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Chair’s foreword

I am pleased to present the annual report of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) for 2019–20.

The products and services delivered by Australia’s communications and media sectors play a central role in our economy and society. The ACMA Communications report 2018–19 showed that around nine in 10 Australian adults (91 per cent) retained an internet connection in their home and nearly all Australian adults (96 per cent) own a mobile phone. Just over three-quarters (76 per cent) of Australian adults in metro cities watched free-to-air television weekly, while around eight in 10 (83 per cent) of Australian adults accessed video online.

The criticality of these industry sectors was made even more evident over the course of 2019–20 as we all experienced the significant challenges of the bushfire crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. These once-in-a-100-year events have tested the communications and media sectors and underlined the importance of Australians having access to reliable news and information, and robust communications infrastructure.

During this most unusual of years, the ACMA has also had to adapt to changes in our regulatory environment.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we recognised our role in supporting industry’s uninterrupted delivery of essential services to Australians in challenging circumstances. To that end, in early April 2020, we established the ACMA COVID-19 Taskforce to deal with requests from industry associations and regulated entities for regulatory forbearance and other actions across the full range of our activities. In total, requests for relief concerned over 49 acts and instruments and more than 200 separate legislative provisions. The Authority agreed to provide regulatory forbearance on specific provisions that did not pose the risk of negative outcomes for consumers. We also suspended some investigations, implemented deferred or instalment payment arrangements for some licensees, and paused several of our consultation processes.

While COVID-19 presented immediate issues to be resolved for industry, longer-term structural change has also become a prominent focus this year.

With the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) nearing completion, and 5G beginning to be deployed across the country, we are seeing market forces and changing consumer behaviours driving transformation of the communications and media sectors. The new and emerging products and services that connect Australians, keep us informed, and entertain us are evolving rapidly, as are the business models behind them.

Digital platforms now play a key role in our information ecosystem, and the advertising model that has underpinned the production and distribution of news, including public interest journalism, has been severely disrupted. This year, the ACMA has continued to manage grants allocated as a part of the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund, which is designed to support public interest journalism. We also conducted research into the news environment on the issues of impartiality and commercial influence, to explore whether current regulatory arrangements effectively safeguard the integrity of broadcast news and current affairs.

The rise of digital platforms as a source of news and information has brought with it concerns about the spread of potentially harmful false, misleading, or deceptive information online—or ‘misinformation’. Misinformation has the potential to cause serious harm to the wellbeing of individuals and to society more broadly. Following on from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Digital Platforms Inquiry (DPI) last year, we began working with digital platforms to address the spread of misinformation on their services. We released a position paper in June 2020 outlining our expectations for a voluntary code or codes of practice to be developed by digital platforms. We expect the code to be in place in the next reporting period.

The government’s response to the DPI also proposed that the ACMA collaborate with Screen Australia on an options paper on how to best support Australian stories on our screens in a modern, multi-platform environment. The final options paper outlined several options, ranging from keeping the status quo to deregulation. These were designed to prompt industry feedback and assist in the development of a regulatory framework that promotes the government’s intent to support Australian stories on our screens. The options paper was released by the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, the Hon Paul Fletcher MP, in April 2020.

Another key focus for us during 2019–20 was compliance with consumer safeguards for communications products and services. This year was the second year the Authority published its annual compliance priorities. This approach has already seen improved consumer outcomes in several areas. Most notably, our sustained focus on telecommunications providers’ compliance with our NBN migration rules has resulted in a substantial drop in complaints to providers. We have also seen complaints about unwanted telemarketing calls from solar companies halve since 2018.

We have continued our work to protect Australians from the harms of illegal online gambling, with internet service providers blocking over 90 illegal gambling websites since we made our first blocking request in November 2019. Our enforcement actions for businesses breaching spam and telemarketing laws have been well received by the community. We issued our largest infringement notice to date—more than $1 million—following an investigation into non-compliance with the Spam Act 2003 by Woolworths Group Limited. Investigative, compliance and enforcement work continued in other areas of the ACMA’s remit including broadcasting, telecommunications and radiocommunications.

A significant area of work in 2019–20 has been our continued support for the delivery of, and investment in, services using radiofrequency spectrum. The World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC-19) in Egypt in November 2019 was a key highlight. WRC conferences occur every three to four years and set out international arrangements for the use of spectrum and satellite orbits. WRC-19 was the culmination of four years’ worth of preparation by the ACMA and our portfolio department, which successfully delivered on Australia’s objectives.

This year the ACMA has also undertaken extensive planning activity for the deployment of 5G services in Australia. This has included establishing new planning arrangements in the 26 GHz and 28 GHz bands and publishing our spectrum management priorities in the five-year spectrum outlook (FYSO), which we publish annually.

Across our many functions, we have continued to seek out ways to improve our efficiency and effectiveness. We have focused on enhancing our data management and analysis capabilities. We are also exploring how new technologies could support better regulatory outcomes in our increasingly data-driven and technically complex operating environment. We will continue to innovate and adapt to fulfil our objective of maximising the economic and social benefits of communications and media for Australia.

We also reviewed the content of this report to ensure it continued to meet legislated requirements and publication principles and, where possible, minimised duplication with information presented on our website. Most notably, we have removed previously published appendixes on our programs and content and broadcasting investigation outcomes. This information remains available at acma.gov.au.

In looking ahead, 2020–21 will see a focus on economic and community recovery. The ACMA will play an important role in ensuring our regulatory frameworks are effective, responsive to changing market conditions and promote the interest of all Australians.

I would like to thank my Authority colleagues and the ACMA staff for their resilience, agility, commitment, and dedication in these unprecedented times. I look forward to the year ahead as we continue to meet new challenges and deliver public benefit through the regulation we administer.

Nerida O’Loughlin PSM