Digital - A New Era in Television Broadcasting

Australians will be able to tune into the exciting world of digital television from 1 January 2001 as a result of ground-breaking reforms announced today by the Minister for Communications, the Information Economy and the Arts, Senator Richard Alston.

'With digital television heralding an exciting new era in communications, these reforms will ensure that Australia is at the forefront of global developments," Senator Alston said.

'Today's announcement means that Australians will experience in their own lounge rooms the cinema picture quality and surround sound of High Definition Television (HDTV).

'Commercial and national free-to-air broadcasters (FTAs) will be required to commence digital terrestrial television broadcasting (DTTB) in metropolitan areas by 1 January 2001 and in regional areas from that date onwards so that all areas have DTTB by 1 January 2004.

'DTTB will enable Australians to access a wide array of new and enhanced programming and datacasting services such as viewer-initiated multiple views of sporting events, advanced information services which are linked to television programs, and direct terrestrial television access to material provided via the Internet.

'Importantly, an eight year simulcasting period will ensure that Australians who retain their analog television sets will not be disadvantaged. This simulcasting period will be reviewed once the consumer demand for digital television is better known.

'Today's decisions give broadcasters and datacasters the certainty they need to invest with confidence in the converging digital communications environment.

'The FTAs will be loaned 7MHz of spectrum free of upfront charge to enable them to simulcast their existing service in analog and digital format for eight years, after which they will be required to return the equivalent of their loaned spectrum to the Commonwealth.

'Importantly, the FTAs must commence DTTB by the designated start-up date, and if they fail to do so, they will be required to return the loaned digital spectrum to the Commonwealth.

'In addition, the FTAs will be required to commence broadcasting in HDTV from a date subsequent to the start-up of DTTB (whilst being allowed to commence HDTV prior to that date) and will also be required to broadcast a minimum level of HDTV programming - which will increase over time.

'This will ensure that the FTAs use the spectrum they have been loaned to provide consumers with the greatly enhanced viewing experience that HDTV provides. If the FTAs do not comply with the HDTV requirements, their loaned digital spectrum will be returned, in whole or in part, to the Commonwealth. The FTAs will be consulted on the required HDTV start-up date and the required level of HDTV programming.

'The FTAs will be able to use that portion of their loaned digital spectrum not utilised for DTTB to provide datacasting services, but will be charged fees for providing these services. The fee regime, which will be put in place following a report from the Australian Communications Authority (ACA), will ensure that there is a level playing field between FTA and non-FTA datacasting providers (i.e. the FTAs are charged an equivalent price to that paid on a competitive basis for unused spectrum not required for the digital conversion of FTAs).

'Available broadcasting spectrum not required by the FTAs for digital conversion will be allocated on a competitive basis for the transmission of datacasting services - which will commence at the same time as the transmission of DTTB. Existing FTAs will be precluded from bidding for this additional spectrum.

'Whilst the commercial FTAs will be able to provide enhancements directly linked to programs simulcast on their analog channel, they will not be able to use their digital spectrum to provide multichannelling or subscription television services. These services are not part of their core business, and allowing them would put at substantial risk the viability of the fledgling subscription television industry.

'Loaning the national broadcasters (the ABC and SBS) 7MHz of spectrum will give them the opportunity to offer innovative and high-quality television and datacasting services which are in line with their Charter responsibilities and which reflect their unique and vital place in the Australian broadcasting environment.

'Like the commercial FTAs, the national broadcasters will be able to provide enhanced programming. In addition, prior to the introduction of DTTB, the Government will decide whether the ABC and SBS should be allowed to broadcast multichannel programming which is non-commercial and is in line with their Charter obligations. The ABC and SBS will be able to use (or sublease) their residual DTTB capacity to transmit datacasting services in accordance with competitive neutrality principles and with a revenue sharing agreement negotiated with the Commonwealth.

'Consistent with the Mansfield report, the Government is currently examining the national broadcasters' future funding requirements for the transition to the digital environment.

'The digital environment opens up new localised programming opportunities for all broadcasters, including the community television sector which will be guaranteed free access to the spectrum needed to broadcast one standard definition digital channel.

'The Government is committed to ensuring that regional Australia shares the benefits of digital television broadcasting. People in regional Australia currently receiving analog television services will have access to a digital service of at least equivalent coverage and quality.

'The Government will require owners of broadcasting transmission facilities to give reasonable access to those broadcasters wishing to upgrade those facilities to digital. Wherever possible, FTAs will be able to co-locate their digital transmitters at current analog sites. Regional television broadcasters will be given flexibility in terms of commencing digital transmission, with a progressive build schedule resulting in all areas having services by 1 January 2004.

'Australian FTA television programming is noted for its excellence world-wide. To ensure that this commitment to quality is retained, and to take into account the expensive transition to digital television, the Government is extending the prohibition on new commercial FTA entrants until December 2008.

'The current stringent local content requirements which apply to analog commercial FTAs will continue to apply in the digital environment. In addition, all FTAs will be required to provide a closed captioning service for all prime time programming as well as for news and current affairs broadcast outside prime time.

'Whilst today's announcement sets out a comprehensive framework for introducing DTTB and television datacasting in Australia, there is a need to continue to work on the details of the regime. Prior to the 1 January 2001 start-up date, the Department of Communications Information Technology and the Arts will inquire into and report to the Minister on:

'The Department will also convene a DTTB Planning and Steering Committee with the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA), the ACA and all relevant industry sectors which will: 'In addition, a working group comprising the ACA (Chair) and the ABA will report to the Minister on the structure and the conditions of the allocation of spectrum not required for the digital conversion of FTAs (the television datacasting spectrum).

'Finally, in 2005, the Department will conduct a review of digital television, and will report to the Minister on whether:

Digital Broadcasting - Questions and Answers

Media Contact:Terry O'Connor, Minister's office 02 6277 7480 or 0419 636 879

24 March 1998

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