By James Wells

SYDNEY: Digital Business Consulting managing director, Tim O’Keefe, has called on digital television and set top box manufacturers to help the government develop an action plan to create incentives for consumers to switch over to digital television.

O’Keefe, who has helped develop digital television policy with broadcasters and manufacturers for over five years in his role with  Digital Broadcasting Australia, has commented publicly for the first time on the discussion paper for the future of digital television and multi-channeling presented on Tuesday by Federal Communications Minister, Senator Helen Coonan.

O’Keefe believes a number of factors will influence the switchover from analog to digital transmission, which has been delayed from 2008 until sometime between 2010 and 2012.

“To accelerate digital conversion and bring the simulcast period to an end, the government intends to develop a Digital Action Plan in 2006. It is still under consideration whether triggers such as take-up rates will guide the switch-over strategy and whether additional strategies for region-by-region switch-over will be developed. The plan would include incentives to move to digital TV, so it is important for receiver manufacturers/importers to be involved with the development of the Digital Action Plan,” O’Keefe said.

One of the key aspects of Tuesday’s announcement is the plan to discontinue the simultaneous broadcast of programming in both standard definition and high definition from 2007. Under the proposed plan, from 1 January 2007, the government would remove the requirement that all standard definition programs are simulcast in high definition.

“This would mean free to air broadcasters could show a high definition program on their high definition service, and show a different program on their standard definition service,” O’Keefe said.

“In effect, this would allow the free to air broadcasters to operate one multi-channel service in high definition before analog switch-off. The current high definition quota of 1040 hours per year would be retained until analog switch-off.
“This will push demand for high definition set top boxes as the only way to get some commercial multi-channeling.

"However, it is still unclear how much the commercial broadcasters will use this feature as Ten and Nine have previously stated that they are not in favour of multi-channeling. But the high definition audience may be attractive to particular advertisers, giving Ten and Nine a reason to change their attitude to multi-channel.”

Additional changes proposed yesterday include lifting multi-channeling genre restrictions on ABC and SBS who are currently prevented from broadcasting national news, most sport broadcasts, drama and movies on their additional digital-only channels.

“As soon as possible, the restrictions would be lifted and the ABC and SBS would be able to broadcast programs without any restrictions, except those related to sport on the anti-siphoning list. We need to know if the government is proposing to give the ABC and SBS more money to deliver additional digital content,” O’Keefe said.

The discussion paper outlines new digital services from 2007 including new digital terrestrial channels which will provide innovative services such as subscription television, free to air narrowcasting, datacasting and interactive services which can be delivered to either fixed or mobile receivers. These channels will not be used to compete with or resemble free to air commercial television services currently offered by the Seven Network, Nine Network and Ten Network. After the analogue switch-off, a restriction on a new fourth free to air commercial television station is expected to be lifted.

“Hopefully the government will finally release the two extra 7MHz channels that are already available in all the mainland capital cities – providing more content on digital television. However it is not clear whether any of these proposed new services will be able to be received by digital terrestrial TV receivers currently available in Australia. Certainly the interactive, mobile services and subscription will require receivers with special middleware or with conditional access systems built-in. I hope receiver manufacturers/importers will have input into these matters as well.

“The subscription service concept using digital terrestrial television is interesting and seems to be working well in the United Kingdom as ‘Top-Up TV’ – but access to content in Australia will be a difficulty if this service is in competition with Foxtel and/or to the commercial television broadcasters,” O’Keefe said.