Convergence Review: ‘Sixth multiplex’ should be used to launch new FTA channels

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Image: espensorvik/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Buried in the Convergence Report is a plan that could enable Australian television to be more crowded than the 18 channels already available on digital. While ruling out the possibility of a fourth commercial network, the review wants to use the ‘sixth multiplex’ to be used to launch a number of new channels.

Currently, the ‘sixth multiplex’ has been “temporarily allocated” to the community channels in mainland state capital cities so they can broadcast in digital. It is also marred with numerous restrictions on what it can be used for.

“The Review has concluded that the sixth multiplex should not be allocated to create a full forth commercial television network operated by a single [company]. The review considers that allocating individual channel capacity to a range of providers will maximise diversity,” it noted.

It also said that current commercial broadcasters, the ABC and SBS should not be allowed to gain access to this multiplex.

But what should the government be looking for when allocating channel space? Well, the services should “not simply replicate services provided by the three existing commercial free-to-air television networks”; be original and distinctive and add to the “creative diversity” of the sector; and have a viable business model.

This technically could see some Foxtel channels launching on free-to-air. While FOX8 won’t be able to buy channel space – since they replicate commercial free-to-air television; BBC World News, CNN International and Sky News Australia being able to launch on free-to-air television if they want to compete with ABC News 24; among other potential niche broadcasters.

And, if you are a political nerd, Parliament – just saying, it would be much more accessible than Parliament’s own crappy system.

However, some people might not be able to see the new channels. It’s not because of location, but because of the technology used. The report notes, “The new communications regulator could consider requiring new services operating… to be transmitted from the outset in MPEG-4 format. Using the MPEG-4 format would almost double the number of multichannels available and enable more efficient use of spectrum.”

But while it does recognise MPEG-4 capable devices are not everywhere, most devices in use are MPEG-4 capable. It cities data from Broadcast Australia that said that from July 2004 to June 2011 that 63.9 percent of integrated televisions and HD set-top boxes were already capable, and in July 2011, nearly 91 percent of units sold were MPEG-4 capable.

Currently, digital channels are being broadcast using the MPEG-2 format. Internationally, it varies – some use MPEG-2 only for SD broadcasts and MPEG-4 for HD channels since they don’t take up much spectrum; while some use MPEG-4 or MPEG-2 for all stations. Though, if we do switch to MPEG-4 after the switchover, then you could potentially have your HD simulcast of the main channel back – according to Trevor Long.

The Government hasn’t made their call on whether it will fully implement or partially implement the review – so, the use of the ‘sixth multiplex’ might not go ahead. But, it is still something to consider of launching channels that broadcast more niche content, as opposed to constant ads like what’s on EXTRA and 4ME.

You can read the full report below.

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