Considerable doubt has been thrown on the claims from the Former Media Minister, Senator Helen Coonan, about just what she planned to do with the A and B digital channels.

Last week’s Senate Estimates hearings in Canberra saw some amazing admissions from the head of the main media regulator, Australian Communications and Media Authority chairman Chris Chapman.

He disclosed that Senator Coonan and the former Howard Government had never successfully fixed technical problems that dogged the B channel (the one to handle mobile TV, among other services) in parts of Sydney and in and around Brisbane and the Gold Coast. As for Channel A, the proposed service was dogged by concerns about what to do with Community TV.

There were suggestions it be shifted to channel A. Macquarie Communications Infrastructure Group was a big pusher for channel A and backed the relocating of Community TV to the A channel, which would have then given the holder of the channel an immediate income. The shares in Macquarie fell sharply in May when A and B were delayed, falling more than 20%.

The most important disclosure from Mr Chapman was that that Senator Coonan had directed ACMA to start the rollout of channel A (which was the narrowcasting to the home channel) but didn’t issue the necessary paperwork to enable the process to start.

Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, has called a halt to the process of rolling out channels A and B until further notice.

He told the Senate Estimates hearing: “As I say, I have taken a step back because, despite the claims by the former government, the technical issues had not been solved. We are taking advice from the sector, from ACMA and from my department about addressing those challenges. The future of community television is obviously a key policy decision: where it is sited; how we provide it; what you do to provide the necessary spectrum if you want genuine coverage of channel B in Sydney. The same applies in Queensland, north and south of Brisbane. There are genuine technical issues that need to be addressed.”

Mr Chapman said “In the same room at this time last year I indicated that there were a number of policy issues that were awaiting government consideration from the ACMA perspective. We had done as much work as we could to that point, and the subsequent ultimate timetables were dependent on the direction we got from government with respect to roll-out obligations, for example, on channel A; a digital pathway for community television; potential optimisation propositions for channel B. They are matters that are for the prerogative of government.

SENATOR LUNDY (ALP): Are you saying that you never got the answers to those questions from the previous government?

CHRIS CHAPMAN: That is correct, yes…. The question of spectrum availability for channel B in Sydney is a challenge. It is not insurmountable, but it requires a number of other policy decisions to be made that the previous government did not make.

LUNDY: I want to go back and ask what we knew about at that time. Can I ask ACMA if they got a ministerial direction from the previous minister with respect to the rollout conditions of channel A?

CHAPMAN: We did.

LUNDY: What was that direction?

CHAPMAN: We got a rollout condition in about April 2007—I may be out by a month; the minister has already alluded to it—in the sense of a rollout with respect to 60 per cent of the population within three years of the allocation and 80 per cent of the population within seven years. That was a condition we received. It was never registered on the Federal Register of Legislative Instruments….

CHAPMAN: It was never registered on the Federal Register of Legislative Instruments and, as a consequence of that, it never took effect. We, the ACMA, have an obligation to put it on our website as and when it is registered on the federal register. As I said, that did not happen and for all intents and purposes that rollout obligation is not yet enforceable.

LUNDY: Can I ask Mr Chapman, in his professional opinion: would the rollout direction, if left in place, affect the level of interest in channel A bidders, and why?

CHAPMAN: My professional opinion is that it would have had some infrastructure and cost impacts on the business model.

LUNDY: So it would have imposed additional costs. Is that what you are saying?

CHAPMAN: It depends on what people’s assumptions were about their original business case. You cannot make a blanket statement about that because some people in their business cases may have factored that in. I am just making the self-evident statement that, from a professional perspective, the infrastructure costs associated with rollout conditions have a cost impact.

Those policy decisions, as best we knew it, were the roll-out obligations, the digital path for community broadcasting and the degree to which the channel B could be improved or better optimised — whatever expression you want to put around it — for the channel B services. They were three broad agenda items that I quoted.