Those who care about the health of rural and remote Australians should be paying close attention to the introduction of digital television.

It’s looking like we may be on the verge of missing a critical opportunity to extend the reach of rural health education and communication initiatives like those provided by the Rural Health Education Foundation.

Don Perlgut, CEO of the Foundation, writes:

“At first glance, there does not appear to be much of a direct relationship between the introduction of digital television in Australia and health services for rural and remote Australians.  Well, think again.

Digital television brings with it the promise of a wide universe of unparalleled audio-visual choice – including for rural and remote Australians whose access to the media, entertainment, information and education has been decidedly restricted.   (I still remember living in Armidale NSW when there were only two television channels and two radio stations.)

In theory, the new digital environment brings with it lots of opportunities for additional information and educational services.

Back on 5th January 2010, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy announced a new satellite service to provide digital television to viewers in regional blackspot areas.  While the numbers of people who will use this satellite are still uncertain, up to one million Australians may be using this new service.  That’s great news.

But what will be on this satellite?  At this stage, all that is planned are the commercial television services and the national broadcasters – the ABC and the SBS.  So where are the other services we thought possible?

The equivalent satellite service – which this new one will effectively replace – is the “Optus Aurora” service, which also includes some interesting non-commercial services, many of them with lots of health education programming – provided by National Indigenous Television (NITV), Westlink – the Department of Local Government and Regional Development in Western Australia, Queensland Health and my own organisation – the Rural Health Education Foundation.

The outline of the new satellite service is now starting to become clear, with the Minister’s April 14th announcement of how the new satellite will be run by Southern Cross Media and Imparja through a joint venture company called “Viewer Access Satellite Television” (VAST).  The legislation for this new satellite service – which is due to commence in mid-June in time for the Mildura region TV digital “switchover” on 30th June – has already passed the House of Representatives and will be considered by the Senate commencing 15th June.

The Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts has already held hearings on this bill and the results make for interesting reading.

Effectively, there is no guaranteed access for organisations like NITV, Westlink and the Rural Health Education Foundation, and the logistics of satellite broadcasting (new set-top boxes, possible re-pointing of dishes) mean that all serious viewers of television will be switching over to the new satellite – leaving the Optus Aurora platform (which is due to expire in 2013 in any case) a very lonely place.

Australia is on the cusp of a new digital television environment; it’s a thrilling moment in our telecommunications history (although regional blackspot viewers may not find it so in the short term), and one with great opportunities.

With the health of rural and remote Australians lagging well behind their city cousins, we are faced with an unparalleled opportunity to extend the health communication activities of those television organisations (NITV, Westlink, the Rural Health Education Foundation) active in this area that have a track record of providing such services, both to consumers as well as health professionals.

But in the great rush to get it all in place, these organisations are now in real danger of being excluded.  What a shame that would be.  For all of us.”

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