwealth, and will be available for re-allocation for specified purposes through a price-based mechanism.

To ensure that broadcasters primarily focus on providing high quality television services using the available transmission capacity, they will be required to transmit a specified minimum proportion of high definition television.

Commercial broadcasters will not be allowed to provide multiple separate channels of programs, or subscription television services. However they will be able to provide limited enhanced programming. A review will be held as to whether the ABC and SBS will be able to offer multichannelling for non commercial programs which are consistent with their Charters.

The Government will identify unused television channels, which are not needed for the transition to digital broadcasting, and make these available for allocation for datacasting services on a competitive basis. Broadcasters - both national and commercial - will not be able to apply for these channels, but will be able to use any excess transmission capacity in their digital channels for datacasting services.

However, they will pay a charge for doing so, set at a value which ensures a level playing field between broadcasters and datacasters. This charge is the subject of the Datacasting Charge (Imposition) Act 1988.

No new commercial television broadcasting licences will be allowed before 2008, and whether new licences should be allocated after that date will be the subject of a review in 2005.

The needs of regional Australia have not been forgotten. In addition to the provision of additional time for the start up period, the Government will also review whether any amendments should be made to laws to ensure that underserved regional areas (that is, areas with fewer than three commercial services) are provided with the same number of television services as metropolitan areas.

The Government will also continue to support community broadcasters and will facilitate the transmission of community television broadcast services, free of charge, in conjunction with datacasting services.

The Bill also provides for closed captioning standards to be set in regulations, and the Government's intention is that appropriate prime time services, and non-prime time news and current affairs, should be captioned.

The Bill establishes an access regime for access to transmission towers for the location of transmitters, or the sites on which such towers are located. However, the Government recognises that access to transmission facilities may not always be possible for technical reasons, and thus the ABA will have the power to issue a certificate exempting a tower or site owner from complying where such access is not technically feasible.

This Bill shows once again the willingness of this Government to take the lead in the global communications revolution. It provides a framework which will enable commercial and national free-to-air broadcasters to embark confidently in building the next generation of television services, which will be an important plank in Australia's development as an information economy.

Australians have always been confident users of new technology. Only five years after television was first introduced in Sydney and Melbourne, around three quarters of homes in these cities had television sets. More recently, we have witnessed the phenomenal growth in the use of technologies such as mobile phones and computers. I have no doubt that Australians will embrace the digital revolution in television with equal fervour.

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