Communications minister Senator Richard Alston has announced that restrictions will be placed on the number of datacasting transmitter licences up for grabs at auction later this year.
The Australian Communications Authority has been directed to ensure that a maximum of sixteen licences are issued -- with two being available in each of the eight service areas. Alston also announced that the government did not intend to release any more datacasting channels in the established service areas until 2003. He did say, however, that the allocation of licences in other areas would be considered, once the initial regional channel planning had been completed.
Peter Coroneos, executive director of the Internet Industry Association, was unimpressed, suggesting the latest changes were in one sense irrelevant, given the other regulatory hurdles in place. "The thing that will protect competition is the relaxation of the rules governing what datacasters can do so that businesses can create viable models.
"Under the current scheme, the latest rules are academic because the whole system is prohibitive to datacasters."
Datacasters face heavy genre restrictions under the proposed legislation. They are unable to provide content in genres commonly regarded as free-to-air television, such as drama or lifestyle programs. News bulletins must be no longer than 10 minutes.
This has led many commentators to view the government regime as a sop to the incumbent media players, in particular Kerry Packer's Publishing and Broadcasting Limited. Coroneos seemed to echo this sentiment, saying, "It's basically a lockout in the name of competition. The people who will be most happy about this are the TV companies because the real impact will be to limit competition."
However, while the government has drawn plenty of fire, it hasn't been entirely deaf to the concerns of industry. At the height of the debate last year, Alston said that he believed streaming audio and video laws should not be restrictive and biased to the interests of other broadcasting technologies.
In a statement at the time, the minister said "the government has decided that internet audio and video streaming should not be regarded as a broadcasting service".
Alston remains committed to the course. He justified the latest move by saying that it will create competition and diversity within the arena by stopping any company or its associates from holding more than one licence in each area.
"At this early stage of a new industry, it is important to encourage the maximum amount of competition in the market, and this is best done by imposing a limit on the number of licences that can be purchased by one player in each market," said Alston.
He also mentioned that allowances would be made for datacasters in relation to carrier licences.
In a statement, Alston said that a "determination has been issued to remove any obligation that datacasters, and broadcasters providing a datacasting service, may have under the Telecommunications Act 1992 to obtain a carrier licence. This will remove any potential uncertainties there may have been about the need for datacasters to obtain such licences and will be effective until June 30, 2005."
The ACA will be inviting applications within the next few weeks, with applications for the licences closing on February 22. The auction will be held online, and at this stage is expected to take place in either March or April.