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Labor Offers Changed Datacasting Bill

The Federal Opposition has released its planned amendments to the Government's digital broadcasting legislation, before it goes before the federal Senate on Wednesday.

Core to the Australian Labor Party's (ALP) proposal is an overhaul of the Government's definition of datacasting, which to this point has allowed the planned legislation to restrict content distribution particularly by non free-to-air broadcaster players.

These restrictions include limiting the duration of datacasts to 10 minutes, and preventing content from falling within the domains of established broadcasters, such as drama or lifestyle content.

Publisher John Fairfax and telecommunications carrier Telstra have already pulled out of the datacasting trials set to start in July and August, declaring that these restrictions impair the commercial viability of datacasting.

Labor's alternative framework would allow datacasters to basically show anything, as long as it is presented through interactive menus to distinguish datacast content from that of broadcasters, said ALP communications spokesman Stephen Smith.

Smith believed that with Labor's proposed model, datacasters would not become merely de facto broadcasters. This was among the concerns expressed on Monday by Internet Industry Association executive director Peter Coroneos (see story).

Coroneos called the bill as it now stands a 'kiss of death' for the growth of the datacasting industry in Australia. He said that it would "send a negative signal to the international investment community" because it tended toward existing broadcasters in the battle to digitally distribute content.

"Potential competitors to free-to-air broadcasters have no incentive to invest in either broadband content development for or delivery via spectrum," said Coroneos of the current proposed legislation.

The ALP's new position on the datacasting bill is a marked change though from its original support of the "general thrust of the Government's legislation," said Corneos.

As well as its own framework, Labor has released amendments to the Government's bill in an effort to win the support of independent and Democrat senators that may not be swayed by a completely new model.

The main change within these amendments is to allow educational programs to be linked to a course of study, and allow material designed mainly to entertain. The legislation makes no specific requirements of educational content, permitting all datacasters to distribute content in this genre.

The ALP also wants to limit free-to-air broadcasters' ability to enhance programming with added information through datacasting.

As far back as April, the national Productivity Commission Report into Digital Broadcasting concluded that the Government's digital television conversion plan required "significant changes". The Commission called for a relaxation of the restrictions to datacasting then, saying it would help enhance the benefits of digital television, as in its current form it "stifles competition and innovation".

The Commission added that the legislation would delay consumer adoption of digital television technology, reduce business opportunities to develop new products and services and impact on regional consumers. These were all comments that Coroneos reinforced in his warning to the Federal Government Monday.