There’s more to the Australian Broadcasting Authority than David Flint. David Hovenden speaks to Deacons’ Nick Abrahams about why that regulator and the Australian Communications Authority are about to be wed
The announced departure of Professor David Flint, as chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA), brings to a close a protracted battle by a number of players to see him either stay or go. However, behind the headlines, Flint has maintained that his departure was to clear the decks for the proposed merger of the ABA with the Australian Communications Authority (ACA). This mention, made almost in passing as far as the mainstream media was concerned, hides what is a very big and far-reaching development in the running and regulation of Australia’s converging media and communications technology.
Deacons partner Nick Abrahams says that the proposed merger is largely a consequence of convergence and is very, very exciting. “I see it as something of a milestone in terms of convergence, because what we had back in the late 1990s with the tech boom, was that everyone was talking convergence and the benefits of convergence.”
By convergence, Abrahams is talking of the coming together of the IT sector, the telco sector and the media sector. “The tech boom was essentially funded by the enthusiasm of people getting behind this concept that the convergence of these three industries would actually change the world. And that’s correct, it will change the world and is changing the world, what happened was that the timing was a little bit off.”
Back then, the user experience was terrible, no one used it so the revenue didn’t flow and it was “all a bit of a debacle”.
One of the key issues was that there was no proven revenue model for the internet. Abrahams speaks from first-hand experience, being chief operating officer at Spike Networks during this time. “We were at the forefront of selling that stuff. Unfortunately we were just a bit ahead of our time, but now it’s really happening.”
One of the very clear examples of why it makes sense for the ABA and ACA to fuse is to be found in the mobile space, in particular the treatment of mobile content. “Now it’s a bit confusing as to who has the right to impose the regulations in relation to mobile content. It’s clearly in the telco space, but the [ACA] has traditionally not seen that its role is to govern content regulation.
“The ABA as an entity has seen its role as being associated more with different sorts of technology, and the ACA has seen itself as about telecommunications and yet those two things are coming together very, very quickly,” says Abrahams.
While uncertainty hangs over how to regulate mobile content, the need for regulation now and in the future is clear. “The talk about mobile content, for example mobile video, [is that it] will be worth about $50 billion by 2008.”
He says the merger is not about economics, but a purely functional argument. “Those organisations will come together, and pretty much unchanged as far as I know. It’s really a recognition that the industries are coming together and it really doesn’t make sense to have them regulated differently,” says Abrahams.
In essence, if the two bodies did not merge, in many respects it would mean there would be two regulators covering the same territory.
“Once free-to-air TV goes digital, what does that mean for the ABA’s role and all of those questions around Australian content? It needs to be addressed in a more holistic way across all the available distribution technologies. I think that’s what collapsing the two organisations into one will do,” says Abrahams.
Another example of how technology is impacting regulation, can be found in the Copyright Act’s wording being changed from the “broadcast right”, to the “communication right”. “Broadcast right didn’t cut it anymore. There’s so many different distribution platforms now, and whether it’s satellite, or whether it’s cable, or whether it’s mobile, then the different technological variations within each of those, based on whatever sort of data structures they use to get the data across, means we need to be very technologically neutral in the way we consider things.”
Then there’s the public policy issues. “We all recognise that we don’t want obscene content going to children. The question is how do we do that and how do we do that in a way that’s ordered and makes sense across the industry so that we’re not seeing uneven regulation. From that point of view I think it’s very sensible what’s happening.”
The real power behind the merger will be taking a global view of content and how content is to be distributed to the Australian public. What are the editorial independence requirements and is there plurality of voice — the foundation stones of the cross media ownership laws? “The arguments against those laws run along the following lines: When Keating first introduced those laws, the internet wasn’t there. We didn’t have that powerful information dissemination medium and therefore maybe we need to review the cross-media ownership laws.
“Now that is an argument that has merit, and it has its flaws as well, but a fused ABA/ACA will be able to consider that in a more holistic way. One of the problems with the internet is that there is no editor of a lot of the information. How can you trust the information? While there is a plurality of views, there is also a lot of rubbish out there. It is an interesting argument that the ABA is looking at one sort of facet of media.”
There’s no question that the two authorities have a lot of difficult regulatory tasks in front of them. “There’s not that many experts out there on mobile content, for example. So by fusing the two organisations hopefully you get a rich concentration of people who understand it.”