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Australian TV broadcasters encouraged to switch to MPEG-4

Australian Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that the switchover to the MPEG-4 video compression standard for broadcasting will free up spectrum for new uses.

As the government sets a deadline for the end of community TV broadcasting in Australia, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also encouraged commercial TV broadcasters to update to MPEG-4 to free up even more spectrum.

Although the Australian commercial and community television broadcasters have migrated to digital television, with the 700MHz spectrum freed up last year for use by Telstra and Optus for their 4G networks this year, the companies continue to broadcast in MPEG-2 format for both standard-definition and high-definition services, despite MPEG-4 being a much more efficient use of spectrum.

Speaking at the Australian Communications and Media Authority's RadComms conference in Sydney today, Turnbull said that the government would encourage channels such as the ABC, Seven, Nine, Ten, and SBS to begin migrating their services over to MPEG-4.

"We are ... keen to encourage commercial and national broadcasters to commence their transition to MPEG-4-only broadcasting, with the aim that every service would move to an MPEG-4 standard. The government expects that a transition such as this would be industry managed," Turnbull said.

Broadcast Australia has estimated that the transition to MPEG-4 would provide an additional 21MHz of spectrum overall, and Turnbull indicated that the broadcasters would retain this spare spectrum for their own use. The spectrum would be shared between the channels, with the ABC and SBS leading the charge.

"MPEG-4 uses spectrum much more efficiently, and would allow broadcasters to use their existing spectrum to deliver more channels and content, including in relatively bandwidth-hungry formats such as high definition if they choose to do so."

But Turnbull also flagged that the so-called sixth channel of spectrum, which is used in some locations for community TV broadcasts, would be freed up for a potential second digital dividend auction, likely for telecommunications companies for mobile networks after the end of 2015.

Turnbull said that the community broadcasters would be moved online instead.

"I have no doubt that this transition is in the best interests of community television. It will deliver wider audiences, at less cost on a wider range of devices, and the ability to do more than linear broadcasting. Some community television representatives, acknowledging that the internet is their ultimate home, have nonetheless argued that they should not be 'rushed into the new media world'," he said.

"The internet is not new. It is the universal uber-platform to which most people in Australia are connected 24/7."

Turnbull also said that the government is proposing to move to a single licensing framework for spectrum, which would make it simpler for companies such as telcos to be flexible in how they use the spectrum they have licensed from the government.

"This has the potential to simplify processes and provide much greater flexibility and choice for users, as well as improve efficiency. The legislated categories will no longer be an impediment to innovative new use of spectrum," he said.

The government plans to first consult with the industry before progressing with the policy, Turnbull said.