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Digital TV legislation spawns debate

NEW digital television and datacasting legislation is overly restrictive and will have wide ramifications for the future of the emerging media, says Murdoch University marketing and media program chair Duane Varan.

Dr Varan, who is considered one of Australia’s foremost authorities on the digital television industry, said a key implications of the new legislation was the ambiguity of the definition of datacasting. “The genre-based approach adopted by the government provides little

certainty to prospective businesses hoping to venture into the datacasting space,” Dr Varan said.

“It is a position that is at once both narrow and ambiguous.

“This will almost certainly get tied up in the courts and the legal battles will endlessly try to clarify whether content has violated the new legislation’s ‘look and feel’ boundaries.”

The restrictions were based on the government’s desire that datacasters be differentiated from traditional commercial broadcasters, and to ensure that datacasting services were not used to circumvent a ban on new commercial TV licences.

Under the new legislation, new commercial TV licences are prohibited until the end of 2006.

This has led to suggestions of an agenda to protect existing terrestrial broadcasters.

“I actually don’t have too much of a problem with that because I believe there has to be incentive for broadcasters to migrate to the new ball game,” Dr Varan said.

“An environment needs to be created that sees broadcasters migrating to digital enthusiastically.

“From a cultural point of view, it’s in our best long term interest to have strong cultural industries that ensure we have Australian content, but it’s unfortunate that this is not a part of the government’s agenda. They have made some silly mistakes in terms of cultural capital.”

Mr Varan said another key issue was the lack of a compulsory standard for digital receivers. Under the legislation, adherence to the configuration recommended by Standards Australia is voluntary.

“This could create legacy issues as early adopters of DTV may find their boxes don’t work six months down the track,” he said.

“This would have an adverse impact on consumer confidence and could significantly retard the growth of DTV in Australia.

“With broadcasters adopting the Java-based MHP platform for interactivity – still a year away from being finalised – digital receivers will require a fair amount of grunt.

“Those keen to position themselves early will probably distribute low cost receivers that will be fine in terms of receiving digitised video and audio content but may be incapable of accessing the interactive services which broadcasters will roll out later.”

While the Federal Government recently decided not to regard streamed audio and video content obtainable on the Internet as a broadcasting service, Dr Varan said the sudden shift in the Government’s position didn’t change much at all. “All of the same restrictions on datacasting are still there for those getting the new datacasting licences – it only frees up ISPs from what would have been a nightmare,” he said.

Australian Information Industry Association executive director Rob Durie said the Government’s change of heart was a victory for common sense.

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