the Senate this month represents the kiss of death for the development of
a multi-billion dollar datacasting industry in Australia, and heralds a
widening of the information divide between the city and the bush.
entitled to ask by what mandate the government can use spectrum that
belongs to all of us to favour the commercial interests of the free-to-air
broadcasters (FTAs) at the expense of everyone else.
Alston relies on a fairly spurious argument that the FTAs have an
obligation to broadcast Australian content, so somehow we are protecting
content creators by protecting the FTA cartel. On close examination this
argument fails. First, the obligation exists only in relation to content
for which there is market failure eg. drama and children's programming,
not all content. Second, any content creator who wants to produce for
television these days has to find overseas distribution backing before
they even embark on production, because the ever-diminishing license fees
that our local FTAs are paying will not cover the investment. Third,
datacasters would probably be quite happy to agree to minimum-content
rules provided they could compete with the networks on an equal footing.
So too would any fourth commercial TV broadcaster. The fact is, opening up
the airwaves to competition is the best opportunity for stimulating the
production of Australian content that we could ever have.
Of course, the more
modes of content delivery there are, the less control governments have
over what the public sees. This has not been lost on Asian observers who
see Howard's agenda in more sinister terms, if not from our perspective,
certainly from theirs. As Lim Say Boon of the South
China Morning Post wrote on 24 June:
is Mr. More-Liberal-Than-Thou who not that long ago deigned to let his
crisis-hit Asian neighbours in on the virtues of an open, competitive
modern economy. This time around, there is little Mr. Howard can teach his
neighbours about transiting to a New Economy that they couldn't learn from
Beijing - circa 1989. Worse, Mr. More-Liberal-Than-Thou is sending a
frightening message to his Asian neighbours - with copies to every
politically thin-skinned government in the region - about how even a
liberal democracy like Australia can justify Internet censorship for
commercial purposes, let alone for social and political reasons.
IIA members are
outraged and in total disbelief at the cynicism underlying the policy.
"Convergence" has taken on a whole new meaning. It describes the
government's vision of the future and the opportunity for competition in
the new media. Both are now narrowing to the size of a small dot on a
screen once the power is switched off.
government has said about its commitment to an
information economy is now open to question. This was the single biggest
hope for reinventing Australia as a new economy - we could have
leap-frogged the US in both penetration and advanced deployment of
broadband services. We could have had almost the entire Australian
population on line within three years. That possibility is now about to
The legislation will
send a negative signal to the international investment community. Pity the
Aussie dollar and the effect on interest rates. This government had a
choice - and it chose the old economy over the new. The only winners here
are the old-economy television broadcasters.
The losers will be
Australians in regional areas who have struggled with slow and expensive
access. There is a widening gap between the information-rich in the city
and the information- poor in the regions. People in the bush have every
right to be very, very angry over what is about to happen. Datacasting
could have provided alternatives to the closure of bank branches and the
loss of other services in the bush. While technically they can still
receive these, the business case for fast rollout of the enhanced
technologies is now dead in the water. Now they will just have to wait.
The battlers in the
metropolitan areas will also be losers. For the foreseeable future, it is
mainly the children of the rich who will get to use the Net for homework.
Anyone sitting on the other side of the information divide in Australia
will probably never realise how close they came to sharing in the benefits
of the online revolution. They too will just have to wait.
In one fell swoop,
this legislation turns the idea of ubiquitous, cheap Internet access from
a very real prospect into a failed dream. We had the chance to provide
every Australian family with a television set with fast Internet access.
Now they will just get TV - with a few more bells and whistles maybe - but
still only TV. Data is the killer application of digital TV - this
legislation kills the killer app.
A more open policy
would have provided Australia with sufficient critical mass of online
users to kick-start an e-commerce explosion that might otherwise take
years to occur. Indeed, there was a strong commercial case for giving
set-top boxes away just to get more of the market on line. This
legislation torpedoes the business case for such a play and condemns the
majority of Australians to a slow and arduous climb up the data slope to
the 21st century economy.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.