Open access to digital TV being revisited?

While the spin-doctors try to keep their eye on the ball over TelstraSaturn's decision to 'put on hold' its digital TV plans with TVNZ, the government may quietly be re-visiting the whole issue of open access to digital TV 'for all New Zealanders'.

While the spin-doctors try to keep their eye on the ball over TelstraSaturn's decision to "put on hold" its digital TV plans with TVNZ, the government may quietly be revisiting the whole issue of open access to digital TV "for all New Zealanders".

Last year's telecommunications inquiry recommended government keep a "watching brief" on the television industry. The report recommended a single regulatory framework covering all electronic communications" - in other words, one set-top box for access to all digital TV channels.

However the government's response to the inquiry saw the question of digital TV and convergence left out of the draft legislation, effectively ignoring the inquiry's recommendation.

Following TelstraSaturn's bombshell decision to either abandon or put off its digital TV project with TVNZ, perhaps in favour of Sky TV, the government faces the future issue of consumers operating multiple set-top boxes to receive digital TV.

In Parliament yesterday Marion Hobbs, minister in charge of broadcasting, said her officials were working to "identify an accessible digital service for all New Zealanders". Her press secretary, Trevor Henry, said government wanted to play a "constructive role" in the digital television debate.

Paul Norris, head of Canterbury Polytechnic's school of broadcasting, and a former head of news at TVNZ, says the role of government in the TelstraSaturn's move must be considered. One possiblity could be that the government is talking about its "open access" plan again.

"That might have pushed Sky to try to get in early and make its box a de-facto standard," offering TelstraSaturn deal it couldn't walk away from. TelstraSaturn has yet to confirm any deals with SkyTV, despite some media reports.

Norris says BSkyB in the UK faced a similar dilemma - it was forced to offer some channels free to air. Initially it was resistant to the move, but grew to like it as more potential customers saw what BSkyB could offer and decided to sign up for the greater offering.

"TVNZ and TelstraSaturn both want open access because it gets them into the market, but Sky is resisting. That would change if government pushed open access again."

Norris also hypothesises that another possiblity for TelstraSaturn's move away from TVNZ, could be the financial problems its parent's company, Austar, is experiencing.

"You have to wonder about Austar and the pressure it could be bringing."

Austar spokesman Bruce Meagher says Austar is still committed to New Zealand as a market and he believes TelstraSaturn will be around for the long haul. He rejects claims that TelstraSaturn will pull back from its planned $1.2 billion investment in New Zealand.

"The market as a whole is at $5 billion and growing and we feel our investment will be able to net a healthy return for us."

Already in Wellington, TelstraSaturn's home market, it has a 22% share of the pay TV market, alongside a similar number for users on its ISP. Meagher says he would be quite happy with that kind of return on the investment despite New Zealand's small market size.

Norris raises the question of Telstra's role in TelstraSaturn's decision as well.

"The new chair of Telstra is Sam Chisholm who is a former Channel Nine and BSkyB man. You'd have to ask questions about his role in TelstraSaturn's closeness with Sky."

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Tags digital tv

More about Austar EntertainmentCanterburyTelstra CorporationTelstraSaturn

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