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Digital television broadcasting in Australia

Written by  Lyn Maddock
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Lyn MaddockIssue:Asia-Pacific I 2005
Article no.:3
Topic:Digital television broadcasting in Australia
Author:Lyn Maddock
Title:Acting Chair
Organisation:Australian Broadcasting Authority
PDF size:52KB

About author

Lyn Maddock is the Acting Chair of the Australian Broadcasting Authority. Originally appointed in December 2000 for a three-year term as a member of the ABA, Ms Maddock has been reappointed for a further four years commencing 13 December 2003. Ms Maddock has extensive management and public policy experience across a range of areas, having held senior positions with the Productivity Commission, the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Westpac Banking Corporation. Ms Maddock’s policy experience has been concentrated in the areas of transport, communication and resources, regulatory affairs and public sector management.

 

Article abstract

Digital television broadcasting in Australia, which started in 2001, is now available in some form to more than 90 per cent of the population. The Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) has guided this process along, taking care to protect the rights of consumers and has endeavoured to create a competitive market place. The ABA is now studying uses for the radio spectrum that the move to digital broadcasting will free up by fostering the development of new broadcasting and data services.

 

Full Article

The first of January 2001 marked the start of the transition from analogue to digital television broadcasting in Australia and signalled the biggest revolution since the change from black and white to colour television in the 1970s. Digital technology brings many advantages; analogue television has reached the ceiling of its potential while digital represents the floor of new possibilities; better quality pictures and sound, multi-channelling, programme enhancements and interactivity. If the sales of digital television set top receivers and integrated digital television sets are any guide, there is no doubt that digital television is taking off in Australia. From a standing start in January 2001, 75 per cent of the population now has access to all five free-to-air television networks in digital and more than 90 per cent has access to at least one digital service. A datacasting trial is currently being conducted in Sydney and the first digital subscription service has started this year, offering extra channels, programming, interactive and enhanced services, better picture and better sound. Introduction of digital TV For two years before digital television was switched on, the Australian Broadcasting Authority, or ABA, laid the groundwork by planning the channels for the digital services to use, broadcasters invested in the infrastructure for its delivery while industry, through Standards Australia, developed the standards and specifications for transmission and reception. Broadcasters in the mainland capital cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth were required to commence digital services on at least one of their transmitter sites by 1 January 2001, as determined in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. In regional markets, which cover the next most significant population centres, the ABA determined the commencement dates. The ABA had a degree of flexibility about the dates it could determine; however, the Broadcasting Services Act required that all regional broadcasters start by 1 January 2004. To meet their obligations, regional broadcasters commenced at least one transmitter within the market, simulcasting their services in both analogue and digital modes. Broadcasters must simulcast in their markets for eight years, or longer if prescribed, from the date of the first digital service in the market. Digital broadcasts must also match analogue broadcasts. Planning for digital services Both the analogue and digital transmission networks use channels in the VHF and UHF parts of the broadcasting service bands (those parts of the radio frequency spectrum assigned to the ABA for planning of broadcasting services) and the two transmission networks operate simultaneously. The ABA therefore had to find more than twice as many channels for television broadcasting. Fortunately, digital technology came to the aid of the planners, so they could use the channels for digital that could not be used for additional analogue television services and satisfy the increased demand for channels. Each area was planned with a least seven channels, to enable conversion of the five existing networks plus capacity for two future services. Preservation of viewers’ access to their existing free-to-air services in the simulcast area was of paramount concern for the ABA. The ABA was also concerned about potential interference to the reception of existing analogue services. So, when the switch-on of new digital transmissions results in any interference, the ABA expects the television industry to deal with the problem, in part through the mechanisms of the ABA’s Interference Management Scheme. In general, the ABA has been pleased with the industry’s response to managing the impact on viewers of digital transmissions. Following the introduction of the first services at the main transmitter in the metropolitan markets, broadcasters have expended considerable effort to increase the coverage of their networks in the rest of their metropolitan markets and to introducing digital transmission in regional areas. Current situation The challenge now facing Australia is to encourage the take-up of consumer equipment, such as digital set top boxes and integrated digital television sets. Although the switch-off of analogue transmission can, by law, occur as early as eight years after digital services began in each area, the government, through a series of statutory reviews, is only now considering the preconditions for turning off analogue services. Digital television set top receivers and integrated digital television sets sales had reached 530,000 units by the end of September 2004, and averaged 40,000 in each of the preceding three months, compared to 10,000 units for the September quarter 2003. On the basis of these figures, more than 700,000 homes (or eight per cent of all households) are expected to be (free-to-air) digital by the end of 2004. Digital subscription television numbers are also growing: passing the 900,000 mark by the end of 2004, if not sooner. Digital Broadcasting Australia believes that sales will continue to be strong as the number of suppliers grows, the range and type of receivers increases and consumers become more aware of the benefits of free-to-air digital television. The number of transmitters continues to grow, enabling the continued roll out of digital services. More than 350 transmitters currently provide digital services, reaching more than 90 per cent of the population and at least another 50 are expected to be on air by the end of 2004. The commercial broadcasters have confirmed that they are committed to a common platform for digital terrestrial services based on open standards, with a minimum standard for set top boxes. They also agree that interactive set top boxes for the Australian market should be able to receive all interactive applications from all commercial broadcasters and that boxes should be forward compatible, so that applications for first generation interactive boxes will work with later versions. What can Australian viewers expect from this digital technology? HDTV In Australia, it was decided from the outset that high definition television, HDTV, would be an integral part of the suite of facilities offered by digital services. Accordingly, the ABA planned a seven MHz television channel for each national and commercial service in each transmission area. Broadcasters must provide services in standard definition mode and, as well, a legislated minimum of 1040 hours per calendar year of high definition programming. To protect consumers from being forced to purchase a high definition digital receiver, any programme transmitted in high definition must also be transmitted in standard definition. There are signs the decision to adopt HDTV may be vindicated; large display units that benefit from the better-quality digital pictures have proliferated. As the availability of flat display panels increases, and prices continue to fall, more and more Australian consumers are switching to widescreen television. There are now an estimated 640,000 widescreens in Australian homes, of which 30 per cent are relatively expensive plasma or LCD screens. The average monthly sales of widescreen televisions to retailers for third quarter 2004 were 46,000 units. Uptake of widescreen displays is believed to be a key driver in viewer decisions to upgrade to digital reception. Meanwhile, there are indications that demand for true HDTV displays may follow close behind. DVDs will soon be available in high definition and television games will be available in HD, starting Christmas 2004. These, and improved compression technologies – such as MPEG 4 – Part 10 and Windows Media 9 Series – are all driving the demand for better resolution, larger monitors and, ultimately, high definition displays. Data broadcasting When planning for the conversion from analogue to digital television transmission, the ABA planned at least two additional television channels in each area to be used for data broadcasting, called datacasting. The Broadcasting Services Act defines datacasting as a special category of service. Datacasting content is subject to restrictions designed to encourage datacasting licensees to provide a range of innovative services, different than traditional broadcasting services. These include information-only programmes, educational programmes, interactive computer games, text or still images, parliamentary broadcasts, electronic mail and Internet content. A datacasting trial is underway in Sydney; it aims to help the industry develop technical and business models for potential new and innovative services. Mobile TV Over and above the more obvious benefits for the viewer – interactivity, better picture and sound, – the introduction of digital television has the potential to free up spectrum currently required for analogue television coverage. Analogue switch-off will provide a spectrum dividend: in other words, it will free up spectrum for alternative uses, both broadcasting and non-broadcasting of the broadcast bands. Australia is well positioned to take advantage of technological developments even before the spectrum dividend is realised, as the two digital television channels originally planned for datacasting can be used for other purposes as well. The spectrum made available when the analogue system closes will also become available for new services and features for the consumer, should providers be willing and able. The ABA will continue to engage in the international planning decision making processes, such as the International Telecommunications Union forum, to ensure it stays well informed about international approaches to possible uses for spectrum in these bands. Many believe that mobile television will be the latest addition to the five waves of media: printing, radio, television, recording, Internet and (now) mobile television. It has also been tagged ‘the fourth screen’, following after cinema, television and computers. Over the years there has been a trend for fixed devices to evolve into mobile devices. For example, families used to gather around radio in the evenings to be informed and entertained, until the transistor made it possible for radio to become truly a mobile medium and move with the listener. The same route has been followed by the telephone, strictly a fixed device until relatively recently. The desktop computer was chained to the office desk and later to the home office desk, until laptops made the computer a portable, increasingly mobile device. Television is apparently moving along the same path; in the future we might never need be without it. Government reviews The Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts is reviewing several aspects of digital television. These reviews will provide information for the Australian Government to consider before deciding when to switch-off the analogue system. The reviews will consider: √ Whether the requirement that programmes must be broadcast in both analogue and digital modes during the simulcast period should be amended or repealed–thereby allowing, for example, the provision of multi-channelling, or additional analogue and digital programming; √ Whether the prohibition on provision of subscription television services by broadcasters and other kinds of broadcasting services currently not permitted, should be amended or repealed; √ Whether all parts of the broadcasting services bands available for allocation for broadcasting or datacasting services have been identified and efficiently structured; √ Whether provisions of the Broadcasting Services Act relating to additional commercial television broadcasting licences in underserved areas – including the exemptions from HDTV requirements for multi-channelled services – should be amended or repealed; √ Whether the HDTV quotas should be amended; √ The competitive and regulatory arrangements that should apply to datacasting transmission licensees, on or after 1 January 2007, when providing licensed broadcasting services, as well as the revenues to be raised therefrom by the Australian Government; √ The conditions that should apply to commercial television broadcasting licences on or after 1 January 2007 for the provision of commercial television broadcasting services; √ The viability of creating an indigenous television broadcasting service and the regulatory arrangements that should apply to the digital transmission of such a service using spectrum in the broadcasting services bands; √ The regulatory arrangements for HDTV transmissions in remote areas that should apply to commercial and national broadcasters; √ The duration of the simulcast period. Conclusion The roll out of free-to-air digital television services in Australia has progressed remarkably well. Many difficult issues such as interference management have been effectively dealt with. The ABA continues to work with the Government, broadcasters and the industry in general, to ensure a smooth transition to the era of digital television. The benefits of digital television broadcasting in Australia include a range of new and different services that broadcasters can offer to viewers. Viewers are responding in increasingly larger numbers; they can see the benefits – to them, the future of digital broadcasting is clear.

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