The Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Richard Alston, has issued a determination which clears the distinction between Internet streaming and broadcasting.
Until this decision, the Internet Industry Association (IIA) feared streaming would be treated as datacasting and would be subject to the strict legislation the Government put in place to protect television broadcasters.
After voicing its concern over the lack of distinction, the IIA has now been promised that video and audio streaming via the Internet will be subject to a different set of laws than datacasting, which is the digital broadcasting of programs via set-top boxes.
"The Government has moved quickly to issue the determination to provide the Internet industry with a substantial degree of certainty," Senator Alston said.
The decision follows a review of the definition of a "broadcasting service" because there was a lack of legal certainty as to whether a streaming service fell within the definition of a broadcasting service.
If it had, the law would have presented some serious problems for the Internet industry. Several years ago, the Government announced that no new television broadcasting licences would be issued until after 2006. It also offered current broadcasters eight years of free datacasting spectrum to broadcast their content digitally.
Concerns arose that other datacasters could potentially undermine the decision to have no more commercial broadcasters until 2006, and so the Government carved out 16 genres of content which datacasters were not permitted to deliver. These included everything from news and current affairs to children's programs - to the point where there was little left for datacasters to provide.
According to Peter Coroneos, executive director of the IIA, parties that were investing in datacasting started pulling out. Coroneos then learnt the Department of Communications was to also conduct a review as to whether the same rules should apply to Internet streaming.
"That's when we started getting upset," he said. "If you treat streaming in the same way, you need a broadcasting licence."
"There was a lot of investment in broadband here in Australia [based] on the assumption that users could get access to feature-rich content over the Net - the richest being audio and video, which takes up the highest bandwidth," he said. "But there is no point having broadband access without this content. The only thing broadband would be delivering is over-sized e-mail. The billions of dollars invested in broadband were at risk."
Coroneos believes television broadcasters are over-protected by the Government, and that this bias has proved a potential threat to the growth of the Internet industry.
"In the UK, they don't even know what datacasting is," he said. "That is, they don't distinguish it the way we do; they are just allowing the technology to naturally converge - as it should. It shows that television interests are probably more powerful in this country than anywhere else in the world in their ability to control Government policy."
The IIA undertook a campaign which included meeting the minister to voice its concerns. Alston then fast-tracked the review process, which was completed within days.
"The review realised that the need for certainty was important," Coroneos said. "We find it encouraging but it's still not really enough. The law is still too ambiguous. We want it clarified beyond any doubt that you don't need a broadcaster's licence to do streaming."
The determination means that at any time Alston or another incumbent could overturn the decision as they please. An amendment, on the other hand, would be passed by Parliament and would have to be passed back through Parliament to be overturned. Coroneos is confident that Senator Alston, or any Labor equivalent, would be unlikely to overturn the decision, no matter what pressure television broadcasters would apply.
"It would be political dynamite if they tried to reverse it," he said. "The Government has done [television broadcasters] a pretty good favour already. We're confident that this decision will stand. If it doesn't, we'll just campaign again."