Yesterday research was released showing that almost 30 per cent of Australian households now have digital free to air television, and it is estimated that over forty percent can receive it if those who get their service piggy-backed on digital pay television are included.

There are no more important statistics for those interested in media diversity. On the face of it, these figures are cause for optimism – but there are still plenty of worms in the apple.

Digital television adoption matters for media diversity because once enough Australians have adopted the technology, the analogue signal will be able to be switched off. Because digital signals use spectrum much more efficiently, swathes of spectrum will be opened up. Existing broadcasters will be able to offer multiple channels, and there will also be the possibility of new services from innovative new players.

This may offset what is likely to be the ruthless and deadening hand of the private equity firms who now dominate free to air television in this country.

There are also implications for community television, as detailed in this story in The Australian’s Media section today.

At present the Government plans to switch off the analogue signal between 2010 and 2012, but there has been much industry speculation as to whether this will be possible. Once the analogue signal is switched off, most television sets in Australia will become useless. Obviously it will be politically and practically impossible to achieve switch-off until the vast majority of Australians have digital sets.

All this is part of a sad and sorry history of digital television in Australia, in which the Government has tried to push Australians into buying the new technology while protecting media mates by hobbling the full advantages of the new technology.

The Packer empire, in particular, wanted the existing business model of free to air television protected from the fragmentation of the audience that digital broadcasting would bring. As a result of Packer lobbying, existing free to air channels have been prohibited from offering new multichannels, and until this year the national broadcasters – the ABC and SBS –were subject to ridiculously heavy genre restrictions.

But now the Packers have all but departed from free to air television, and the Government is moving, painfully slowly, towards allowing new content and new services.

The figures on digital uptake released by ACMA yesterday represent a doubling of households able to receive digital television since 2005. This is not really news. Those who attended the ACMA conference last November got a sneak preview at that time.

But the devil is in the detail. The issue is not only how many households can receive digital television, but how many televisions can do so, given that most households these days have at least two sets.

The ACMA figures show that only 17 per cent of the televisions in Australia are capable of receiving digital television. Meanwhile forty per cent of households don’t know digital television is available in their area, and a third don’t know the analogue signal will one day be switched off.

There is a long way to go. No Government wanting to hold power can make the majority of Australia’s television sets redundant.

The Government has set up a new body, Digital Australia, to try and educate Australian consumers and drive the switch over, but can it do it in time? Meanwhile Labor has pledged to abolish Digital Australia to save money should it take government – without offering an alternative method of driving digital uptake.

So will we get to analogue switch-off in time? There are reasons to hope. Now ABC 2 is free of genre restrictions it has become a significant driver of digital uptake. If the Government provides funding for the ABC to provide a free to air digital children’s channel, as detailed in Crikey earlier this week then that will be another significant driver.

Nevertheless there are only two and a half years to go until 2010, and even if the present rate of uptake continues, many televisions will still be analogue only at that date.

The ACMA research reveals another interesting statistic. A quarter of Australian households have now downloaded or streamed audio-visual media content from the internet.

Once Australia has decent internet speeds, the attraction of digital television will be reduced. We will get what we want from the internet – the ultimate menu of endless choices.

No wonder Packer is getting out of Channel Nine, and the private equity companies are looking only five years ahead. The days of truly mass media – of Australian families gathering around a single screen – are, one way or another, coming to an end.