The ABC and SBS will be forced to find an extra $1.2 million a year to keep broadcasting to regional Australians, after the company that has been maintaining the transmission towers said it could no longer afford to do so without government assistance.
ABC managing director Dave Anderson told Senate estimates on Wednesday night the public broadcasters had been told they'd need to find an extra $600,000 per year each to maintain transmission towers in 77 locations across Australia.
The towers were maintained by RBA Holdings Pty Ltd (RBAH), which was formed by a collective of regional commercial broadcasters to build transmission towers in digital black spots.
Mr Anderson wrote to Communications Minister Paul Fletcher in July, after RBAH said it would no longer fund towers that solely broadcast ABC and SBS.
However the ABC received no extra funding in the 2020 budget to pay to maintain the towers.
While ABC and SBS were now in "constructive discussions" with the company about a solution, around 1000 homes in East Grove in Goulburn and in Bermagui on the Far South Coast have already lost their signal.
Mr Anderson said it was not clear how many other towers could go offline, as he had no visibility over their operational status.
He said he was concerned about the impact on residents heading into emergency broadcasting season.
While residents could pay for satellite access, it would be an extra cost on households for a service they had previously received for free.
"It's imperative that we find a solution immediately," Mr Anderson said.
Mr Anderson said it was an additional cost the ABC and SBS would likely have to absorb, even though they were not receiving any extra government funding for it.
"We're just simply going to have to find that from somewhere," Mr Anderson said.
RBAH previously told Australian Community Media it had spent $40 million operating and maintaining the towers, " many of which deliver a signal to only a few hundred viewers".
"Unfortunately, with competition now from digital advertising, streaming and OTT services, the commercial reality is that regional commercial broadcasters are no longer able to bear these costs into the future without any contribution from the national broadcasters or the government," the company said.
Labor senator Louise Pratt questioned why the Infrastructure Department had provided an extra $10 million to Foxtel in July to broadcast women's sport - taking the total amount of funding provided to $40 million - when regional areas may lose their signal heading into bushfire season.
"Why do you expect the ABC to do this with the same dollar bucks that they've currently got, when they've never had responsibility for these transmission points?" she asked.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young pointed out the ABC had to pay Foxtel to rebroadcast some of the women's sport, even though the company had drawn on taxpayer funds.
"It sounds like a bit of a rort, don't you think?" Senator Hanson-Young said.
The committee also heard about the impact of the indexation freeze on the ABC's funding.
Mr Anderson said 229 people had been made redundant as the broadcaster tried to find $40 million in savings.
Two-thirds of the savings had come from making efficiencies or through third party negotiations.