Broadcasting future needs | ACMA

Broadcasting future needs

This article is taken from the ACMA's Five-year Spectrum Outlook 2013-2017, published in September 2013. 

The Five-year spectrum outlook 2013–2017  is available for download as an e-mag, PDF and word document here. The Table of contents and links to individual sections of the report are available here.


The broadcasting service involves one-way radiofrequency transmissions intended for direct reception by the general public.[1] Currently, the principal uses of the broadcasting service in Australia are in the medium frequency (MF) band for AM radio, in the VHF band for FM radio and in both the VHF and UHF bands for television Subscription television services are considered in the satellite section.[2]

Most broadcasting services use spectrum known as the broadcasting services bands (BSB). The BSB are frequency bands that are designated by the minister under the Act as being primarily for broadcasting purposes. The ACMA plans these bands under the provisions of Part 3 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (the BSA), and for digital radio, under part 2.3 of the Act.

The currently determined BSB are:

>  526.5 to 1606.5 kHz (inclusive)

>  45 to 52 MHz (inclusive)

>  56 to 70 MHz (inclusive)

>  85 to 108 MHz (inclusive)

>  137 to 144 MHz (inclusive)

>  174 to 230 MHz (inclusive)

>  520 to 820 MHz (inclusive).

The spectrum plan also provides for the use of other bands for broadcasting. These bands are not subject to the planning provisions of the BSA.

5.2.1 Current spectrum use

MF-AM radio broadcasting

The MF-AM band (526.5–1606.5 kHz) is used for national, community and commercial broadcasting services, as well as high power open narrowcasting (HPON) services.[3] Coverage for these services can be wide area or local, although at MF frequencies, long-range interference (which is exacerbated by night-time sky wave propagation) makes international coordination (particularly with New Zealand and Indonesia) necessary for higher power transmitters. Long distance propagation makes MF-AM radio effective in Australia’s remote regions. However, MF-AM radio has poorer audio quality and is more prone to electrical noise than VHF-FM. The MF-AM band is heavily congested and planning new services and variations to existing services is particularly challenging.

MF and VHF narrowband area services

Narrowband area services (NAS) are broadcasting services licensed to operate outside the BSB. Most NAS services have been licensed in the MF range of 1606.5–1705 kHz, immediately above the MF-AM broadcasting band (these are known as MF NAS services). Some licences have also been issued in VHF bands, at 70 MHz, 77 MHz, 151–152 MHz and 173 MHz.

NAS stations are usually used to provide ‘narrowcasting’ programming.

Narrowcasting services must have reception limited in some way, for example, by being targeted at special interest groups. Such operation is authorised under a class licence in accordance with the BSA. However, a NAS station licensee who wishes to provide a commercial or community broadcasting service must obtain a non-broadcasting services bands (non-BSB) licence under Part 4 (commercial broadcasting) or Part 6 (community broadcasting) of the BSA.

In the case of MF NAS licences, the right to provide a commercial broadcasting service is circumscribed by a ministerial direction and resultant apparatus licence condition. Feedback from consultation with industry suggests that many NAS licences are not currently in use.

HF radio broadcasting

There is very limited use of HF spectrum for domestic broadcasting within Australia. The only significant domestic usage is the ABC’s HF Inland Service (some channels in the 2 to 5 MHz range), in addition to a few narrowcasting services. Only three broadcasters are currently using the HF broadcasting bands to provide international broadcasting services from Australia. The ACMA has embargoed the assignment of services other than broadcasting in several HF bands to encourage the introduction of digital broadcasting services in these bands.[4]

VHF-FM radio broadcasting

The VHF-FM band (VHF Band II 87.5–108 MHz) is used for national, commercial and community radio broadcasting services, as well as low power open narrowcasting (LPON) and High Powered Open Narrowcasting (HPON) services.

The VHF-FM band is heavily congested in major cities and regional areas, which is demonstrated by the difficulty the ACMA has experienced in planning additional services in metropolitan and many regional areas. No new frequencies for wide- coverage VHF-FM services have been identified as being available since the last commercial licence was auctioned nearly a decade ago. The prices obtained for VHF-FM commercial radio broadcasting licences in major metropolitan markets are evidence of demand for and scarcity of FM broadcasting frequencies.[5]

About 36 per cent of approximately 2,407 broadcasting licences held in the VHF Band II are used for retransmission services.[6] Retransmission services in this band typically serve small population centres in rural and remote areas and are fed via satellite.

In addition to national, commercial and community VHF-FM radio broadcasting services, there are significant numbers of LPON and HPON services. Under section 34 of the BSA, three channels (87.6, 87.8 and 88.0 MHz) have been made available to accommodate LPON services until the end of 2014, when the current determination of spectrum under the BSA expires.

VHF Band III digital radio broadcasting

Parts of the VHF Band III (174–230 MHz) is used in the five metropolitan licence areas of Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to broadcast terrestrial digital radio services, sharing spectrum with digital and analog television services.

The official digital radio start-up day for these areas was 1 July 2009 and from that date digital radio services have been provided using the upgraded version of the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) standard, called DAB+.

A ministerial direction requires the ACMA to make provision for 14 MHz of VHF Band III spectrum in each metropolitan licence area to allow for regional DAB+ rollouts[7]; however, digital radio services cannot commence until a start date is set by the minister. Scientific trials of DAB+ digital radio are being conducted in both Canberra and Darwin using available Band III spectrum on an interim basis. Regional areas are considered to be all parts of Australia except for the five metropolitan areas specified above.

VHF/UHF television broadcasting

In Australia, television broadcasting services are provided in VHF and UHF bands using 7 MHz-wide channels. Details of current usage are listed below:

>  VHF Band I (45–52 MHz and 56–70 MHz): VHF channels 0, 1 and 2 for analog television.

>  VHF Band II (85–92 MHz and 94–108 MHz): VHF channels 3, 4 and 5 for analog television in a limited number of geographic areas; these channels are shared with extensive deployments of VHF-FM radio broadcasting services.

>  Television channel 5A (137–144 MHz) for analog television.

>  VHF Band III (174–230 MHz): VHF channels 6–9, 9A and 10–12 for analog and digital television services.

>  UHF Bands IV and V (520–820 MHz): UHF channels 28–69 for analog and digital television services.

Australia’s transition from analog to digital television is nearing completion, with just three areas (Sydney/Central Coast NSW, Melbourne and Remote Central and Eastern Australia) yet to switch over to digital-only television. Until the closure of analog television services in each area, television services are delivered through simultaneous transmission of both analog and digital services (known as simulcasting). Digital television is more spectrally efficient than analog television. Its more stringent spectrum shaping permits interference-free adjacent channel transmissions in the same location, and it has the ability to transmit multiple streams of content (for example, both standard and high-definition multi-channels) within the same radiofrequency channel.

Services ancillary to terrestrial television broadcasting

Before television programming content is broadcast to the general public, various other radiocommunications services are utilised to relay this content. See section 5.3.1 for details of fixed services used by broadcasters (for example, electronic news gathering, television outside broadcast, studio-to-transmitter links and P-to-P fixed links) and section 5.7 for details of satellite broadcasting and satellite links that are used to support terrestrial broadcasting services.

5.2.2 2013–2017

Issues affecting spectrum demand

A feature of both radio and television spectrum demand within the BSB is the importance of regulation in determining spectrum requirements. The development of television and radio services in the BSB is both constrained and driven by legally imposed requirements on the broadcasting sector. Therefore, the highly regulated environment makes ‘demand’ an unreliable guide to future spectrum requirements. Put another way, future requirements for broadcasting spectrum are likely to depend critically on government decisions about the future development of the sector.

A second distinctive feature of planning for the BSB is that the minister, rather than the ACMA, is responsible for decisions to vary the BSB. This means that the ACMA does not have authority to make planning decisions that involve reviewing the boundaries of the BSB. The ACMA’s observations about planning and demand issues affecting the BSB need to be read in the light of these distinctive features of broadcasting planning. As a result of the Australian Government’s decision on the digital dividend in 2010 and the subsequent replanning and clearance of digital television services from the digital dividend band (694–820 MHz) expected to be complete by the end of 2014, it is anticipated that the minister will vary the BSB’s in early 2015, to remove the digital dividend band.

Analog radio broadcasting

The switch-off of analog television services will create some limited opportunities for additional FM radio services, or improved coverage of existing services. This is especially the case in areas currently served by analog television services operating in VHF Band II (channels 3, 4 and 5).[8]

Analog radio is expected to continue well beyond the time frame considered in this edition of the Outlook. The explanatory memorandum to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2007 noted that for the near future, digital radio is to be considered a supplementary technology to analog radio and not a replacement technology.

Digital radio broadcasting

There are spectrum availability challenges associated with regional digital radio rollout and the ACMA has previously provided advice to both the government and industry on this issue. The ACMA is not funded to plan for digital radio and, as a consequence, the scope to do further work related to future digital radio services will be quite limited.

The previous work concluded that, even with the identification by the minister of 14 MHz of VHF Band III spectrum for digital radio (noted above), it is likely that some significant compromises would need to be made in most regional licence areas if DAB+ is to be accommodated in VHF Band III spectrum.

DAB+ involves multiplex transmitters that combine a large number of different program streams. Such multiplexing is best suited to wide coverage services where several broadcasters share a common coverage area allowing them to use the same multiplex transmitter. In other situations, DAB+ may not be an optimum technical or commercial method for providing digital radio services, notably for broadcasters in small coverage areas and in small regional markets where there may only be a few broadcasting services in total.

For this reason, there is a need to continue to investigate alternative technologies as a result of the department’s review of regional digital radio technologies for regional Australia. At this stage, the most relevant alternatives are Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) (now known as DRM30), which operates below 30 MHz, and DRM+, which operates in VHF Bands I, II and III.[9]

The possibility of introducing DRM services in the MF band appears to be limited, given the current high utilisation of the MF band.

The legislation provides for statutory reviews of digital radio that the minister must commence before 1 January 2014.[10] These reviews are to consider such matters as technological developments, implementation of digital radio technologies in other countries, the operation of the legislation, and the availability of additional frequency channels.


Simulcasting of analog and digital television services is expected to be maintained in current VHF and UHF television spectrum until the switchover to digital-only television is completed in December 2013.

As noted earlier, digital television services are being cleared from the digital dividend band in a process often referred to as the ‘restack’. The restack will consolidate all digital television services into a reduced range of 30 television channels. In most areas, six channels will be available with five existing services (two national broadcasters and three commercial broadcasters). As required by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (Realising the Digital Dividend) Direction 2010, there will be one unalotted channel in each area. This channel is also known as the ‘sixth channel’ or the ‘unassigned channel’ or, previously, ‘channel A’.

Following the completion of the Convergence Review, the government announced, on 30 November 2012, that no additional licences or spectrum would be made available to enable a fourth commercial television network on the unassigned channel. The parliament gave effect to this decision through amendments to the BSA, which require that the ACMA ensures that no more than three commercial television broadcasting licences are in effect in each licence area.[11]

5.2.3The ACMA's propsed approaches

Radio broadcasting

Given the current high usage levels in both the MF-AM and VHF-FM bands, there is limited opportunity to introduce new radio services. The ACMA will monitor technical developments and usage levels but no significant changes in analog radio are foreseen in the 2013–2017 time frame. Minor changes to radio licence area plans can be expected as requests from existing licensees are considered.

Due to high costs of rolling out digital radio services, it would seem unlikely that there will be any significant expansion of these services into regional areas in the short term. The deployment of DAB+, or other digital radio technologies, in regional areas is an issue that requires further consideration by the government.

There is some uncertainty faced by LPON licensees with regard to the future of these services. This is because the current section 34 Determination that gives effect to the three LPON channels (87.6, 87.8 and 88.0 MHz) will expire at the end of 2014. The ACMA has commenced consultation with industry on the future of LPON planning and regulatory arrangements. Further information on this project is in section 6.2.3.


The ACMA is assisting the government in its digital switchover activities in a number of ways by:

>  evaluating digital television coverage to assess whether analog and digital services achieve the same level of coverage and reception quality

> monitoring the nationwide rollout of digital television infrastructure

> completing the authorisation of the digital conversion of self-help retransmission sites for communities that have opted out of the VAST satellite service.

Following the switch-off of the analog television services by 31 December 2013, the channels previously used to transmit those services will become vacant:

> digital services will continue to operate in channels 52–69 (as well as the eight channels in VHF Band III)

> the services in channel 52 and above will need to be shifted in order to clear a contiguous block of spectrum (694–820 MHz) suitable for allocation and re-use as the digital dividend.

The ACMA has completed the replanning of digital television services to clear these services from the digital dividend band. This ‘restack’ process will see digital television services operating on television channels 52–69 moved to alternative channels below channel 52. This restack will also require significant numbers of digital television services operating on channels below 52 to change channels, in order to make room for services moving from higher channels.

To give effect to the restack, the ACMA has prepared television licence area plans (TLAPs) under section 26(1B) of the BSA. TLAPs have been completed for all licence areas. These are available on the ACMA website. Further background and other documents related to restack channel planning can be found on the ACMA website.

The Department of Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) is managing the implementation of the restack and has appointed Broadcast Australia as the program implementation manager. The ACMA continues to provide advice to DBCDE and the Program Information Manager on restack-related issues and is monitoring the progress of the restack to gauge whether any variations to the TLAPs will be necessary.

 5.2.5WRC-15 Agenda items

The following WRC-15 Agenda items are relevant to the broadcasting service:

Agenda item 1.1—to consider additional spectrum allocations to the mobile service on a primary basis and identification of additional frequency bands for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) and related regulatory provisions, to facilitate the development of terrestrial mobile broadband applications, in accordance with Resolution 233 [COM6/8] (WRC-12).

5.2.5 Beyond 2017

Digital radio broadcasting

The extension of digital radio services into regional licence areas is likely to depend on the success of DAB+ in the five metropolitan licence areas, the availability of suitable spectrum and government funding decisions. Digital radio will remain as a complement rather than a replacement for existing analog radio services for the foreseeable future, and discontinuation of analog radio is unlikely within the time frame of this report.

It appears that new digital-only radio services, rather than higher audio quality or additional features are more likely to drive DAB+ take-up. For example, commercial and national radio broadcasters have been providing a wide range of digital-only radio content, including short-term services relevant to particular touring artists and festivals.

VHF-FM radio transmissions are expected to continue to be an attractive option well into the future, especially considering the relatively low cost of establishing and operating FM stations.

Other radio broadcasting technologies and planning issues

Demand for spectrum for alternative digital radio technologies beyond 2017 will require the ACMA to review and consider its policies on:

>  the availability of HF broadcasting spectrum

>  potential for replanning the MF-AM band should incumbent broadcasters wish to vacate the band

>  the future use of vacated VHF Band I and II television spectrum should DRM+ technology become viable.

Some alleviation of VHF-FM band congestion may be possible after digital television switchover in areas that are currently covered by analog VHF Band II television services.

Digital television and planning issues

The digital switch off will release the channel capacity currently occupied by analog services in each area. Once the restack of digital television services has been completed, it is expected that there will be minimal scope for new services beyond the six services to be planned as part of the restack. There may be scope for additional in-fill sites for existing networks depending on the location or whether the site can be operated as part of a single frequency network.

In addition to the digital dividend in the UHF bands, a further VHF digital dividend is also likely to arise following the closure of Band I and II and Channel 5A analog television services. A process to consider future use of these bands will need to take place.

Future television broadcasting standards

Developments in broadcast technology standards have the potential to enhance future delivery of digital terrestrial television services. Enhancements can offer better or different services for consumers (for example, HDTV and 3DTV) whilst achieving greater spectral efficiency. New broadcast technology standards such as MPEG-4 AVC[12] and DVB-T2 have been developed and deployed in other countries. These two standards allow more services or program streams to be transmitted in each television channel and are only two of a number of standards under ongoing development.

In recognition of the importance of these and other new technologies to future digital terrestrial services the ACMA has started a discussion with industry. The first stage of the ACMA discussion was the issue of a discussion paper Beyond switchover—the future technical evolution of digital terrestrial television in Australia. The paper sought comment on technical migration issues for digital terrestrial television broadcasting (DTTB) services and used MPEG 4 and DVB-T2 as examples of potential future technologies. MPEG-4 is a more efficient video compression standard, potentially allowing the same content to be delivered with almost half the bit rate of an equivalent MPEG-2 service. Alternatively, the same bit rate can be used for improved video quality.

DVB-T2 is a later-generation standard similar to DVB-T. Compared to DVB-T it allows increased efficiencies of around 30–50 per cent for a given transmission power and coverage level. Alternatively, the same transmission rates and coverage can be achieved with reduced transmission power, offering broadcast cost savings

The discussion paper asked whether there is anything the regulator should do to manage the progression to new digital terrestrial broadcasting technologies over the next decade and beyond. Following publication of the submissions to the paper, the ACMA noted that further consultation and analysis would be required to inform any strategy. In June 2013, the ACMA started consulting industry experts on these technology issues, such as transmission and compression standards, and the impact of connected TV platforms, such as hybrid broadcast broadband TV (HbbTV) and the future of high definition.

The availability of digital television receivers that are capable of using these new technologies is limited. The ACMA acknowledges that government does not propose any move to new standards before switchover is completed, The ACMA also recognises that no action should be taken that would have a negative impact on the digital conversion and restack; for example, any action that would discourage the uptake of existing digital receivers, which is expected to be completed by 2015. However, steps to facilitate technical evolution in future may be taken by the ACMA if it is clear they do not affect the switchover.

Further into the future, consideration may be given to emerging television broadcasting technological advancements such as successor standards to MPEG 4 in H.265 HEVC or the standards for Ultra High Definition Television (UHDTV). Such developments and any potential spectrum benefits arising from their adoption will be monitored by the ACMA. The potential implementation of these would need to consider their merit relative to other competing uses of the spectrum, and the practicalities of any future migration strategies.

The ACMA expects to consult further with industry on broadcasting technology in the coming year.

[1] In the Outlook, the broadcasting-satellite service is included in the satellite service section and mobile television is included in the WAS section, due to strong technical and/or commercial synergies with these other services.

[2] MF is the frequency range 300–3000 kHz. AM stands for amplitude modulation.

[3] National services are those provided by Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) and the Parliamentary and News Radio Broadcasting Service.

[3] Open narrowcasting services are broadcasting services whose reception is limited due to programming of limited appeal or targeted to special interest groups, or limited to certain locations or periods of time (section 18 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992).

[4] For more information please refer to Embargo 46, contained in RALI MS03: Spectrum Embargoes, available at

[5] Australian Broadcasting Authority, 25 September 2003, ABA – NR60/2003—Analog commercial radio sector. The ABA stated that from this date, it did not propose to allocate any further analog commercial radio licences within five years of the last allocation in the ongoing round at that time. The last allocation was made for Melbourne in August 2004 (see ‘$52 million bid for new Melbourne commercial radio licence’, ABA Update, August 2004, Australian Broadcasting Authority, p. 7).

[6] Including commercial, community (both permanent and temporary community broadcast licences), national and retransmission services.

[7] 9 July 2010, Australian Communications and Media Authority (Realising the Digital Dividend) Direction 2010, paragraph 5 (d)

[8] Notably in Newcastle and Wollongong, NSW, Townsville, Qld, Renmark and Spencer Gulf, SA, and Bunbury, WA.

[9] The DRM+ system is a development of the DRM system that is designed to operate in frequency bands between 30 and 108 MHz.

[10] Section 215B of the BSA, and Section 313B of the Act.

[11] Broadcasting Legsislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Act 2013.

[12] Also known as MPEG-4 Part 10 or H.264. AVC stands for Advanced Video Coding.

Last updated: 02 May 2017