Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2017

The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2017, which is before the House, concerns radio services, digital radio services and the regulation thereof, services which have been providing access to news, sport, music and entertainment in Australia for well over 90 years. In fact, radio is the most ubiquitous medium in the country and will remain so for many years to come—it's in our cars and workplaces. One of the strengths of radio as compared to many of its competing media is that you can be listening to radio while performing many other functions, including driving a car.

The introduction of digital radio was designed, as the minister representing the minister said a moment ago, to supplement rather than replace traditional analog AM and FM transmission services. Australia's transition to digital radio is one of the biggest changes to radio since its inception—in fact, since the widespread introduction of FM services in the seventies and early eighties. There are many benefits to digital radio. It has been said before that it provides superior sound and reception. Digital radio signals are compared to the jump up in quality that one gets when changing from playing an album from a cassette or a record to playing it from a CD. There is a significant jump up in the quality of the sound that is able to be transmitted. There's also a significant improvement in terms of the transmission of that signal because of the lessened geographic interference you get from the transmission of a digital signal. There is more listening choice, quite simply, because you can cram the broadcasting of more radio stations over the same spectrum available. That enables one broadcaster, or many, to be broadcasting specialist services in addition to the legacy services within the same spectrum available. It's easier for listeners to tune because you can tune using a radio station's name as opposed to just its call signal. Many of the modern digital radios have rewind, pause and playback facilities which add and enhance services for listeners as well. In many of the modern digital radios now available on the market there's also a data display, enabling broadcasters to put in additional images and text along with the traditional sound transmission. There are benefits. There are benefits to the government as the residual holder of spectrum. It is able to use that spectrum more efficiently. There are benefits to listeners and, of course, there are, at the end of the day, benefits to many broadcasters as well.

Digital radio services from commercial radio broadcasters and national broadcasters have been operating in metropolitan licence areas—Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth—since July 2009. Some designated community radio services also began in these areas a year later, in April 2011. The Australian Communications and Media Authority also authorised trials of DAB+ in Canberra and Darwin, which were being conducted by Commercial Radio Australia. The Canberra trial commenced in July 2010 and the Darwin trial around August 2010. Both trials were extended until 30 June last year, and the authority is now working with industry to facilitate permanent licensing of these trials. The national broadcasting services—ABC and SBS— have been allocated a Foundation Category 3 Digital Radio Multiplex Transmitter Licence for Canberra and Darwin. Those services are expected to be in permanent transmission.

According to ACMA, it's a commercial decision for licensees in regional areas to apply to ACMA to offer digital services. Well, I will have something more to say about this. I'm sure, Deputy Speaker, you have received, as most members in this place have received, many, many representations from constituents who are keen to enjoy the benefits of digital radio in their electorate. If you're not in a metropolitan licence area or Canberra or Darwin, you are not getting that signal, for the most part, and people are keen to get it.

I'll explain what the future looks like. We support the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2017. Labor has a proud history in the area of rolling out digital radio in Australia. It was Kim Beazley, the Minister for Transport and Communications back in 1991, who declared that industry should not ignore the potential of the technologies looming on the horizon. He was talking about digital radio as an emerging technology in Europe. At the time, he said that Australia would be more than ready when cheap receivers would allow them to hear CD-quality radio via digital audio broadcasting. Australia and Australians would be more than ready to reap the benefits of that. A few years later, in 1995, the then Minister of Communications and the Arts, Michael Lee, established the digital radio advisory committee and announced that the first station experiments with digital broadcasting would commence in 1996 in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Around the same time, Telstra was involved as a GBE in digital radio broadcasting trials in both Melbourne and Sydney—essentially to test the multiplex technology management. The next 20 years saw a continued process of planning and trials and the development of a policy regulatory framework until finally, in 2009, digital radio commenced in mainland state capitals.

The next step, Labor believes, is to see the benefits of digital radio extended into regional Australia. This involves significant cost and complexity, and it is being planned by the Digital Radio Planning Committee for Regional Australia, which was formed in September 2015 following a federal government review of digital radio. That was a statutory review required under section 215B of the Broadcasting Services Act and section 313B of the Radio Communications Act—a requirement under that act that a review of the digital radio rollout be conducted. The measures that are before the House today are modest. They enjoy our support. The measures arise from that 2015 report that was published by the government. One of the digital radio report's recommendations was that the government consider a range of minor amendments to the existing digital radio regulatory regime to create a simpler, more flexible process for the planning and licensing of digital radio and associated technology in regional Australia. The measures in the bill attempt to do that. I don't want to overstate the force that the measures in this bill will have on the impact of the digital rollout in regional areas. The bill's measures include removing the requirement that ACMA give written notice of its intention to declare a digital radio start-up day. We agree with that—it's not a significant amendment; we agree with it. It also has a provision which would remove specific requirements under the Broadcasting Services Act that ACMA consult before preparing or varying digital radio channel plans, given that there are already general consultation requirements within the Legislation Act 2003. So
we support that.

As to shortening time frames associated with the formation of eligible joint venture companies and clarifying the invitation acceptance processes for the formation of such companies: we support that. As to shortening time frames associated with the formation of digital community radio broadcasting representative companies: again, we support that. Shortening time frames associated with the issuing of a foundation digital radio multiplex transmitter, otherwise known as a DRMT, licence: again, we support that, and shortening time frames associated with the DRMT licensees, giving the ACCC access undertakings. And, finally, we support clarifying how the multiplex capacity on foundation DRMT licences are determined. All of these are modest but sensible reforms and we will be supporting them.

Labor supports the bill, but I do not want to overstate the impact that these measures are going to have on rolling out digital radio in regional Australia. These will be, essentially, commercial decisions that are going to be made by commercial broadcasters in broadcast areas. We encourage these broadcasters to work together to ensure that we can be investing in the multiplex and other technology that is going to be necessary for transmitting these services in regional areas. We encourage them to work together. Government does have a role, and, previously, Labor governments have shown themselves willing to assist industry in the rollout of technologies in this area. But I just want to say quite clearly to everyone in my electorate and to all the Labor members who regularly approach me about their constituents who are calling for the rollout of digital technology in their area: these are sensible moves, but they're not going to move a mountain when it comes to rolling out digital radio in regional Australia. A lot more needs to be done to ensure that that occurs. I commend the bill to the House.