Regional Digital Radio a step closer

The second reading of the Digital Radio Amendment Bill passed through parliament this week, bringing regional areas a step closer to having digital radio and simplifying the process for allocating licences.

Senator Anne Ruston (pictured) ushered the second reading debate through the Senate on the same day as industry representatives were in Canberra meeting with politicians about the year ahead for radio.

The Bill was uncontested at this second reading stage of the parliamentary process, so it will now go to the detailed consideration stage then, if there is nothing contentious, through to the third reading step, which is largely procedural.

The key points in the bill include:

  • ratifying the formation of a digital radio planning committee for Regional Australia,
  • making the ‘start day’ decision making process a procedural matter for the ACMA, rather than a decision at ministerial level,
  • removing the datacasting sub category for digital radio,
  • removing the digital radio moratorium period and
  • streamlining some technical matters such as and
  • how the ABC and SBS renew their licences

Extracts of the Second Reading speech:

The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2015 will reduce the level of regulatory complexity faced by the radio broadcasting industry by implementing reform in the digital radio regulatory framework, and will facilitate the rollout of digital radio in regional Australia.

On 8 July 2015, the then Minister for Communications tabled in the Parliament the Digital Radio Report which was prepared by the Department of Communications in response to two statutory reviews on the digital radio framework.

The report recommended that industry members and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) establish a Digital Radio Planning Committee for Regional Australia to focus on the rollout of digital radio to regional areas where it is commercially feasible to do so. The Planning Committee has now been established and includes key industry stakeholders. It is currently considering the rollout of digital radio in regional areas, and is giving priority to the licensing of permanent digital radio services in Canberra and Darwin.

Another key recommendation in that report was that the Government provide a simpler, more flexible process for the planning and licensing of digital radio in regional Australia. This move is supported by commercial, national and community radio sectors. The Government considers that the commercial radio sector is best placed to determine the areas where digital radio services can be successfully rolled out and the optimal timeframe for doing so. However, the Government can assist by streamlining digital radio planning and licensing processes.

A licence area’s ‘digital radio start-up day’ is the day on which relevant licensees are authorised to commence providing digital radio services in that licence area. Currently, the ACMA is required to ensure that the digital radio start-up day for a licence area is the day specified in a legislative instrument made by the Minister. It is proposed to remove the requirement for a legislative instrument made by the Minister – effectively removing the role of the Minister and leaving the setting of commencement dates for regional digital radio services to the ACMA. This simpler process is consistent with the Government’s regulation reform agenda. In setting the start-up day for a particular licence area, it is expected that the ACMA will take account of industry willingness to invest in the required infrastructure and to provide digital radio services in that area.

The datacasting licence category was intended to encourage the development of new and innovative services which were distinct from traditional broadcasting services. In 2007, the restricted datacasting licence category was introduced to allow service providers to use the digital radio platform to provide information-only or educational programs. To date, no restricted datacasting licences have been issued by the ACMA. Removing this sub-category of licence will simplify the digital radio regulatory framework across both the Broadcasting Services act and Radiocommunications act, while not preventing the service providers from continuing to offer new and innovative digital radio services to listeners.

Digital radio has been operating in the five mainland capital cities since 2009. Until 30 June 2015, there was a legislated moratorium on the issuing of any new commercial digital-only radio licences in those markets. This digital radio moratorium period was put in place to provide incumbent commercial radio broadcasters with a level of stability and certainty during the digital radio investment phase.

The six year moratorium period in these metropolitan licence areas has now expired. However, it will commence in regional areas if and when they start digital radio services. The Digital Radio Report found there was not a strong argument for retaining this provision, noting that the protection from competition offered by the six year digital radio moratorium period has not provided sufficient incentive for commercial radio broadcasters to extend digital radio services into regional licence areas. The bill therefore removes the digital radio moratorium period.

Digital radio broadcasters utilise two types of licence: the broadcasting licence which authorises them to provide their broadcasting service, and the ‘digital radio multiplex transmitter licence’ which licences the shared transmission infrastructure they use. Multiplex licences are allocated in three categories, each authorising a different combination of commercial, national and community digital radio services. Category 3 multiplex licences authorise the transmission of digital national radio broadcasting services and/or national restricted datacasting services and may, essentially, only be held by either or both of the national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS.

These licences currently fall within the definition of ‘non-foundation digital radio multiplex transmitter licence’ in the Radcomms act. A practical impact of this is that category 3 multiplex licensees (that is, the ABC and SBS) are excluded from applying for renewal of their licence. It is proposed to amend the definition of ‘non-foundation digital radio multiplex transmitter licence’ in the Radiocommunications act so that it excludes category 3 multiplex licences. This is a technical amendment to address an unintended consequence of the existing drafting.

The Government remains committed to streamlining and reforming the digital radio framework in consultation with regulatory and industry players. The Digital Radio Planning Committee may identify further elements of the digital radio regulatory framework that could be simplified to further facilitate the rollout of digital radio in regional Australia in the future.

Tags: | | |