One week ago I asked for readers’ responses to television retailer Alex Encel, who is arguing that the Federal Government should stop mucking about with its flawed Digital Action Plan and simply give a digital television set-top box to every Australian household.

The analogue television signal could then be switched off within months, meaning the broadcasting spectrum could be opened up for multichannelling, new entrants and hopefully a wealth of diverse new services. The last excuse for protecting the commercial position of the incumbents would be removed.

Encel, who is Managing Director of Loewe TV Australasia, claimed the cost of the giveaway basic set-top boxes would be about $150 million once volume discounts were taken into account. He compared this to the huge public cost of maintaining analogue transmission into the future – which he suggested might be as much as $3 billion.

Readers have responded in considerable numbers, and with mixed views. A former Broadcast Australia executive wrote that Encel was right:

The ABC and SBS alone will spend circa $700m in additional costs (ie over and above what they would pay if Aust went digital now) just to provide transmission services…for the simulcast period to 2012. This is when the Govt doesn’t mandate analogue switch-off and poor old ABC has to transmit in analogue and digital, and pay the privatised monopoly now owned by the MacBank to do it. Mac bankers tie up the ABC with ten year transmission contracts worth $$$$s for no logical reason. When was politics and looking after incumbents ever logical?

Others were more sceptical, pointing out that Encel, as a television equipment retailer, has a vested interest. Gary Zuccala said Encel was wrong to say that digital television technology was not taking off:

You only need to observe the increasing number and variety of set-top boxes on sale at JB, HN and Myer. I believe that the dramatically reducing price of Plasma and LCD wide-screen technology is now fuelling set-top box sales … If the government allowed flexibility to the free to air TV networks to multichannel sport on digital, I believe the conversion would happen even faster! 

Several readers pointed out that that Encel’s figures did not include installation charges, which would probably be necessary since many Australians wouldn’t be up to plugging in and tuning their own set-top boxes.

And others said that cheap set-top boxes, and digital broadcasting generally, were not yet all they were cracked up to be. Jason Cameron of North Melbourne wrote:

Some channels on our analogue reception are permanently viewed through a snow storm. But digital is worse. It taunts you with sparkling pictures and sound that disappears without a trace … My Teac brand set-top box cost about $180 two years ago and was installed with brand new cable to the masthead where we also installed a new antenna. I’ve since tested a $400 box and the quality improved dramatically. So it seems you get what you pay for … Much more information is needed on the minimum specifications required to obtain an acceptable signal, otherwise we’ll all be at the mercy of anyone who sets up shop as an antenna installer.

This aside, nobody has seriously challenged the thrust of Encel’s figures. Which raises the question: why isn’t his idea being seriously assessed? Perhaps Encel is wrong, but he at least deserves a hearing.

I guess we know why he isn’t getting one. For the last three quarters of a century. broadcasting policy has been about protecting the commercial position of the incumbents – not about the public interest. The Packer organisation doesn’t want multichannelling nor new entrants and services, because they will further fragment the declining audience, and their ability to sell “eyeballs” to advertisers.

Peter Fray

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