Digital: A Personal Message

On January 1, 2001 Australia will enter not only a new Millennium, but also the Digital Era of broadcasting: High Definition Television (HDTV) pictures of startling cinema-style clarity with CD-quality sound; radio signals that can bring you the sensation of being inside the concert hall.

But the digital era offers much more than dramatically enhanced services. Technology gurus are already talking about the "convergence" of the Internet with TV and radio. By adding a simple decoder box, a digital television set can detect data signals which offer a host of new services. The TV set effectively becomes a one-stop shop in every home.

Consumers could be able to receive e-mails, pay bills from home, juggle bank accounts, order groceries, plan a holiday, play online games, check whether the morning train is running on time, while still - of course - watching a favourite game show or movie.

The additional services are possible because digital broadcasting allows much more information - data - to be crammed onto a signal than the existing analog transmission system of either television or radio.

The Federal Government today announced the framework for the introduction of digital TV from January 1, 2001. Let me explain this approach:

To give consumers, the industry and manufacturers time to adjust (and time for the cost of sets to fall) the Government will allow the existing free-to-air TV stations to transmit both their existing analog signal and their new digital signal for a period of eight years.

The Government is loaning the free-to-air networks, free of upfront charges, the spectrum required to provide HDTV during the simulcast period, although the TV networks will still pay their normal revenue-based licence fees. They will also have to hand back an equivalent amount of spectrum at the end of the simulcast period, when they are no longer transmitting an analog signal.

The Government is doing this because the TV networks will effectively have to pay twice their normal transmission costs, in addition to the estimated $500 million for new digital transmitters, studios and production facilities.

The ban on new commercial TV networks will be extended until 2008, and commercial free-to-air TV networks will not be allowed to use their digital spectrum for either pay-TV channels or for "multi-channelling" - using the additional data capacity of digital to broadcast four or five normal-quality TV channels rather than one high-quality one.

Australia has a world class TV system, with a strong local content component and a highly skilled production sector. This could be threatened if the existing networks had to battle a new competitor at the same time as paying huge sums to transfer to digital broadcasting, or if the pay-TV networks found themselves faced with significantly stronger free-to-air opponents while still trying to find their feet.

This Government would normally welcome additional competition, in any industry, as healthy and likely to lead to benefits for the consumer. However, Australia's free-to-air and pay-TV industries, in these special circumstances, deserve a degree of special treatment, and the Government makes no apologies for this decision.

The Government will also insist on the preservation of the current minimum Australian content requirements on digital TV, will require the television networks to provide a minimum level of High Definition Television, and will require all free-to-air broadcasters to provide a closed captioning service for the hearing impaired during prime time and during news and current affairs programs.

The Government recognises, of course, that it must keep a place for new technologies. So, it will identify blocks of unused spectrum which will be made available to non-TV companies to offer data services. Newspapers and Internet Service Providers have indicated they want access to this spectrum so they can offer data services on home TV sets - such as train timetables, or Internet access, home shopping, classified ads, or some other still-to-be-invented service.

A further, significant concern for this Government is to ensure that regional Australia also enjoys the benefits of the digital era. We recognise that regional TV networks, such as Prime, NBN, Southern Cross or GWN, will face higher costs per viewer to install digital transmission equipment.

So the Government will give regional networks up to an additional three years to introduce digital transmissions, but it will insist that regional areas which currently receive an analog TV signal have access to a digital signal of at least equivalent coverage and quality.

The ABC and SBS will play an important role in bringing the digital era to all Australians. Both will be loaned the same amount of spectrum as the commercial networks, to allow them to provide HDTV. In recognition of their special status, the Government is considering whether the two national broadcasters should also be allowed to multi-channel - but only non-commercial material which meets their Charter obligations.

(Media Note: This personal message can be used for opinion pages, or material can be extracted for news items)

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

24 March 1998

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