Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST) provides free-to-air television (FTA TV) to Australians unable to receive a reliable terrestrial transmission. The service provides television access to channels, which are broadly comparable to metropolitan services, and to a range of radio channels. Approximately 200,000 households and an additional 30,000 travellers rely on VAST for access to FTA television.
Government funding for the VAST commercial channels is due to end by 30 June 2020. The Department of Communications and the Arts was asked to evaluate the performance of VAST and consider options for future delivery. The Department’s Terms of Reference considered:
- the effectiveness and efficiency of the current FTA TV services via VAST, and
- options relating to the delivery of FTA TV services in areas that do not receive a reliable local terrestrial FTA transmission.
The Review’s assessment was informed by stakeholder feedback, including submissions from VAST users, government stakeholders and industry. The report builds on evidence provided through submissions and broader Department analysis to make key findings about the VAST service and consider alternative delivery mechanisms.
The Review concluded satellite remains the most effective option to deliver FTA TV to viewers unable to receive a terrestrial transmission. Satellite broadcasting provides clear advantages that other delivery technologies cannot, including Australia-wide coverage, reliable and uncongested reception, and access to a broadly metropolitan-comparable FTA TV service. There is overwhelming stakeholder support for continuing satellite delivery of FTA TV. Individual viewers were especially keen on this outcome, as most have no access to an alternative reliable terrestrial FTA TV service.
The Review finds other technologies would not provide the same level of service as delivered by satellite. Other delivery options considered included the National Broadband Network, alternative satellite technologies, mobile networks, and an expansion of the terrestrial transmission network, and other internet protocol-based (IP-based) delivery models. Alternative delivery options would need to improve the service, reduce ongoing costs, and avoid imposing unnecessary additional costs given the equipment investment by households and by the Government in establishing the current model. A strong business case for delivery options other than satellite was not able to be demonstrated.
The Review developed findings and recommendations to make improvements to the existing satellite delivery service. While VAST is generally efficient, there are opportunities to optimise end user experience and administrative aspects of the next program. These include conditional access, the relevance of local content, a lack of complete equivalency to terrestrial services, and VAST set top box costs and functionality.
Data on consumer media consumption indicate FTA TV is still a major source of information and entertainment in regional communities. There is, however, a decline in advertising revenue for broadcasters, with limited opportunities for commercial returns from VAST services given the relatively small number of viewers and their wide geographic distribution. This supports claims from commercial broadcasters that they would not be able to provide a satellite-delivered FTA TV service in the absence of Government support.
Ahead of the expiry of VAST funding by 30 June 2020, the Review also considered high level funding estimates for a future satellite FTA TV delivery program. Consultation will be required with the broadcasters to inform Government on a more detailed costing model.