Parliament passes Digital Radio Bill

The long-awaited Digital Radio legislation has been passed in Federal Parliament today allowing for digital radio to be rolled out in the state capitals by 1 January 2009.

Australians will have one of the most advanced digital radio systems in the world following the adoption of the latest compression standards for this country’s Eureka 147 broadcast standard.

Despite objections from opposition spokesperson Simon Crean (see our other story), the bill passed through both houses. The Radio Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2007 was also passed at the same time.

Commercial Radio Australia’s Joan Warner has welcomed the passage of the Bill, telling radioinfo:

“Digital radio ushers in a new era for radio and for the 95% of Australians who listen to radio every week. The passing of the legislation means consumers will get vastly superior radio services sooner rather than later and it gives industry the certainty it needs to move ahead on the massive investment in broadcasting infrastructure that will be required.”

Warner says, while the legislation covers the licensing, planning and regulation for digital radio initially in the six cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart, regional and rural Australia will not miss out:

“There are around 220 commercial radio stations who play a very important role in the lives of listeners in regional and rural Australia, and it’s important that they share in the benefits that digital technology will bring.

“The industry has already started reviewing the needs of some regional licence areas. The metropolitan roll out will allow us to realistically cost the regional rollout and we will be approaching the government for assistance to help regional commercial broadcasters with the costs of digital infrastructure.”

The ABC is already on record as being interested in another compatible digital radio transmission system, Digital Radio Mondialle (DRM), for regional areas. DRM is likely to be cheaper to bolt on to existing AM installations and will need fewer new transmission tower installations. Regional commercial stations are also open to the idea of DRM technology for regional areas, subject to the results of further testing. Two DRM trials are currently underway in Australia, in Woolongong and Canberra.

If Australia goes with a mixture of the two systems the crucial issue will be sourcing receivers which can switch between both systems transparently, without the user having to make too many adjustments. A small number of such receivers are already being sold in other countries and more are in development. CRA has been active in encouraging receiver manufacturers in the Asian region to make digital radios and receiver chips that will suit Australian transmissino standards.

Digital radio will provide listeners with more choice, crystal clear sound and many new features free to air. Because digital technology is so much more spectrum efficient than analogue, radio stations will be able to broadcast extra digital-only channels as well as data and images such as CD covers, weather and traffic maps and news images.

Warner says the Act reflects the industry’s key policy requests and the vital role commercial broadcasters will play in the roll out and success of digital radio.

“The industry appreciates the level of consultation we had with the Prime Minister and the Minister on this important area as well as the support of many Government MPs in helping to negotiate a workable set of policy settings.”

The industry is still seeking clarification on a number of aspects of the Act however. These include a statutory review of the six-year moratorium period for new entrants depending on take-up levels after five years, restrictions on the allocation of new analogue commercial radio licences and broadening of allowable digital program content from “still visual images” to moving visual images such as dynamic text, animations and short burst video, which would encourage take-up.

“We understood from the Minister’s policy announcement that there would be no restrictions placed on broadcasters’ use of spectrum. We will continue to work with the Government as the Act is implemented to ensure that the policy settings agreed between the industry and the Government come to fruition,”
says Warner.

Contrary to the government’s position, she said the industry considers digital radio a replacement technology for analogue broadcasting over time and not a supplementary technology.

Summing up the debate in Parliament before the bill was passed, MP Patrick Farmer told the House:

We have addressed a number of the concerns highlighted by the opposition. The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2007 and the Radio Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2007 provide the Australian radio industry with a unique and important opportunity to commence digital radio services.

“Digitisation is a key strategic issue for radio, which is the last significant broadcasting platform to remain analog only. The Australian radio industry has lobbied strongly for the introduction of digital radio to enable it to respond to the opportunities and challenges that digital broadcasting presents. There is no doubt that digital radio has the potential to enhance the already high-quality radio services enjoyed by Australian radio listeners every day…

“Underpinned by this exhaustive policy development process, these bills provide a measured approach to the introduction of digital radio in this country, one that balances a range of complex objectives and constraints. Two of these are the scarcity of available spectrum for digital radio and the choice of digital radio technology…

While DAB is the clear choice for the implementation of digital radio in Australia’s larger markets, it is acknowledged that the platform may be unable to replicate the extensive broadcast coverage of services in many of the regional markets, particularly AM services. Consideration will need to be given to whether the other technologies such as digital radio mondiale, or DRM, are better placed to address the audience needs of some of the regional areas.”

An AFTRS seminar on Digital Radio is being held tomorrow in Brisbane.