Turnbull seeks second Digital Dividend from community TV spectrum

Community TV broadcasters should move to over-the-top Internet model, says communications minister

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull addresses the RadComms conference in Sydney.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull addresses the RadComms conference in Sydney.

The government is eyeing spectrum used by community TV broadcasters in Australian capital cities for a possible second Digital Dividend auction.

In a keynote at the RadComms conference in Sydney today, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said this “sixth channel” spectrum might be in the long term be used for mobile broadband. He proposed that community TV broadcasters give up the spectrum and move to an over-the-top Internet-based model.

The “sixth channel” spectrum is UHF and shares similar propagation characteristics to the “beachfront” 700MHz spectrum sold in the Digital Dividend auction. Like that spectrum, it can travel long distances and provides good indoor coverage. Its frequencies are located slightly below 694MHz.

The government plans to extend community TV licenses until the end of 2015, and then community TV broadcasters will have to move to the Internet, Turnbull said.

Before the spectrum is moved to mobile broadband use, it will be used to help transition broadcasters to MPEG4 broadcasts which provide better compression and make more efficient use of the spectrum, Turnbull said.

“I have no doubt this transition is in the best interest of community television. It will deliver wider audiences ... at less cost on a wider range of devices and the ability to do more than linear broadcasting.”

Community TV broadcaster arguments that they should not be “rushed into the new media world” hold no water, Turnbull said.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Internet is not new.”

It took the government seven years from the announcement of the first Digital Dividend to the actual auction. While Turnbull said a second Digital Dividend is a long-term goal, he told media that he hoped it would take less than seven years to accomplish.

The proposal will be considered as the Department of Communications and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) move towards a revamped regulatory framework for spectrum.

The government has commenced the review in an effort to modernise the current framework, established in 1992 under the Radiocommunications (RadComms) Act. It seeks to reflect changes in technology, markets and consumer preferences, as well as increasing demand for spectrum from all sectors. The framework was last reviewed by the Productivity Commission in 2002.

While Turnbull is already considering a second Digital Dividend, it did not successfully sell all the 700MHz spectrum that was available in the first auction. Turnbull said the government is still reviewing what to do with that spectrum.

Speaking earlier in the morning, ACMA Chairman Chris Chapman said the restack of the Digital Dividend 700MHz spectrum – a necessary step before Telstra and Optus can use the spectrum they purchased – is ahead of schedule and could be finished one month before the 1 January 2015 deadline.

The ACMA has worked with Telstra and Optus and incumbent broadcasters to provide early access to the spectrum in some areas. These were announced last month by each of the telcos.

Chapman stressed the importance of the RadComms Act overhaul to "reset" spectrum policy in Australia.

“We see Minister Turnbull’s current review as an essential, once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure we have the necessary, fit-for-purpose toolkits and frameworks to continue Australia’s pre-eminence in spectrum utilisation and management,” he said.

An early point of contention in the spectrum review has been whether broadcasters, which use spectrum for over-the-air TV and radio, should be included in the review.

Broadcasters have said they should be carved out from the scope of the spectrum review because they are required to adhere to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992.

However, telcos represented by the Communications Alliance and the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) have asked for a unified regulatory framework governing all spectrum including broadcasting frequencies.

Adam Bender covers telco and enterprise tech issues for Computerworld and is the author of dystopian sci-fi novels We, The Watched and Divided We Fall. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

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