Aussie nets win free digital spectrum

Packer, Murdoch battle, webs end up on top

SYDNEY — Australia’s three commercial networks have won free access to digital frequencies from the federal government, ending a fierce lobbying battle between Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch and clearing the way for the introduction of digital broadcasting Down Under in 2001.

As is common with government decisions on Aussie media, no one got everything they wanted, but the webs appear to have gotten the best deal.

On the grounds of high setup costs, Packer’s Nine web, Stokes’ Seven Network and CanWest-backed Network Ten will each be “loaned” free use of seven megahertz of digital spectrum from January 2001 to December 2008, during which time they must continue to simulcast in analog. On the same grounds, the webs won a 10-year ban on any new free-to-air competitors.

The news wasn’t all good for the webs. While they will be allowed to offer some “enhanced” programming such as multiview camera angles of sporting events, stringent local content rules will remain and webs are banned from offering multichannel and subscription services.

The webs headed off moves to ban them from datacasting, an area they are already moving into with Packer’s and Microsoft’s Ninemsn service and the just-announced Seven Online joint venture between Seven and Intel.

But vocal lobbying by cabler Foxtel, public telco Telstra, Cable & Wireless cabler Optus, publishing giants Fairfax and News Corp. and consumer rights groups resulted in a competitive open access system of allocating spectrum for data services.

Pubcasters SBS and ABC will receive the same amount of free digital spectrum as the webs, but may be allowed some multi-channeling pending an inquiry before 2001.

There will be several reviews and inquiries before 2008 that will consider extending the webs’ protection from competition and lifting the ban on terrestrials offering multichanneling and pay services.

While access to datacasting is a significant win for News Corp.’s publishing operations, the digital plan dashes Murdoch’s hopes of building a network TV presence in Oz. News reps told local media: “The free-to-airs were asking for a blank check. They didn’t get it and other players now have the opportunity to make representations to the various inquiries.”

The decision was criticized in newspapers and by cablers and consumer groups as a “giveaway” to the webs, but government communications minister Richard Alston said, “Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV industries, in these special circumstances, deserve a degree of special treatment.”

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