Australian Free-to-Air Satellite TV
We, the undersigned, call on the Federal Minister of Communications to review the Broadcast Services Act and its administration by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. The current legislation has the effect of: a) Limiting the number of free-to-air satellite TV service providers. b) Denying reasonable access to services by members of the public. c) Inhibiting the use of satellite TV distribution, despite Australia's geography and the potential economic benefits. Background* Free-to-air satellite TV is currently provided by Remote Area Broadcast Services (RABS) who are licensed television and radio service providers. Transmission is delivered to several hundred analogue rebroadcast transmitters in regional and remote parts of Australia via Ku-band satellite. The RABS broadcasters comprise ABC, SBS, WIN WA, GWN, Southern Cross Broadcasting and Imparja. The ABC and SBS are delivered as state based services. There are however only two commercial remote licence areas - remote Western Australia which is served by WIN and GWN, and remote Central and Eastern Australia which is served by Southern Cross Broadcasting and Imparja. The majority of viewers receive their TV signals from terrestrial transmitters. However, for viewers who are out of range of these transmitters, services are also distributed by satellite transmission and it is estimated that approximately 30,000 homes receive Direct to Home (DTH) satellite. Although RABS are free-to-air services, RABS broadcasters are licensed to only transmit to designated areas and satellite signals are encrypted to restrict reception to specific geographic zones and in the case of commercial broadcasters to prevent reception in other terrestrial licence areas. The broadcasters have adopted the view that, to satisfy their licence conditions, they act as enforcement authorities and have introduced rigid and often non-commercial practices in order to deny service to persons outside the designated areas. In order to view free-to-air TV direct from satellite, viewers need to install an Optus Aurora smartcard in their receiver and contact each of the various broadcasters for authorisation. Recently, some operators have extended enforcement to deny service to legitimate viewers (eg travellers) who are within the designated areas. Separately, they have threatened legal action against viewers who use non-authorised smartcards or equipment without regard it seems for whether the user is otherwise a legitimate viewer of a free broadcast service. The practical effect of the regulatory environment is: 1) An onerous and bureaucratic "rules based" activation process and the imposition of inefficiencies and significant administrative costs on the licensed broadcasters. 2) The resultant restriction of the broadcasters' audiences below that which is otherwise fair and reasonable. 3) Denial of service to a wide range of legitimate viewers (eg travellers). 4) In at least one case (ie Imparja), the broadcaster has decided to deny service to some classes of viewers entirely, resulting in travellers and others being denied access, even in areas where terrestrial-based TV is unavailable. 5) Despite Australia's vast distances and the efficiency of satellite, Australia has a poorly developed free-to-air satellite TV network. In comparison, such services are widely available across Europe and contribute significantly to the delivery of high-quality content. Accordingly, we believe that the legislation needs overhaul with a view to "deregulation" of free-to-air satellite broadcasting services. The target outcomes are: 1) Easy access to free-to-air satellite TV services by all Australians, irrespective of domicile and/or traveller status. 2) An extension of satellite licences to additional broadcasters, including operators of regional and urban terrestrial TV services. 3) Re-positioning satellite as a major distribution system for TV services across Australia. Economic Considerations It is understood that the current restrictions on the broadcast areas of the RADS is based on the argument that they would, otherwise, unfairly compete with terrestrial broadcasters who have spent considerable sums for their terrestrial licences and/or equipment. In consideration of deregulation, there would also be the argument that the granting of satellite licences to terrestrial TV broadcasters would result in "unfair" competition for both regional terrestrial TV broadcasters and for the existing RADS. It is our view that the arguments are weak. The counter arguments are that: - Deregulation would allow regional terrestrial TV operators to extend their reach by embracing deregulated satellite distribution. Many of the globally-successful internet radio stations were previously small regional stations who adopted new technology to extend their audiences. - The reduction in cost, and easier access to satellite services, would extend the total market at considerable benefit to the existing RAD broadcasters. The existing audience (ie 30,000 homes) pales compared to the number of full and part-time travellers who represent a latent market, and is insignificant compared to the in-home viewing audiences which would become available as a result of deregulation. - Commercial terrestrial TV broadcasters have as much to gain by extending distribution via satellite, as they have to fear by competing with freely available satellite TV. - The existing legislative regime becomes irrelevant with the development of internet TV. Thus, the Australian Personal Computer Magazine recently reported on how it is now possible to view TV from the United States on the internet. - With the cost of broadband continuing to fall, it will soon be easier to view foreign TV on the internet, than to view Australian TV by satellite here in Australia! Conclusion It is recognised that in deregulating satellite TV services, there will be a wide range of interests which will be impacted by the transition. But that is the job of the elected Government to manage. The failings of the current arrangements are clear and denial of service to legitimate users simply highlights the poor economics of the existing regime, and the risk of operators withdrawing services altogether over the longer term. A deregulated environment provides the opportunity for satellite TV to take its place as a mainstream distribution medium in a country which, more than any other, is ideally suited to such technology. _____________________________________________________________ * Some of the content herein is sourced from www.imparja.com. The author of this petition is, however, solely responsible for the arguments for legislative and/or regulatory change.