DIGITAL RADIO AND TELEVISION
Digital broadcasting refers to the transmission of radio and television signals using digital coding. It became a major policy issue in the 1990s and early 2000s because its introduction by free-to-air broadcasters required governments to allocate radio-frequency spectrum and consumers to buy new receivers.
Digital coding of the broadcast signals made more efficient use of spectrum, allowing broadcasters to offer more services of better technical quality and audiences to manipulate, store and interact with broadcast content more easily. By enabling the use of frequencies that could not be deployed for analogue transmissions without unacceptable levels of interference, digital television transmission meant a lot of spectrum could be reallocated for other purposes after ‘analogue switch-off’ or ‘digital switchover’.
Much of the policy debate was about free- to-air broadcasters’ use of digital transmission, although the technology was introduced first by satellite and cable operators. The first policy debates and decisions occurred in the late 1990s, amid the rapid take-up of other digital media, including 2G mobile telephony, internet access and DVD. Incumbent broadcasters promoted digital transmission mainly to help them keep pace with the technical quality offered by their competitors. Television broadcasters were especially concerned to secure their tenure over valuable spectrum at a time when spectrum auctions were becoming popular. Governments and parliaments supported digital broadcasting because it used spectrum more efficiently, and because they accepted that popular electronic media services—including the public service broadcasters they funded—needed a path to a digital future. They were especially interested in digital television because politically influential broadcasters wanted it, and because the large amounts of vacated spectrum might raise significant sums at auction.
Policy-makers in Australia drew on technology, experience and policy models from overseas, especially the United Kingdom and the United States. Australia chose European transmission standards—DVB rather than ATSC for television and eventually the enhanced DAB+ rather than HD Radio for radio—and the European digital radio structure, where broadcasters would share capacity on multiplex transmitters. The Australian television policy model was closer to that of the United States. Incumbent commercial and national (ABC and SBS) broadcasters each got an additional channel to transmit their existing analogue and digital television services until analogue services were shut down. Australia, like the United States, initially emphasised higher definition television. The ABC and SBS were important parts of the digital television transition, but not the centrepiece.
Initial decisions about digital television and radio were announced by the Howard Coalition government in March 1998, and the television decisions were legislated later that year. Digital television and radio were both supposed to commence in 2001. Digital television would replace analogue, but digital radio would only supplement analogue services. There was no commitment to shut down AM and FM radio; analogue television transmission would cease eight years after digital commenced, a timetable that was later delayed. The government eventually agreed to wholly fund the new television infrastructure for the ABC and SBS, and provide half the cost for regional commercial television broadcasters—a total of around $1.25 billion. The Labor opposition and Australian Democrats criticised the speed of government decision-making about digital television, but ended up supporting the main policy elements. The decisions about television were heavily criticised, especially the quotas for high definition programming, the continuing prohibition on more than three commercial television licences in each market and the complicated restrictions on ‘datacasting’ services able to use frequencies not required by incumbent television broadcasters. Not much public comment was made about the digital radio policy, but it was not pursued with any enthusiasm by the radio industry.
Criticism of the digital television policy by newspaper, pay television and telecommunications companies, internet service providers and a consumer organisation was expressed through an inquiry into broadcasting held by the Productivity Commission. Its March 2000 report warned that ‘without substantial changes, the digital [television] conversion plan is at serious risk of failure’. It opposed a conversion scheme for digital radio. A number of changes to the television scheme were made later in 2000. To allow consumers to buy cheaper standard definition (SD) receivers, television broadcasters were required to ‘triple-cast’ separate SD and HD digital as well as analogue versions of their services. More detail was added to the definitions of what could and could not be transmitted by digital television and datacasting service providers, and internet streaming was excluded from the definition of ‘broadcasting service’. An auction of spectrum for datacasting was called off after it became clear there would be few bidders.
Metropolitan digital television services commenced on 1 January 2001, after the late-1990s internet and telecommunications bubble had burst. Household penetration reached nearly 30 per cent by October 2006. The main pay television operator, Foxtel, launched a digital service in 2004 and switched off analogue three years later. In late 2006, the long-criticised restrictions on free-to-air multi-channel services were relaxed, effectively allowing commercial broadcasters a second channel from 2007 and a third from 2009. Restrictions were removed entirely for the ABC and SBS.
Seven’s 7mate and 7TWO, Nine’s Gem and GO!, Ten’s ONE and ELEVEN, SBS2, and the ABC’s ABC2, ABC3 (Kids) and ABC News24 soon started attracting significant audiences. Together with National Indigenous Television, the digital multi-channels became available to all viewers across the country when the government-funded Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST) commenced in 2010. Capacity for a terrestrial community television channel was eventually allocated on the SBS’s multiplex transmitter. Digital television switchover began in Mildura in June 2010 and ended when the last analogue services were switched off in Sydney, Melbourne and some remote areas in December 2013. Vacated ‘digital dividend’ spectrum was auctioned in 2013 and acquired by Telstra and Optus Mobile, who can offer new, probably mobile broadband, services from January 2015.
Digital radio services did not start as planned in 2001. Unsure about a number of aspects, broadcasters re-opened the policy. Eventually, a new one was agreed, but for the mainland state capitals only. The new, more efficient transmission standard DAB+ was chosen, enabling broadcasters sharing capacity on multiplex transmitters to transmit more than the single high-quality digital audio channel initially contemplated. A block of spectrum on the VHF band was allocated, rather than the higher frequency L-Band proposed in 1998, and the federal government agreed to fund the new infrastructure for the ABC, SBS and city-wide community broadcasters.
Commercial and national broadcasters commenced services in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth in 2009. City-wide community broadcasters followed in 2011. By mid-2013, around 1.4 million DAB+ receivers were reported to have been sold, and nearly 13 per cent of radio listening was to DAB+ devices. New commercial radio stations available online as well as on digital radio included hits of the 1970s and 1980s (Koool), Mix ’80s, Mix ’90s, ‘Best Mix from the 80s, 90s and Now’ (Chemist Warehouse Remix), ‘Tune In, Chill Out’ (Buddah Radio), ‘Time to Chill’ (Koffee) and a dance station (novanation). SBS launched separate Asian, Arabic and Desi pop stations, a world music station and a third language station; the ABC launched specialist jazz and country music stations, DiG Music (now Double J) and Triple J Unearthed, a sports station (Grandstand) and a special events channel.
VHF spectrum was reserved to allow digital radio to expand beyond metropolitan areas, but by late 2013, no government decisions had been made about that, or about shutting down analogue AM or FM transmissions in any area—meaning digital radio remains a supplement rather than a replacement for analogue.
REFs: J. Given, Turning off the Television (2003); A. Kenyon (ed.), TV Futures (2007).