Aussie Broadcasters Positioned for Digital

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Sydney, Australia-The country's free-to-air television networks are now in the clear to start digital broadcasting by January after the final rules governing digital terrestrial TV were passed by Parliament last week.

Some last-minute amendments saw public broadcasters Australian Broadcasting Corp. and Special Broadcasting Service permitted to use their allotted digital spectrum for multichannel transmissions, with one extra channel each.

The commercial networks are prohibited from multicasting their spectrum following strong lobbying by the pay television industry.

These decisions augment previously announced laws that include giving the networks 7 megahertz of spectrum for high-definition television and standard digital broadcasting. The HDTV signals must be broadcast for a minimum of 20 hours per week during primetime.

The networks may also enhance their digital broadcasts with interactive elements, and additional spectrum will be auctioned to potential datacasters or new players wanting to provide interactive services over the television set.

ABC managing director Jonathan Shier said in a prepared statement that he welcomed the opportunity for the broadcaster to expand its services, but did not comment on how ABC will schedule its extra channel.

SBS managing director Nigel Milan said multicasting would provide the multicultural broadcaster with the chance to transmit new offerings it can't telecast under its current schedule.

"SBS will need to carefully consider when and with what programming it launches via multichanneling," Milan said. "A key factor is the cost of additional programming."

No extra funding is being offered to the two national broadcasters to provide their additional digital channels, and they face strict content guidelines that prohibit them from using their new channels to broadcast sports, movies or comedy.

In another concession, the government has agreed to allow datacasters to deliver Internet services over the TV as long as they meet strict content criteria.

Communications minister Richard Alston said the government was confident the datacasting amendments would strengthen the business case for would-be players in the sector.

However, the week before the legislation was passed, would-be TV datacasters-including newspaper groups John Fairfax Holdings Ltd. and News Ltd. and telco giant Telstra Ltd.-exited trials. They said the new amendments gave them little confidence in the economic viability of such services.

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