The ABC and pay television are going head to head in a battle for access to that most valuable of natural resources, the broadcasting spectrum.

It’s a stoush that goes to the heart of the ABC’s claim to a unique position in the Australian media, and its claim on the taxpayer’s purse.

Today pay television providers Foxtel and Austar launch A-pac, a new public affairs channel. They claim they want to provide it free to air to all digital television viewers — not only their subscribers.

The ABC also has plans for a digital public affairs channel. But the truth is that neither Foxtel nor the ABC presently have the spectrum to do what they say they will do. Both are lobbying Communications Minister Stephen Conroy for access to existing free spectrum, plus the rights to use that which will become available whe0n the analogue television signal is switched off.

The Government is giving no clues about which of them it will favour. The ABC has every reason to be worried.

Last week Foxtel and Austar released this video promoting A-pac — which was called A-Span when it was announced late last year.

The video contains some pointed references. First, it uses the 2020 summit as its opener — but the idea for a public affairs channel was taken to the summit by the ABC. Second, it touts that the channel will be “at no cost to the Australian taxpayer” — at the very time when the ABC’s triennial funding submission, including plans for a public affairs channel, is before government.

Foxtel’s Director of Policy and Corporate Affairs, Adam Suckling, said to me this week that the A-pac video wasn’t meant to be targeted at the ABC, but then undercut that claim by saying: “As a general proposition the government should only fund stuff that the private sector can’t do. And we can do this.”

Skynews and Foxtel have been talking about a public affairs channel for many years — not only since ABC managing Director Mark Scott made it part of the ABC’s vision. Nevertheless by launching it now, pay tv is challenging the ABC’s unique claim on the taxpayer purse and the broadcasting spectrum.

Foxtel’s problem is its claim that A-pac will be provided free to air to all digital television viewers — not only to Foxtel subscribers. What the organisation doesn’t make clear in its publicity spiels is that at the moment they don’t have the broadcasting spectrum to do this.

In fact A-pac is being made available — at no extra charge — to pay tv subscribers, and free to air only as part of a limited trial with Broadcast Australia in Sydney.

To do more, they need more spectrum. The truth is that A-pac is being used as a spoonful of sugar to try and get government to swallow the idea of giving pay television access to the swathes of spectrum that will be freed up when the analogue television signal is switched off.

Suckling confirms that Foxtel is talking to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy about gaining access to the so-called Channels A and B that the previous minister, Senator Helen Coonan, planned to make available for limited broadcasting services. They are also talking about spectrum that will be freed up when the analogue television signal is switched off.

And he points out that the ABC also does not presently have the spectrum to do its public affairs channel — or not if it also wants to put out its digital children’s content channel.

Meanwhile the ABC says it remains committed to its own public affairs channel. A spokesman said this morning, “The ABC has considered the implications of the limited spectrum and its triennial submission takes this into account when setting out initiatives that give the public the best value for the available bandwidth. That’s about all we can say until after the May Budget.”

So who will Conroy favour? Public broadcaster, or pay provider? Would a public affairs channel done by the ABC be better, superior or more independent? Does this matter to Government? The A-pac launch and machinations mean that there is a renewed need for ABC friends to put the case for government funded public broadcasting.

In the short term, though, the analogue switch-off process is likely to be messy and difficult. All eyes are on the USA, where the process is already underway.

Will all those voters unable to afford pay tv, many of whom turned out to elect Barack Obama have the disappearance of their television service as the first experience of his presidency? Obama has unsuccessfully urged a postponement of the transition.

So far, so good. Hawaii became the first state to turn off the analogue signal last week and all is well.

Nevertheless independent commentators in Australia think the Government is unlikely to commit itself to spectrum allocation until the analogue switch-off process is underway.

In the meantime Conroy is not giving anything away, but he hasn’t told either the ABC or Foxtel to go away. One could be forgiven for thinking he is playing them off against each other.

His office has not returned calls asking for comment.

Peter Fray

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