Digital Television and Datacasting


Current Issues

Digital Television and Datacasting

E-Brief: Online Only issued 16 June 2003

Kim Jackson, Analysis and Policy
Social Policy Group

Key Sites

The most useful sites relating to the introduction of digital television and datacasting in Australia are:

  • The industry site Digital Broadcasting Australia (DBA) has been developed to ensure the smoothest possible transition to digital television for associated industries, viewers and consumers. It is supported by free-to-air television operators, consumer electronics and broadcast technology suppliers, installers and retailers. It has a comprehensive archive of news stories on digital developments.

Policy and Legislation

Background to the Government Decision

The ABA had monitored developments in digital television since 1993, when it established a specialist group comprising industry and government experts to examine options for digital television systems suitable for Australian conditions. In January 1997 the final report of the specialist group, Digital Terrestrial Broadcasting in Australia was presented to the Authority.

In July 1997 the ABA responded to the Specialist Group's report with its Paper, Digital Terrestrial Television Broadcasting (pdf file), which recommended to the Government that it support the early introduction of digital television into Australia. It considered that it should be a free-to-air service rather than a form of pay TV and it endorsed the loan of a 7MHz channel to each of the ABC, SBS and the three commercial networks, as this would enable the introduction of high definition television from the outset. This was the approach adopted by the Government, which announced its decisions on the 24 March 1998.

Television Broadcasting Services (Digital Conversion) Act 1998

The conversion to digital broadcasting required amendments to both the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Radiocommunications Act 1992. The former sets out the ownership and programming conditions for broadcasting licences and is administered by the ABA. The latter regulates the usage of the spectrum, including the licensing of transmitting apparatus, and is administered by the Australian Communications Authority (ACA).

These amendments were contained in the Television Broadcasting Services (Digital Conversion) Act 1998 ('the Digital Conversion Act'), which provides the legislative basis for the scheme. The Act instructs the ABA to formulate digital conversion schemes for commercial and national (ABC and SBS) broadcasters in accordance with the policy objectives described in the legislation. Datacasting charges are the subject of related revenue legislation, the Datacasting Charge (Imposition) Act 1998.

Datacasting was defined in the Digital Conversion Act as a service (other than a broadcasting service) that delivers information to persons having equipment appropriate for receiving that information, where the delivery of the service uses the broadcasting services bands. This form of definition was required because the market for datacasting services had not yet developed and the precise nature and scope of the services was unknown.

Digital Television and Datacasting Act 2000

On 21 December 1999 the Government announced its decisions on the limitations that would apply to datacasting services and other requirements for the introduction of digital television. The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television and Datacasting) Bill 2000 and the Datacasting Charge (Imposition) Amendment Bill 2000 were introduced on 10 May 2000 to implement these decisions.

The text of the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television and Datacasting) Bill 2000, the Explanatory Memorandum, Second Reading Speeches and Bills Digest can be obtained from this page. The Bill was the subject of a debate in the Senate on the 19, 21 and 22 June, with the Committee Stage (27, 28 and 29 June) resulting in significant amendments. The relevant Hansards can be downloaded from this page. The Bill was also the subject of a Report by the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee.

The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television and Datacasting) Act 2000 made substantial amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to refine arrangements for the introduction of digital television. The most significant of these were:

  • the requirement for broadcasters to transmit a standard definition digital television (SDTV) signal at all times and at least 20 hours per week of high definition digital broadcasts (HDTV);
  • provisions to enable the ABC and SBS to multi-channel certain kinds of programs; and
  • provisions to permit digital program enhancement content and electronic program guides.

All mainland capital city stations were required to begin transmitting full-time digital services from 1 January 2001, although the analog signals would be simulcast until at least 2008. The requirement for 20 hours of HDTV would take effect from the end of 2002.

The legislation also added a new schedule (Schedule 6) to the Act. This comprised the regulatory regime for datacasting services: it established the licensing system (Part 2) and contained detailed specifications for datacasting services to ensure that they would not become de facto television broadcasts (Part 3). In broad summary, these provisions ensured that datacasting licensees would not broadcast matter that would be equivalent to a television news, drama, sports, documentary, lifestyle or entertainment program, or a commercial radio program. They were allowed to transmit extracts of TV programs, so long as they were no longer than 10 minutes and not strung together so as to constitute a single program. Datacasters were allowed to transmit information and education programs, parliamentary and court proceedings, text and still images, interactive computer games and Internet-style services.

The Datacasting Charge (Imposition) Amendment Act 2000 was enacted at the same time as the above legislation. It made consequential amendments to the Datacasting Charge (Imposition) Act 1998 to reflect the new regulatory scheme for datacasting.

Reactions to the Legislation

Some of the provisions of this legislation have been subject to considerable criticism:

  • the Final Report of the Productivity Commission's Inquiry into Broadcasting criticised the mandatory requirements for HDTV and the restrictions on datacasting (see Chapter 7);
  • Telstra announced that it was withdrawing from a datacasting trial because it was disappointed with the legislation;
  • News Ltd claimed that the legislation would put the free-to-air broadcasters beyond competition and retard the social benefits of datacasting;
  • the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations (FACTS) supported the mandatory HDTV requirements and the restrictions on datacasting.

The Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee's Report into the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television and Datacasting) Bill 2000 contains many extracts and references to those who expressed a view on the legislation.

Recent Amendments to the Digital Television and Datacasting Provisions

There have been a number of further amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act s digital television and datacasting provisions. These are:

  • The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Act 2001 transfers provisions which authorise the ABC and SBS to engage in datacasting to their enabling legislation namely, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 and the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991. The Act also makes a range of minor amendments to provisions that were inserted by the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television and Datacasting) Act 2000.
  • The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Act (No. 1) 2003 changes the HDTV quota from a weekly to an annual quota, allows advertising and promotional material to count towards the quota and delays the commencement date for the statutory review of HDTV quota arrangements.

Policy Reviews

A number of policy reviews were conducted as part of the process of determining the regulatory framework for digital television, all of which were tabled in Parliament on 10 May 2000. These included reviews of:

  • Underserved regional licence areas;
  • Enhanced services;
  • ABC and SBS multi-channelling;
  • The scope of datacasting services;
  • HDTV targets, standards and formats;
  • Captioning standards; and
  • Convergence between broadcasting and other services.

These reviews can be obtained from this page.

The legislation also required further reviews on datacasting, the spectrum clearance powers of the ABA, digital transmission of community television and the definition of streamed media on the Internet. The reviews can be accessed from this page, together with a list of other reviews that have yet to be undertaken.

Developments in Datacasting

Auction of Datacasting Transmitter Licences

The auctioning of datacasting transmitter licences is the responsibility of the Spectrum Marketing Group of the Australian Communications Authority (ACA). Documents relating to the ACA s role in datacasting regulation can be obtained from this page.

On the 17 January 2001 the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts directed the ACA to impose competition limits on the auction of datacasting transmitter licences. A media release on the subject is available.

On the 23 January 2001 the ACA invited applications for the licences and on 22 February it reported that seven applications had been received. Four of these applicants eventually made eligibility payments. On 12 April Telstra announced that it was withdrawing from the auction because the cost of developing a datacasting business was unlikely to make a sufficient return to justify the investment. On the 9 May the Minister directed that the auction be cancelled. The Minister's media release can be obtained from this page.

Datacasting Charges and Licences

On 4 April 2001 the ACA made available its report on the Principles for Determining the Amount of Datacasting Charge. The report made recommendations on the determination of fees to apply to commercial television broadcasters who transmit datacasting services. These fees are required under the provisions of the Datacasting Charges (Imposition) Act 1998 to ensure that the commercial broadcasters do not have an unfair advantage over other potential datacasters, who must bid for transmitter licences. The ACA's Datacasting Charge (Amount) Determination 2001 was notified in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. GN 25 of 27 June 2000.

All persons wishing to provide a datacasting service must obtain a datacasting licence. The ABA is required to maintain a register of datacasting licences, as well as a register of nominated datacaster declarations. The nominated datacaster declaration clarifies the responsibilities between the datacasting transmitter licence holder and the datacasting licence holder when the licences are held by different people.

Datacasting Review

During the Federal Election the Government announced that it would undertake a review of datacasting in 2002. On the 19 December 2001 it released an Issues Paper and called for submissions to be made by 25 January 2002. The final report was published in December 2002.

The Government s decisions were as follows:

  • there should be no change at this time to the rules relating to the content which can be provided under a datacasting licence
  • not to proceed with the long-term allocation of datacasting transmitter licences at this point in time. Broadcasters will continue to be able to provide licensed datacasting services using their digital spectrum
  • to encourage use of the spectrum for trials of digital services
  • that commercial and national broadcasters be allowed to transmit datacasting services from the date of commencement of their digital services in a licence area

The report, submissions and other documents are available from this page.

Datacasting Trials

The ABA is calling for expressions of interest from organisations interested in conducting trials of datacasting services. These are intended to assist industry to develop new technical and business models for datacasting services. Details can be obtained from this ABA page. The Minister has also issued a media release on the subject.

Planning and Implementation

Schedule 4 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 requires the ABA to formulate schemes for the conversion of commercial and national broadcasting services to digital mode. The Commercial and National Conversion Schemes can be obtained from this page.

Under these Schemes the commercial and national broadcasters were required to develop implementation plans. An Implementation Plan is a binding commitment by a broadcaster to provide a television service in digital mode from specified sites to cover specified areas by specified dates, so as to achieve the same area of coverage in SDTV digital mode as is achieved by that service in analog mode, as soon as is practicable after the simulcast period begins. The ABA s Register of Implementation Plans provides access to the plans for each State and Territory, including the proposed start dates for regional broadcasters.

The ABA is also required to develop digital channel plans (DCPs) to determine which channels are to be allotted to each area, the assignment of channels to each broadcaster and the technical characteristics of those channels. The ABA's objective in preparing the DCPs is to enable a broadcaster to plan its digital transmission coverage to match its analog coverage. These plans can be accessed from this page. Details of digital channels are also available.

A timeline for digital implementation prepared by the ABA is also available.

A summary of developments (pdf file) during the first year of implementation (2001) has also been published by the ABA.

Digital Consumer Equipment and Services

The Digital Broadcasting Australia (DBA) site contains extensive information on digital equipment for consumers, including widescreen televisions, digital TV receivers (set top boxes or STBs) and integrated digital televisions (IDTVs). It also has details of the digital television services that are available in the various markets throughout Australia.

The ABA has published a brief guide for consumers (pdf file).

Recent Developments

Closure of ABC Digital Channels

On 26 May 2003 the ABC announced that it would close its digital multi-channel services, Fly TV and ABC Kids, as a result of the failure to obtain additional funding in the Commonwealth Budget. This action was foreshadowed in the ABC s Triennial Funding Submission. The Minister has stated that there is no justification for the ABC blaming the Government for the closure.

Digital Uptake

In mid-February 2003 it was estimated that there were 52 800 digital television households. Equipment manufacturers have estimated that they have sold a total of 70 500 STBs and IDTVs to retailers up to 31 March 2003. There are 7.5 million households in Australia.

A recent survey of industry players predicted that the digital uptake would reach 46 per cent of households by 2008, when the analogue switch-off is supposed to occur. Even this degree of penetration, which would not be enough to justify the switch-off, appears unlikely given the current uptake.

Digital Radio

The Minister has announced the establishment of a digital radio study group to report on the status of available digital radio technologies. The group will report by late 2003. The ABA has a page on digital radio.

Foxtel/Telstra Competition Issues

On 13 November 2002, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) announced the court-enforceable undertakings that had been proposed to address the ACCC's concern about the potential anti-competitive effects of the planned pay-TV arrangements between Foxtel and Optus, which will allow them to share pay TV programming. The undertakings provide access to programs for pay TV operators, broader choice for consumers and access to Telstra's cable network and Foxtel's set-top boxes. These undertakings included a proposal by Telstra to invest in and to commence supplying a digital subscription television carriage service and for Foxtel to invest in and commence supply of digital set top unit and related conditional access services.

The proposal to undertake the digital investment is contingent on Foxtel and Telstra first obtaining anticipatory individual exemption orders from the Commission in relation to the supply of a digital cable and digital satellite subscription television service.

In January 2003 the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) issued a Discussion Paper and media release on applications lodged by Telstra and Foxtel to obtain these exemptions. Other documents relating to this issue can be obtained from this ACCC page.

Other Reports and Sites

The Digital Television in Australia: 2002 Industry Survey was conducted for the ABA by the Interactive Television Research Institute of Murdoch University on the views of the relevant industry players on the potential drivers and inhibitors for the digital television industry.

Digital Television Broadcasting: Perspectives on the Future provides a broad overview of digital television technologies, their potential to offer new and improved services, as well as their inherent risks. The focus of this research is on digital television enhancements, High Definition television, High Definition content acquisition and interactive television.

Digital Television in Australia is an unofficial site that discusses the issues and provides many links to related sites.

DigitalTelevision.com contains links to many international sites dealing with digital television developments.

 

For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to Members of Parliament.

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