The Australian Government has offered commercial television broadcasters a one-time option to operate under a new licence, provided they agree to use substantially less radiofrequency spectrum. In return they would not pay for the use of spectrum and would receive other regulatory concessions. The spectrum released could be auctioned for mobile broadband use. The Media Reform Green Paper on modernising television regulation in Australia invites responses from stakeholders.

The consultation recognises that the free-to-air television business model in Australia is increasingly challenged. Viewer numbers are down and so is advertising revenue, while they face intense competition from online services. This is a problem for the three metropolitan commercial television networks: Seven, Nine and Ten. The regional broadcasters arguably face even greater challenges as they do not have their own online services.

This presents a problem for meeting public policy objectives, including the wide availability of news services and providing access to Australian stories.

The green paper provides a potential plan for reform to support the free-to-air television sector to move to a sustainable operating model, in both metropolitan and regional Australia.

Among other measures, the plan proposes to reduce regulatory obligations on free-to-air televisions businesses if they use les radiofrequency spectrum.

Commercial television broadcasters in Australia currently pay for a licence for each of their transmitters. For each of three metropolitan commercial television networks this currently totals between AU$9.5 million and AU$12 million a year.

The proposal is that each licence holder would have the option to make a one-time, irrevocable, transition to a new licence. This would remove the requirement to pay for the use of spectrum and relax some regulatory requirements, but the licence holder would be required to transition over time to using less radiofrequency spectrum.

The suggestion is that if at least two of the three free-to-air television broadcasters in each market agree to participate then an industry-wide process to share transmission multiplexes can commence, which would also mandate multiplex sharing by the national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS.

The intention is that this would release around 84 MHz of Ultra High Frequency spectrum in the 600 MHz band would become available for reallocation. This is described as a multibillion-dollar public resource, which would be auctioned for other uses such as mobile broadband to generate significant proceeds. An undisclosed portion of these funds would be used to support regional news services, documentary, drama, and children’s programming. A contribution could also go towards the transition costs involved in implementing the new spectrum arrangements.

It is envisaged that the transition would take some years, with spectrum to be re-allocated from mid-2024 at the earliest and potentially completed by the end of 2025.

The green paper process offers an opportunity for all broadcasters and other stakeholders to put forward other proposals which, in their view, would make their businesses more sustainable. The deadline for submissions is 7 March 2021.