By Stephen Conroy
THE transformation in the communications sector is much broader than investment in high speed broadband and the challenge of designing appropriate regulations around it.
We are in the early phase of a transformation of the entire media broadcasting landscape. New waves of technology are driving convergence in the ability of networks to provide a broader array of services; and for market structures to change.
One core part of this transformation is the switchover that is currently underway from analogue to digital TV. The switch to digital television will free up scarce spectrum, which can be used for new communications services, such as high speed wireless broadband.
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Australia to take advantage of this important economic infrastructure. This spectrum is known as the digital dividend, and realisation of the digital dividend is a key element of the Government’s broader communications policies.
In January, I released the Digital Dividend Green Paper which set out the Government’s objective to reclaim 126mhz currently used for analog television broadcasts. Submissions on the green paper closed last month. Importantly, the submissions showed that there is widespread support across the broadcasting and communications sectors for achieving the Government’s target dividend.
In order to achieve this dividend, we need to switch from analogue to digital TV. When I was last here, I signalled the Government’s intention for the switch to digital television to be completed by the end of 2013. I am pleased to report there has been much progress. We are just 79 days away from the first region in Australia – Mildura / Sunrayasia – switching to digital-only TV.
The Digital Switchover Taskforce has been working effectively and cooperatively with broadcasters to undertake the planning needed to switch off analog TV.
There is a great deal of technical and legislative work going on behind the scenes to get ready for the switch to digital, but for the viewer, the most obvious change is the arrival of new TV channels.
Since the Government announced the end date for analog TV, Australia’s free-to-air commercial broadcasters have embraced the opportunity to provide new services to their audiences - all have launched digital-only multi-channels over the last 18 months.
In a country as vast and as sparsely populated as Australia, the provision of communications services in rural and remote areas has always been a particular challenge. In January, the Government announced that as part of the switch to digital television we will be funding a new satellite service. This service will finally bring to viewers across the country the television services long enjoyed by urban Australians. Legislation introduced into Parliament last month will underpin the new satellite service. The new service will also provide viewers with access to their local news – something the existing analog satellite service does not do.
Supporting industry to enable creativity and responsiveness, sustaining Australian content and prioritising the needs of the audience, is at the centre of the Government’s approach to media policy.
It is why we have strongly backed Australia’s national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS. A healthy and diverse media needs both commercial and national broadcasters to play strong roles, engaging in creative pursuits and fostering competitive tension.
Last year, in the middle of the most significant global economic downturn in 75 years, the Government was able to give the ABC its biggest funding boost since it was incorporated in 1983, and to find new funding for SBS to produce more local content.
This funding increase has already seen the arrival of the long-awaited ABC children’s channel, and is being leveraged throughout regional Australia to produce user-generated content and provide online media education to regional communities through the ‘ABC Open’ project. Later this year it will also see the new 24-hour news channel launched on the ABC.
Across the broadcasting and media sectors we are seeing significant transformation, and once again reform is needed to keep up with this change.
In our discussion paper on telecommunications reform for the 21st Century, the Government flagged its intention to consider the overall regulatory framework for communications services in a converged environment. As I have said previously, regulatory issues such as media diversity, ownership controls, audience reach rules and local content obligations will all need to be re-visited.
The Government’s policies, particularly in creating the NBN and pursuing the switch to digital only television, have rapidly accelerated the arrival of the convergent media age in Australia after years of delay. It is crucial that the appropriate regulatory settings are in place to foster competition, encourage diversity, inspire creativity and protect Australian voices.
I believe that when history is written on the significance of the changes underway in the communications sector, it will be compared with the industrial revolution, in its transformative impact on society.
I agree with the proposition that it’s difficult to appreciate rapid progress when you’re in the middle of it – but looking back highlights just how dramatic the changes have been.
Only 10 short years ago:
· Just over 1 in 2 people had a mobile phone, mainly for calls, and ‘texting’ was considered cutting edge.
· Mass market broadband services were in their infancy and few people even knew what it was.
· There was no i-Phone, let alone the thousands of applications that come with it.
· There were no digital TV multi-channels and the idea of watching TV on demand was something we heard about overseas.
· And of course, the pioneers of Youtube, Twitter and Facebook were still penniless nerds, yet to make their mark.
I’ll be one of the first in line for the new i-Pad when it arrives in Australia later this month, but I’ve got no doubt that in another 10 years, someone else will be standing here using it to highlight how times have changed.
The transformation currently underway in the media and communications sector is unprecedented in this country. Never before in the modern era have we experienced such sweeping changes in one sector.
The opportunities presented by this transformation will be spectacular and we need to make sure Australia can take advantage of them.
It’s why the Rudd Government is investing in the foundations for this transformation to the digital economy in the future.
And it’s why reforming communications to drive and shape this transformation is so important.
Excerpt from a speech by Communications Minister Senator Hon Stephen Conroy to The Sydney Institute, 12 April 2010