One of the supposed great enablers of the Digital Economy remains the digitisation of various broadcast services. This week however we saw the juxtoposition of Senator Conroy announcing a new package of measures to encourage transition the day after the US Senate voted to delay analog switch-off from January to June. That Bill still hasn't made its way through the HoR.
What's this all about? According to the digital switchover taskforce Digital TV is simply a better way of broadcasting and receiving television signals. Digital TV offers superior picture and sound quality, widescreen pictures and a greater channel selection.
However as a piece of regulatory policy around the globe it has been promoted by the equipment industry keen to sell new stuff, and adopted by policy makers because of the wonder known as "the Digital Dividend". This dividend in its loftier guise is the ability for greater efficiency in the utilisation of spectrum, but in the grubbier realpolitik of Government and bureaucracy it is the opportunity to raise revenue by the auctioning of the spectrum.
In fact what the use of that released spectrum is is one of the core issues here. In the US the freed up 700MHz spectrum has already been sold with purchasers planning to launch different varieties of wireless broadband/4G mobile services.
In Australia there is no business case, desire or need for additional television channels. Why do Australia's obese kids need a 24 hour kids TV channel? Who will watch it from 10pm to 5am - maybe use that slot for real porn? The commercial networks have no idea what to do with their extra standard definition channels. TEN is going to offer a sports channel, but very much a niche and tier two sports channel.
The spectrum may be useful for additional wireless deployments, but most of the allocated 1.8GHz and a large slab of the allocated 2GHz lots sit unused, let alone the waste of space that is the 2.3GHz and 3.5GHz allocations.
So exactly what has Conroy offered to accelerate this process that generates the most doubtful of outcomes. Let's be picky - it is hard to know given all their seems to be is a scant media release. The package seems to be limited to Sunraysia (centred on Mildura) which the release quaintly calls Australia's "leading digital television region" - in reality it is the region first targeted for transition, on 30 June 2010.
The package of measures announced includesThe suite of measures includes:
* a package of in-home assistance to help targeted households
* a new satellite service to extend access to digital TV
* working with the local community to improve awareness and understanding of switchover
* a labelling scheme to help consumers to easily identify digital ready products, and
* a national call centre and a web site providing switchover information.
This doesn't tell us much, except it is notable that in a project designed for Midura the implementation is a "national call centre" - I wonder if Telstra is including in its regional presence plans the benefits to regions of national call centres?
The really telling point in all this is the solution to the fact that digital TV has worse propogation characteristics than analogue, as well as terrestrial digital TV there will be a new satellite service.
This begs the question of whether the Digital TV policy and the NBN policy are at al coherent. After all the NBN will be fully capable of delivering digital TV terrestrially, and the 2% of the population supposedly outside the NBN footprint would be served by the satellite. This was, after all, the expectation when the Negroponte Switch was hypothesised - that communications tradionally carried by air (TV and radio) would be carried by wire, and that communications traditionally carried by wire (voice) would be carried by air (wireless)
Of course, the defenders of terrestrial TV like to invoke how important it is that it is free. It isn't of course. You do have to buy the receiving device, and often an external aerial. After that it is only free if you watch the ABC (since Whitlam abolished TV receiver licence fees - believe it or not such things used to exist). The ads that pay for the content are all ultimately paid by the consumer.
Unfortunately it doesn't look like there is much hope of the far simpler policy - dual transmission for a lot longer period, and leave it to the TV networks to work out the migration. Taxpayers shouldn't be footing this particular bill.