Digital TV for the blind (the ones leading the blind)

Digital TV for the blind (the ones leading the blind)

Summary: Might I suggest that the government, which so far has handled the issue with kid gloves, take a chance for once and reach over and just pull the digital TV plug?


One of the really great things about going to conferences is getting the opportunity to ask sticky questions of people who don't have a script to fall back on. I got such a chance at the recent ACMA RadComms08 conference, which this year riffed heavily on the promise of what the government has been calling "the digital dividend" — all that radio spectrum that will be freed up whenever Australia bothers to switch off analogue TV broadcasts.

Among the speakers was Andy Townend, who has been imported from the UK by the Rudd administration to guide Australia into the era of digital television. Being relatively new to his position as head of the government's Digital Switchover Taskforce (DST), he was of course never going to get into heavy detail — but I nonetheless put up my hand to ask the bleeding obvious.

"We now have five years to convince the 58 per cent of Australians that haven't already bothered to get digital TV that they should, now, bother," I said. "But if digital TV is the future, why can I leave this conference today, walk into Harvey Norman and buy a TV without a digital tuner in it? Why doesn't the government save everyone a lot of time and effort and just mandate the inclusion of a digital TV tuner in every TV sold in Australia?"

The broadcast industry guy sitting next to me muttered "I totally agree" before Townend gave his answer. "In the UK, the manufacturers and retailers slowly phased them in," he responded. "It is being left to the industry."

This kind of non-committal claptrap is exactly why the government has gone from a leadership position in digital TV — Australia began broadcasting digital TV on 1 January, 2001 — to a laggard.

By the time we farewell analog TV at the end of 2013, Townend told us, it will already have been gone for seven years in Luxembourg; six years in Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Austria; five years in Germany; four years in the US; two years in France, Japan, Canada and South Africa; and a year in the UK.

Now, Luxembourg, with less than half a million people and just five TV broadcast stations, hardly compares here.

But could someone please explain why Australia, with a population of 21 million and just 104 TV stations, needs four years longer to make the switch than the US, with 300 million served by 2218 stations? Five years longer than Germany, which has 82 million people and 373 TV stations? And two years longer than Japan, which has 127 million people and 211 TV stations? Especially since there is no TV content now broadcast in Australia that is not already available in digital?

Our government is wasting time and money in some misguided effort at consensus building. Australians do not just need digital TV, Townend was saying, they need to need digital TV.

For goodness' sake.

While the DST pays millions to consultants who will advise on branding and pointless education schemes, Joe Bloggs can still walk into his neighbourhood store and buy an analog-only, big-screen TV that requires a separate digital tuner and the technical know-how to make it all work together.

The worst part is that, at the same conference, the guy responsible for the DTA — Senator Stephen Conroy — had the nerve to stand up and claim he is being proactive in harnessing the potential of Australia's radio-frequency spectrum.

If I may quote, briefly, from his speech:

It is therefore no exaggeration to say Australia's future prosperity will be closely linked with our success in harnessing the potential of spectrum to support emerging technologies and applications. Developed economies are already dealing with issues such as spectrum availability, positioning of infrastructure and the development of content...

Over the past 11 years, Australia has been slow to prepare for major spectrum decisions. Well, not any more. The Rudd Government recognises the importance of spectrum and intends to make sure that we maximise the potential benefits for Australian consumers and industry.

I have already lamented the 2013 deadline in an earlier post, but Conroy's vapid speech confirms the utter gulf between words and action.

Just consider something else Townend said: "one of the most important things is working with broadcasters on the timetable," he said. "We have been asked to come back by the end of this year with a timetable for switch off."

Er, don't we already have a timetable? Does it really take eight months to figure this stuff out?

I note that one of the things Townend believes will encourage consumers to go digital — the electronic program guide (EPG) — has been seriously compromised in Australia by networks' refusal to provide online EPG information about anything more than the next one or two shows; Nine's lawsuit against IceTV confirms just how interested the industry is in pushing this stuff forward any faster than they have to.

If the government wants to convince people to make the switch voluntarily, perhaps it should legislate the open provision of programming data so things like the EPGs actually work like they're supposed to. Of course, that would require standing up to the broadcast industry — something the government seems loathe to do.

Instead, we had a new government that scrapped the old government's old digital TV transition plan, then came up with a newer, more expensive one that will take longer to achieve a result that should basically already be in place. Until analog TV is actually shut off, all this talk about the digital dividend is just farting in the wind, if you'll excuse my French.

The irony is that this is the same government that can call an election and expect every adult in Australia to schedule in a specific day to vote with just six weeks' notice or face fines. By the time digital TV is shut off, we will have 13 years to plan for it and many people will be on their third or fourth digital-ready TV.

This procrastinating is worse than you'd cop from a 10-year-old trying to stay up late to watch Underbelly. Might I suggest that the government, which so far has handled the issue with kid gloves, take a chance for once and do what any parent knows is the only way to actually control TV viewing habits: reach over and just pull the plug? A blank screen will be all the motivation the remaining 58 per cent needs to get with the times.

What do you think? Are you still holding onto analog TV? Are there actual reasons you can't go digital? Do we really need five more years of analog?

Topics: Government AU, Hardware


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • Great suggestion

    All I know David, is that it isn't just Joe Bloggs that's perplexed by the external set top boxes. I can't for the life of me get a decent reception.
  • Is digital available everywhere analogue is available?

    That would be my concern about giving analogue the chop. Even living close to Sydney, there have been times when I've chosen to watch a snowy analogue picture in preference to a blue screen with occasional pixels.
  • WHO gives a damn?

    I haven't switched my FTA analogue TV on for over 12 months.
    I've invested in Foxtel (with a satellite dish) and will have their iQ digital box installed and assuming transmission will be digital, so I'll have digital TV, as soon as it becomes available, which is any day now, .... and with a huge program selection!

    Yes I know much of it is nonsense, but with the variety that is available, it's one hell of a lot better than the FTA commercial TV channels.

    It may cost more, but at least I don't have to depend on a dumb politician who doesn't know a bees knee from a bulls foot.

    He's no better than the last 3 Senators of the previous government, who had responsibility for the countries communications systems.

    Is it any wonder we are lagging?
  • Digital is 'better'

    This reminds me of the digital mobile phones "smarter better clearer". Clearer? No, the real dividend (of digital is the vastly smaller amount of radio spectrum used (and filling government coffers from the re-licensing of this spectrum).

    A forcible solution such as that suggested is only possible by having ones head buried in the sand.

    Firstly, the writer of this article doesn't give the impression they've walked a mile in the shoes of those experiencing troublesome reception. Whilst the quality of digital is nice when the signal is strong, as soon as the signal "fringes" it goes downhill - fast. Analogue tv may not be a perfect picture, but when reception becomes an issue, it only suffers gradually compared to digital.

    Equally as important, is the faulty assumption that stopping analogue spectrum will only stop analogue TV -there is more than just "old tv" in there.

    The entertainment industry (including those big scary broadcasters mentioned) are inseperably dependant on the use of radio microphones and in-ear monitoring systems for broadcast and live production quality sound. These are expensive devices (due to the technology required to somehow deliver quality signal despite a war zone of radio interference that is part of modern living!). These devices simply aren't candidates for 802.11G WLAN's etc, as the related RF congestion simply rules out being highly dependable. Another problem is latency - the human brain's audio processing has a major problem with musical performance when the latency of the monitor signal exceeds a certain threshold (detectable starting after 10ms, with the Haas Effect occurring in the vicinity of 30-40ms).

    The entertainment industry had (I believe via lobby from the ABC) specific government dispensation permitting this use of these frequencies.

    The devil is in the detail - there's much more work to be done.
  • Attention to detail

    I'd pay more attention to your arguments if you had bothered to get the head of the DST's name correct. It's Andy Townend, not Townsend.
  • Dont forget the TV makers

    The TV manufacturers are also playing a part in the slow adoption through greedy abuse of the product lifecycle. In the earliest days of digital TVs, those with inbuilt digital tuners were selling for many thousands of dollars over similar models with analogue tuners. How can they justify that? The tuner technology is not that different.

    Then we had the ridiculous situation of HD TVs being still fitted for with analogue tuners just so they could sell a digital tuner model for a thousand dollars more and/or so they could bring out the next years latest and greatest model with the only real change being a digital tuner standard. At the same time the premium for digital tuner TVs over analogue was about a thousand dollers you could get a set top box for half that and I got a digital tuner card for my PC for around $150.

    In my opinion, its only been this year that you can get a good brand digital TV at a size where bigger would not be suitable for most people (i.e. around 42") , at a resolution needed for a quality picture for that size (i.e. 1080 lines) and at a reasonable price point (i.e. < $2000). Its only now that I feel confident that I can buy a TV that will be good for the next 10 years.
  • corrected

    thanks for pointing that out -- his name has been corrected.
  • Until reception is available for everyone it won't work

    Sure digital TV is great in areas that get decent reception but useless for those that don't. This needs to be addressed before Analog is turned off. Sure a working EPG, multi channeling etc would be great but people have to be able to get a decent reception first.
  • Lack of content

    Agree with all these comments, however, one of the main issues that really hasn't been covered here is the issue of content.

    What is the incentive for Joe Public to go and spend $200+ on a set top box or $1500+ on a new TV with a built-in digital tuner? Where is the content?

    In the UK, with Freeview you get all these channels: - and what do we get here? The same channels as analogue plus ABC2, a couple of radio stations, and some foreign-language SBS news channels. Oh and 7, 9 and 10 HD! Basically a carbon copy of what you get on analogue with a couple of extras.

    If more more channels were provided (and the coverage adequate), this would provide the incentive for the public to swap their old analogue TVs for digital, as has happened in the UK where the digital switch-off is now a reality rather than just a pipe dream.

    And now they want to do the same with radio, but that is another story...
  • stations

    we have 104 tv stations?
  • Get on with it!

    Buy a standard definition set top box for little more than a few movie tickets, connect it up just like a VCR (and if you don't know how, just ask the kids) and the problem is out of the way.
    The authorities should stop wasting tax payers' money on dragging out the end of analogue TV. Or are there a lot of people still making money out of it. That would be the only explanation for the delays.
  • tv black spots

    There are my places that are known black spots for tv due to geography i have lived in several of them and the only reason some of those towns even have analogue tv let alone even dream of digital is the governments black spot program that allowed these towns to gain the funding required to build there own tv transmiters that retransmit a limited selection of tv chanels usualy only 2 or 3 of them using good old analogue upgrading these instalations to digital will cost many thousands of dollars and where is that money going to come from?? also to get the same distance covered by the towers using digital would require far transmitters who's peak envelope power would far excede what we are leagaly allowed to run under the acma regulations so tell me who is going to pay for all the extra tower installations that will be required to provide tv to these areas ??
  • Typo?

    who cares?

    and THIS makes you not pay attention?!
  • THere will be no dividend

    Ask the commercial networks why they haven't gone digital and they will blame the government just like David does. The real culprit is the commercial TV networks who have fought this transition with every weapon they can muster, including threatening the government at election time.
    That works. It always has, with both parties and it is still working.

    Why would they want additional channels through multi channel digital transmissions. The advertising revenue base is constant as is the share for each network. So they would have to provide more content for the same revenue. This would dilute the amount of advertising to back when their programs were actually watchable. Why would they want to do that? There is no money in it.

    Broadcasters will never surrender spectrum. There fore there will be no digital dividend.
    If we had a government that could stand up to broadcasters we would have switch-off and the dividend. But we don't. So we won't.
  • TV Black spots

    Totally agree, Tried to find something on future grants for digital retransmission by local groups and they are conspicious by their absence. Have sent email to minster responsible but am not holding my breath on getting a useful response. Many people in our country area cannot get the commercially provided digital tv signals. Certainly not a reliable watchable picture.
  • The locals count too

    This is just a guess but that number probably includes all the local community TV stations spread around Australia.