Much ado about set-top boxes

Much ado about set-top boxes

Summary: The government's $308 million set-top box scheme for pensioners is such a good way to ensure that everyone switches over to digital TV that for once even the Coalition was for it.


The government's $308 million set-top box scheme for pensioners is such a good way to ensure that everyone switches over to digital TV that for once even the Coalition was for it.


(Day 233 image by Ernesto Andrade, CC2.0)

When the government announced a $308.8 million scheme to help pensioners move onto digital TV before the completion of the Digital Switchover program in 2013, the program drew criticism from the Coalition and from the likes of Gerry Harvey, who all said that the program could be done for much less than $350 per household, with off-the-shelf set-top boxes costing as little as $50.

"The question is: why is it going to cost us, courtesy of the government rolling out the program, twice as much as the private sector could roll out the program?" Liberal Senator Nick Minchin said on the ABC's Q&A program on Monday. "That is just another example of the waste, and that this government ... is unable to deliver programs in a cost efficient manner."

The problem with this argument is that they didn't take into account that there are other expenses: the administration of the scheme, the installation of the hardware and a hotline for the program. In addition, the money will be going to set-top boxes, which are not your everyday run-of-the-mill cheap set-top boxes that you would buy from Harvey Norman (or even cheaper online).

The $350 per installation figure is the most that the government expects to pay to ensure that these devices can be installed in people's homes and can meet their needs (including for those who are blind or visually impaired).

"People with no real understanding of disability issues have been quick to put their hands up and say that they could provide set-top boxes and installation cheaper, but the fact is this government has worked hard to ensure equitable access to television as the digital switchover happens, and the Household Assistance Scheme provides that," Australian Communications Consumer Action Network chief executive and group member Teresa Corbin said yesterday.

As Conroy pointed out in a clarification press release on Friday, if people like Gerry Harvey think that they can do it cheaper, they're welcome to apply for the tender.

Why this scheme has been such a source of controversy is baffling to me. The excellent political blog Grog's Gamut pointed out the inconsistency in the Coalition's complaints about the scheme, highlighting an article quoting Minchin, as the then shadow communications minister, calling for the government to ensure that pensioners were covered as part of the switch-off.

"The government also needs to finalise a strategy to assist the economically disadvantaged to upgrade their analog equipment to digital," Minchin told the Adelaide Advertiser in 2009. "The elderly and others may also require technical assistance and support to ensure their digital equipment is properly installed and working."

Liberal backbencher Jamie Briggs was also a fan before the government made its announcement; he told parliament in 2009 that costs were no barrier for the government to ensure that every pensioner was covered.

"I think it is important, for the integrity of the switch-over, that we help in areas in which people find difficulty in coming up with the financial resources needed for the digital switch-over. It might not just be those on lower incomes who require assistance, but many people might require assistance to upgrade," he said. "In the scale of things, the cost is not significant, but for these local communities, the cost is absolutely significant. The Federal Government can and should help out in these areas."

The problem with the scheme is that the government can't win. If it does nothing, pensioners will be calling talkback and appearing on A Current Affair, telling the world that the government took away their TV.

At least this way, through an orderly process managed through Centrelink and handled by a single contractor that ensures that each installer is qualified and not a fly-by-nighter, we'll be pretty certain that, by 2013, even the pensioners will be on-board with digital.

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Telcos, Telstra


Armed with a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Journalism, Josh keeps a close eye on the telecommunications industry, the National Broadband Network, and all the goings on in government IT.

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  • As I said on another website it's funny how these people that think they can do it cheaper/better always pop up after the fact. I've had to deal with people like this all my life they really are insufferable bores but more to the point I know one installer that had to spend 4 hours on a job just to explain to the user how to work it. The Liberal party will tell you that that is a fail either way so yes the government really can't win...
    Hubert Cumberdale
    • How on earth did the so-called "stupid" Americans do it for just $40 per STB?
  • According to Bill Shorten when he was on Q&A the $350 was just an estimate for the budget. He said that if Harvey want to bid for the work they can.

    It sounds like they had to put an estimate of some sort in the budget for the average price. Obviously they don't want to make it too small and then have a cost blowout.
  • I guess it's time for Gerry to step up to the plate, maybe him and Mr Kogan can form some sort of alliance and show us all they aren't just full of talk? :)
  • Why make pensioners watch digitized garbage? Excess of information makes people ill, especially older. Let them die in piece - Leave them without a TV at all.
    Oh.. I know. Ill people need medications. That would add more then $350 returns in medicare spending. Besides, digital drug put you in a trance, avoiding discontents complains, recalling good old times…
  • So the best way, to deliver on this promise, is for the Government to become an Electrical Appliances supplier, contractor and hotline? You mean to say that these services don't already exist? That the Government, who are certainly most adept at Electrical Retailing, would be better than the local Retravision or the local independent Retailer; Bricks and Mortar shops where a Pensioner can talk to the actual installer... and of course we wouldn't want any of these promised funds injected into these local communities. Sometimes there are better ways to do these things...
  • What on earth has this subject have to do with the NBN. Of course pensioners should have set top boxes or new TV's. Good grief I would also hope that some the families of those people would buy them a digital TV, what is this country coming too!!!
    Knowledge Expert
    • The topic wasn't about the NBN it was about STB's, can you even read...?
    • Well, this IS yet another moronic money-wasting Labor policy being mindlessly defended by the ALP drones at ZDnet, so I can see how the mistake was made.
  • STB moron, STB...
  • My concern is not the money. It is, are set top boxes the right option? Harvey Norman advertised a Toshiba 22" LCD this morning for under $300. The set top box concerns are: if the TV offers RF input or video in only, pensioners will not have access to the HD channels; the extra complexity if input is via video and they have never had to change from TV to video in the past (when my father turned 80 several years ago we purchased him a VCR and set it up through RF, just another channel and thus, easy to access, when he upgraded his TV I put it through the video - he had problems with remembering to switch from TV to video and as the TV had multiple video inputs, he had problems with remembering which one to select); and increased power consumption. A new LCD TV would reduce the complexity of use and probably provide reduced power consumption with respect to the TV already in use (green!).
  • Is there any Labor government policy you people won't defend?

    ~slurp~ ~slurp~ ~slurp~

    Here, wipe your chins.

    ~passes over a roll of toilet paper~