Much ado about set-top boxes

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.