Aussie free-to-air TV studies Kiwi Freeview

Government mavens prepare to reap 'digital dividend' from analogue switch-off

Australia's commercial free-to-air broadcasters are trooping across the Tasman to study New Zealand's Freeview digital broadcasting paltform, which began transmitting its FreeviewHD high definition terrestrial service this week.

Freeview general manager Steve Browning told Computerworld Australia's Channel 10 had been in New Zealand to have a look at the platform and study its specifications. Last Monday that interest was backed by a visit from the Seven Network.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported last month that Seven was considering dropping its planned Tivo digital recorder service in favour of Freeview. ABC and SBS are also expected to support the Freeview model. As in New Zealand, Freeview will be free-to-air broadcasting's platform answer to subscriber television, branded Foxtel in Australia and Sky locally.

Browning says the New Zealand and Australian services will likely share specifications. He says a major attraction of the Freeview platform for the Australian broadcasters is that it offers a clean upgrade path from their legacy technologies to MPEG 4.

The Australian networks have to date refused to comment about their platform plans.

Browning says Freeview will be the only free-to-air platform when analogue broadcasting is finally swtched off in 2012.

However, one issue vexing the fledgling service is government policy around the allocation of spectrum. Browning says government has fallen silent on its spectrum allocation policy.

That policy is to allocate more, but if it is all opened to auction, broadcasters could miss out.

"If telcos are bidding, there's no way broadcasters can win," Browning says.

Brian Miller, the Ministry of Economic Development's spectrum policy and planning manager, says the issue is about what happens to UHF spectrum now used for analogue broadcasting when that broadcasting is turned off in 2012.

He says digital broadcasting will only use a fraction of the spectrum currently allocated, producing what is called a "digital dividend".

"Internationally there is a lot of thinking going one. With digital broadcasting you can squeeze a lot more into a smaller space," he says.

Miller says there is a lot of demand for the excess spectrum from mobile operators and also some noise about using it to deliver broadband.

He says he expects New Zealand's position on the spectrum, which runs from 518MHz to 802MHz, to firm up over the next two years. MED is watching international developments for a lead and trying to forecast how much spectrum will be available as well as the demand for that from new technologies.

A Cabinet paper from late 2007 highlights further policy issues. It says the analogue switch-off is likely to occur before the expiry of UHF analogue licences that will be renewed for the period 2010 to 2020.

Current policy, allows analogue right-holders, primarily but not exclusively Sky, to convert their licences to digital. It was agreed prior to the development of the government’s 2006 digital television policy.

The paper says the 2003 and 2004 policies create the potential to limit competition in the following ways:

"Significant blocks of UHF spectrum could remain permanently with current right-holders, without the ability to either auction or to make allocations for public good reasons; and

"New broadcasters and service providers could have limited options for gaining access to the market, either by securing licences in their own right, or seeking carriage arrangements on digital licences held by others."

The result would be that realisation of the full digital dividend could be frustrated "if the UHF band cannot be re-planned, if licences are under- or un-utilised, and/or if there are limited opportunities to establish a market value for digital licences".

"It is important to note," the paper says, "that, if spectrum cannot be cleared and re-allocated, the full digital dividend cannot be derived until at least 2020 and the digital television policy has a lower net economic benefit."

Freeview now broadcasts 13 channels including the new TVNZ 6 and 7. TVNZ is gearing up for high definition broadcasts of the upcoming Olympics in Beijing on the platform.

Read more on Freeview in Computerworld's print edition on Monday

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