Alston flags convergence of airwave regulators

In a significant tactical move in the growing media consolidation debate, Communications minister Richard Alston has flagged the government's intention to merge communications regulatory bodies the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) and the Australian Communications Authority (ACA).

A statement issued late Monday afternoon by Alston's office said: "Convergence of communications technologies and markets is placing increasing pressure on existing institutional arrangements for sector regulators, and there is merit in considering the integration of the agencies.

"The current structure of the ABA and ACA has been an effective means of regulating the diverse communications industries. However, changes in industry structures and new technologies mean it is now appropriate to re-examine these arrangements."

The announcement signals a clear intention from the government that the media bargaining chips of datacasting, digital radio and associated data-broadcast services are now firmly back on the bargaining table, albeit with little specific detail as to what powers the new authority would or would not have.

At present the ABA covers radio and television broadcast regulation, while the ACA covers regulation of data and telephony and civilian RF spectrum.

A senior source within a television network told Computerworld the move could potentially represent an effort to ramp up the "persistently sagging" share price of Telstra prior to a sell off.

"There's no doubt that they are trying to rev-up this space at the moment. They probably expect industry to do all the thinking for them too. I'd want to see some real detail on it first though. There's a fair amount of downside risk here for a lot of players too."

If the merger is successful, the proposed authority would cover the entire gamut of digital and analogue telephony, data-casting, wireless, radio, television and internet.

An spokesman for Senator Alston said that a "definitive discussion paper" would be released imminently and that a decision was anticipated by the end of the year.

"There are two options. One is that we merge the authorities and the other is that we retain the status quo."

The spokesman refused to comment on speculation that any union between the ABA and the ACA would beget the ADA – the Australian Digital Authority.

The spokeman played down recent concerns raised by the Australian Defence Force about encroachment into military spectrum by commercial industry.

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Julian Bajkowski

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