Could the Government be spending $3 billion of our money unnecessarily, while holding back the dawn of a new age of media diversity?

Perhaps, but trying to find out is enough to make you scream. Never has the bureaucracy seemed more impenetrable, arrogant and unresponsive to reasonable queries.

For the last few years television industry figure Alex Encel has been trying to find out the total costs of continuing the present method of simulcasting both digital and analog television signals. On the best available information, he estimates the unnecessary costs to taxpayers of supporting analogue will be about $3 billion before what he thinks is a realistic closedown date after 2016.

Encel has argued since 2005 that the best and cheapest way to push Australia into the digital broadcasting age would be for the Government to give consumers basic set top boxes to convert all analogue television sets to digital. By bulk ordering, the Government could get these sets cheap – and once the analogue signal is switched off, vast swathes of spectrum will become available, new licences can be granted, Australia will enter a new world of media diversity and the Government would recoup its money many times over.

There are precedents, Encel points out. A few decades ago our phone system changed from decadic to pulse and government supplied phones were provided. “It was so simple that hardly anyone remembers.”

Industry figures I have spoken to think Encel is basically correct, although they point out there would be other costs – such as helping the elderly and non-tech-savvy to install their set top boxes. Such problems, Encel argues, could be overcome and will exist in any case.

Perhaps there are good arguments against his scheme, but if so it’s very hard to get the Department of Communications or the Minister, Helen Coonan, to cough them up. The Department will neither confirm nor deny his calculations on the cost of simulcasting, nor provide its own figures.

Recently Encel had a meeting with one of Coonan’s advisers. She was, he says, polite and intelligent, but had not read the copious material he had provided in advance nor was she really open to hearing his ideas. “The policy is set,” he was told, and that was that. Attempts to follow up on the meeting have hit a brick wall.

Meanwhile Encel has pursued a search for the government’s figuring via Freedom of Information, and is awaiting a hearing with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Everyone agrees that to keep up with the rest of the world Australia needs to convert to digital broadcasting, and switch off the analogue signal as fast as possible.

Digital broadcasting is much more economical with spectrum meaning that once analogue is switched off there will be the potential for many new entrants to the television business.

The problem is that at present only a little over two million of Australia’s 18 million television sets are digitally connected. If analogue was switched off now more than 85% of the televisions in Australia would stop operating. In other words, immediate or quick conversion to digital is practically and politically impossible.

Late last year Coonan released her Digital Action plan to achieve analogue switch off between 2010-2012 .This is an extension on originally proposed date of 2008, and industry figures, including Encel, think this date too will be a fantasy. Coonan plans to set up a new agency, Digital Australia, to drive the program.

Meanwhile Labor is hardly doing better. Labor’s planned cuts to spending announced a few weeks ago included the abolition of Digital Australia. Shadow Minister Stephen Conroy has yet to announce any alternative plan.

Crikey put questions to the Minister’s office last week about Encel and his figuring. After two days there was a four paragraph response, which did not address his calculations nor his arguments. The statement said: “The Government is confident that Digital Australia is best placed to drive the conversion from analogue to digital.”

Mandy Rice-Davies comes to mind.

Crikey doesn’t know whether Encel is right or wrong, but surely the Government could at least turn its collective mind to answering him properly?

As it is, people can be forgiven for thinking that the age old traditions of protecting the free to air networks for as long as possible are continuing – at a cost to the taxpayer.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey