More needs to be done to boost digital tv in regions

Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television) Bill

Tuesday May 29, 2012

The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2012 relates to the provision of access to digital television via satellite services. Of particular interest is the following aim, as described in the explanatory memorandum:

facilitating earlier access, in particular circumstances, to the digital commercial satellite television services licensed under section 38C of the BSA (known as the Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST)) in areas where it is considered viewers will not be able to receive adequate reception of all the applicable terrestrial digital commercial television services at the time of digital switchover …

I wanted to explore some of the background of this to identify some of the significant issues. Satellite delivery of a digital television signal, as we know, is not new technology, and it is not even cost restrictive for most Australians.

For Australians who live in or around a metropolitan area—around 90 per cent of the population—satellite coverage is a moot point; it is mostly irrelevant to that 90 per cent.

With 70 per cent living in our major cities and another 20 per cent in the surrounding areas, we are probably amongst the most urbanised nations on earth.

It is therefore simple and economically viable for television service providers to invest in adequate terrestrial infrastructure to provide a more-than-adequate signal to nine out of 10 Australians. As with most other services, however, the city-country divide again falls on the side that is to the advantage of those who live in our urban areas.

We have heard of TV black spots in certain urban areas, but most urban residents would not have an understanding of the fade-outs and pixelation that face regional viewers all of the time. Naturally, we regional viewers understand pretty well—although we might not always like it—why our service is poorer than that of our city cousins.

We are spread out over a large area and we do understand that it would cost more to deliver to us the same standard of service that city viewers demand; it is basic economics at work.

Terrestrial digital antennas deliver a signal that has a limited range and is frequently disrupted. A good antenna might have an effective signal with a range of 100 kilometres, but this depends on the hardware and the software used by the signal provider.

It also depends on the topography of the area, because the signal, as we know, is line of sight and that is easily disrupted. If the antenna is in the middle of Sydney, obviously that 100-kilometre range reaches a lot of homes.

In some parts of regional Australia, including parts of my electorate, given the topography, the signal does not even reach your neighbour’s house, as Deputy Speaker Scott would be aware. There are of course a vast range of people in the middle, but it is obvious that regional Australians have a greater chance of receiving poorer or poor signals. If someone is far from a terrestrial antenna, they may get no signal or a very poor signal sometimes, if they are lucky.

They can apply to the viewer access satellite television service for permission to receive a satellite signal. They can buy the appropriate hardware and software and could receive a very good high-definition signal. Many have already done so, but many applicants have not been successful.

Under the access provisions for VAST, there is a time period of six months prior to the switch-off of the analog signal in which people are able to apply to VAST. As the switch-off for WA is not likely to be until August 2013, many households in my electorate and throughout Western Australia are not yet able to apply.

Additionally, people are currently only able to apply for VAST services if they are in an area that does not receive digital terrestrial transmission from a commercial broadcaster’s tower or if they are in an area of very poor signal reception.

If they are within an area that is supposed to receive good digital terrestrial service but for some reason does not, they can apply and they will asses the strength of the signal to determine if they are eligible for VAST.

I note that, if they want just ABC and SBS, they can access VAST for just those channels. But this aspect of signal strength, especially the assessment of it for regional households, has the greatest impact on people’s ability to access the service.

The legislation preventing households from subscribing to VAST if they are within an area that receives a digital terrestrial signal from a commercial broadcast tower, even if they consider it a poor signal, is outlined in the Broadcasting Services Act under the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Act 2010. It is this assessment of an ‘adequate’ versus ‘poor’ signal that is most difficult.

The digital television signal will in fact carry a long way further than the 100 kilometres mentioned before—many times further.

However, it is only for the first 100 kilometres or so that the signal retains sufficient strength to be picked up and displayed by the receiving television set—there is no distinct cut-off point. The range that can result in inadequate signal reception varies dramatically depending, as I said, on topography and climate. Trees and buildings also disrupt the digital signal. As the range increases, the quality and strength of the signal declines and that results in pixilation and channel freeze, for example.

You may be granted access to VAST if you are predicted to be in a poor coverage area and you are likely to experience difficulties receiving the available digital TV services some or all of the time.

However, this depends on a bureaucratic process accepting that your television reception is not up to standard. The real trouble comes when you are classified as being in a variable coverage area.

Common sense tells us that someone in such a designation does not get a consistent or constant quality signal and that therefore their access to VAST should be obvious; but unfortunately this is not the case. Currently the system seems to believe that it is perfectly acceptable for country people to receive a lower standard of reception than city viewers do, and many whose reception is well below standard are being refused access to satellite services.

If someone tries to apply for VAST at the moment and they are not eligible because they are in the wrong area or it is not yet open for applications, two things will automatically happen when they apply.

Firstly, they will automatically be refused. Secondly, the application will be referred to a review process and then there will be an investigation into the reasons for which they were refused.

The review process, however, seems to not understand or have little interest in the need for regional viewers to be able to access an equivalent standard of reception, and it appears to be a double standard.

So I ask: why restrict the access to satellite signals? I have been told that there are two reasons to restrict access to the VAST satellite services at the moment, particularly in Western Australia. Apparently, it is in part to protect customers from the costs of signing up and maintaining satellite services that they may not need. I find that to be a relatively disingenuous reason.

Of my constituents, there are some who are prepared to invest in the service. But, more importantly, restriction of access is apparently designed to ensure that commercial broadcasters are able to achieve a return from their terrestrial transmission infrastructure, especially the cost of converting it to digital to ensure the availability of terrestrial signals without the need for satellite installation in the future.

I understand there was a fear in the government and amongst television providers that, if VAST services were available to all, people would migrate en masse from the terrestrial transmission to the satellite.

From this I assume that net return on investment on antenna installation is a key factor in who is allowed to access a satellite signal. But is it actually good enough to allow regional communities to endure lower quality services in the meantime in order to subsidise antenna capital costs?

It is a question that really does need answering, because that is where so many people are at. Is there really any guarantee that regional services will ever catch up? That is a question that exercises the minds of those of us who represent regional and more remote areas.

Many regional viewers currently receiving an Aurora television signal will be able to access digital satellite via the VAST system; however, some of those who live in regional areas and who have previously had access to Aurora will be prevented from accessing the VAST system because someone who has never seen their TV reception or the limit of it has decided from lines on a map that they already get an adequate terrestrial service.

This is obviously not working and is a slap in the face to rural and regional Australians, who unfortunately appear to have been the target of the government on more than one occasion.

There is one remaining key issue here: who gets to decide if the terrestrial signal of a person’s TV is adequate? According to a letter I received from the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, the commercial broadcasters decide if the signal is up to standard.

Given that access is denied mainly so that the antenna costs of commercial broadcasters can be underwritten, it seems strange that they themselves determine the application. Of course, those denied can appeal to ACMA—the Australian Communications and Media Authority—but I would really like to know how many times there has been a reversal of the original decision.

I think it would be much simpler if an independent umpire decided whether the digital signal that a country viewer received was adequate, and I would hope that they might even seek an equivalent signal to that available to our city peers. As we know, the digital satellite signal already covers Australia; what is needed is for people to be able to receive it in regional and remote areas.