Technology News

Interview - Peter Webb

Interview: Peter Webb, Digital Broadcasting Australia: 27th August 2003

We explore the world of digital broadcasting in Australia.

Digital broadcasting and ITV is on everyone's lips, yet few really understand what the fuss is all about.

After attending, and speaking at such media events such as the Communication Law Centre forum and The Australian Media Forum, Greg Tingle "tracks down" an expert in digital broadcasting.

This has cleared the fog for us, as the last time we were close to digital TV is when we were selling the now defunct Optus Interactive TV, on the ill fated commercial trial.

Peter answers the questions you have been asking.

What's your background, and that of the DBA (Digital Broadcasting Australia)?

I am a former Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, but have been a private consultant to the broadcasting industry for the past 6 years.

How, why and why was the DBA formed?

DBA was formed because free-to-air broadcasters, and suppliers and retailers of consumer electronics equipment acknowledged their common interest in making the transition from analog to digital television as seamless as possible for consumers. It's membership has more than doubled since it was founded in 2000.

What are your main aims and objectives?

DBA wants to help Australian consumers with information about digital terrestrial television, and it seeks to do that by equipping retails sales staff with detailed information. Most Australians will get their information about digital television from retailers, but we also work closely with antenna installers, another source of consumer advice.

What have been the major milestones regarding digital broadcasting in Australia?

Digital television will evolve over quite a long period of time as the national rollout gradually extends from metropolitan areas into regional and remote parts of Australia. A major milestone is obviously the start of digital television transmissions in an area, starting with the major metropolitan markets on 1 January 2001. The introduction of the HD program quotas for broadcasters first applied to those same markets on 1 July 2003 and that was another big plus for consumers.

How does or can, digital TV make a positive difference in our lives?

We do understand how important television is to Australians. That's why this transition is being watched so closely. Television needs a technological makeover, so that it can provide new services and better quality services. The benefits will evolve over time but they will serve basically to keep television as a centrepiece in our lives.

How does digital broadcasting rank in Australia, compared to the U.S?

The US started over two years ahead of Australia, but we quickly overtook it in terms of coverage. But the US system is quite different from ours - cable (and satellite) television plays a much larger role than it does here. Australia is making very good progress with its transition and there is growing interest being shown by the Australian consumer. Recent sales figures are very promising.

Has did the decision to cut off ABC FLY and ABC Kids on ABC digital effect you?

DBA was disappointed that consumers lost digital television services that were proving quite attractive.

What are your current projects?

DBA has a number of projects on the go, including a new DVD for display in retail stores - it explains digital TV and contains information of relevance to every digital market so it can be used all round Australia. We will also have a new, detailed handbook for retailers out in September, together with a new consumer brochure. The web site is continually updated with heaps of useful information and it is becoming increasingly popular.

Who are your main supporters?

Our members.

How do you raise funds?

Our members pay annual subscriptions and sometimes fund other, discrete activities.

Will digital TV broadcasting go "mainstream" at the same time as iTV from FOX?

Digital terrestrial TV is being implemented in a horizontal market, not the vertical market in which pay TV operates. It will take years to fully implement because the scale of the work that has to be done is enormous. Interactive TV in a horizontal market will be very hard to bed down quickly as the necessary technology is still not available in the Australian market, and even after it becomes available it will take quite a while to build up an installed base of receivers sufficient to justify investment in applications. Nevertheless, over the long haul the scale of free-to-air access to iTV is very promising.

Do you have a working relation with FOX CEO, Kim Williams, or the group in general?

No, but that's because we are focussed on free-to-air television, not because of any antipathy.

What cooperation and positive dealing does the DBA have with the ABA and Communications Law Center?

The ABA is a central player in digital TV implementation and we cooperate with its hard-working officers quite a lot. I don' think we've had much to do with the CLC on an organisational basis, although we know the individuals involved there of course.

Should consumers be concerned about digital rights issues - eg taping, "smart boxes" - ie knowing what your watching, when, what your buying thru the STU's etc?

In a free-to-air environment that's one for further down the track, but consumers already interact with television programs and broadcasters quite a bit, through SMS, and seem to handle that OK.

Will "regular" TV's ever become useless in Australia? ie like old Beta VCR's etc

No. Every TV in Australia will be able to see out its economic life, albeit with the aid of a very cheap digital STB after analog TV is turned off.

Do or will consumer enjoy more of less censoring of programs on Digital TV?

The introduction of digital PVRs in STBs will certainly give consumers lots of power over television - allowing them to time shift programs effortlessly, pause live programs etc., but consumers have always been in charge of their own television viewing. The off switch still works in a digital world.

What kind of services should the consumer of digital TV be able to enjoy?

Early adopters of digital TV like the widescreen aspect ratio, with the extra viewing area, and they like the much better picture and sound quality. They also enjoy the extra services - the SBS World News service, onscreen program guides and 'now and next' information, and HD programs and surround sound. DBA doesn't like to promote services that aren't yet being provided but you will see more multiview services soon - for the Rugby World Cup and for some summer sporting events.

What other important information should we know about digital television?

It's not a race and consumers have plenty of time to make the transition, but there's also plenty of good digital equipment on the market now and prices are coming down.


Editors note: That more than answers our questions for the time being. Thanks Peter.


Digital Broadcasting Authority

Australian Broadcasting Authority

ABC: Going Digital subsite

SBS: Digital TV subsite

7 Digital

Nine Network: Digital TV subsite

TX Australia


Commercial Television Australia

Media Man Australia: TV & Radio links

Related Interviews:

Kim Williams, FOXTEL

Derek Wilding, Communications Law Center

Paul Budde, Budde Communications

Doug Mulray, The Basement / FOXTEL

Lee Tien, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Moya Dodd, f2