Australia Lays Ground for Digital TV

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Sydney, Australia -- Australia's government last weekreleased its long-awaited blueprint for the introduction of digital-terrestrial-televisionbroadcasting, drawing mixed reviews from the pay TV sector.

The government has agreed to loan Australia's threecommercial and two public broadcasters 7 megahertz of digital spectrum for eight years,free-of-charge. They must begin digital broadcasts Jan. 1, 2001. Broadcasters willsimulcast their analog and digital signals during the time of the spectrum loan.

Communications Minister Richard Aston has prohibited thebroadcasters from using their spectrum for multicasting or subscription services. Instead,Alston mandated that they use the spectrum for high-definition television broadcasts, fora yet-undetermined number of hours per week. At a later date, broadcasters will be able touse the portion of their spectrum not used for HDTV to deliver other services, such asdata transmissions. However, they will have to pay fees to be able to provide suchservices.

With DTT technology rapidly evolving, the government hasalso established a number of inquiry and review boards that will report to thecommunications minister on the structure and viability of the proposed digital regime. Thereports will be presented just prior to the 2001 start-up date, and again in 2005.

They will also determine whether or not the country'stwo public broadcasters will be granted permission to provide multichannel services ontheir allocated spectrum. Australian Broadcasting Corp. is arguing that multichanneltransmissions would enable it to fulfill its charter and to "provide program streamsthat would increase audience access to the arts, children's education and localprogramming," said ABC chairman Donald McDonald.

The government's DTT blueprint was generally welcomedby the pay TV sector, although it drew some criticism. Online-service providers andconsumer groups also voiced concern.

The Australian Subscription Television and RadioAssociation said it "continues to be concerned at the proposal to allow the networksto use their free gift of spectrum to expand into what the government has described as'enhanced programming.' What is meant by enhanced programming is unclear."

Alston said enhancements refer to, for example, splitscreens and multiple camera angles during broadcasts of sporting events.

ASTRA's executive director, Debra Richards, echoedwider industry concerns about the competitive grounds of the blueprint, saying that itmeans that "the commercials [broadcasters] will have control of the gateway for thewhole digital future." She also noted that the blueprint leaves many important issuesunresolved. "The devil is in the details," she said.

The issue of charging broadcasters to provide datatransmissions on their portion of the 7-MHz digital spectrum and then auctioning theleftovers looks to be one of the thorniest issues.

Australian Consumers Association spokeswoman Mara Bun saidthe free-to-air networks have been given a "leg up" in the age of convergence.

"Think about broadcasting that is rich inadvertisements and the online purchasing ability from those ads. That's the gravytrain of electronic commerce. And the broadcasters can pick and choose theirpartners," she noted.

Richards added that private broadcasters SevenNetwork and Nine Network are already moving into that area with their recently launchedonline services -- Seven Online, Seven's joint venture with Intel Corp.; and Ninemsn,a joint venture between Nine and Microsoft Corp. 

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