It’s already been dubbed “pink batts for pensioners” — the latest incarnation, the opposition say, in Labor’s “conga line of waste” that includes roof insulation, school halls and solar panels.

So is the federal government’s $308 million plan to provide pensioners with digital set-top boxes really a vital service for vulnerable Australians or, as Tony Abbott dubs it, are they simply building the entertainment revolution? And what’s going to stop the shonks, sheisters and scammers from ripping the government off? Crikey spoke to one Melbourne-based installer to draw up five reasons why the government should be wary of set-top boxes.

They’re paying too much

It’s estimated the average cost for the set-top box package will be $350 per household, a figure which has come under attack from the opposition and electrical retailers who claim the boxes can be provided for less. Dick Smith offers a range of set-top boxes for under $100 each. As do JB Hi-Fi. Kogan Technologies reckons the entire scheme could be completed for $50 million.

Gerry Harvey says his electrical store chain can provide and install the boxes for less than half the $350 price tag. Failing that, he believes it would be cheaper to hand out digital-ready tellies — at the same cost as the current proposal.

Crikey‘s set-top box installer deep throat “Greg” (not his real name) says the installation costs are being overinflated. He reckons it should take no more than an hour to install one of the boxes, which subcontractors would do at a rate of about $80 an hour.

The federal government has consistently stated the $350 figure accounts for the entire assistance package, which includes administration costs, a warranty and free 12-month access to an assistance help desk. Pensioners will not be provided with the cheapest set-top boxes, says Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy, as they will need to be used by the elderly and those with vision and hearing disabilities. They say the total cost also takes into account any extra wiring or cabling that may be required if the box doesn’t pick up a signal.

The boxes might only last a year or so

One of the issues with the scheme could be its reliance on technology which may break down in the near future. Greg says the Hills TechLife set-top boxes currently being handed out under the regional Victoria digital roll out are “notoriously unreliable” and often only have a life of 12 months.

“It’s quite possible that they may only last a year, these boxes can just die like flies,” he said. “Especially if they’re stacked in small spaces and on top of other devices. Often I try to fix them but typically people just throw them out and buy another one.”

Around 25,000 Victorian pensioners have received set-top boxes under the current scheme, with 38,000 distributed so far in other states.

The tellies might be too old

Older televisions could pose a problem because they often don’t have the necessary means of connecting to new HD set-top boxes. Greg estimates “at least 10%” of televisions he comes across don’t have AV inputs — the standard way of connecting a digital box with a television — a figure which is likely to be higher amongst households in need of switchover assistance.

“The old Sharps and Rank Arenas that people still have, many of them don’t have AV inputs,” he said. “And a lot of these new digital HD boxes don’t have an RF connection. Then you’ve got to start using an external modulator and it all gets a bit messy.”

In a report in the Sydney Morning Herald last year, it was found that most new set-top boxes don’t have RF modulators — that is, the “antenna” connection, and if they do it would often only come with a standard definition device — meaning no ABC News 24, One HD, 7mate, GEM and SBS HD.

One way of getting around the problem, the Sydney Morning Herald suggested, is to run the digital box through a VCR, as they come with an internal RF modulator.

It takes time to teach old people

Julia Gillard has said elderly people, including her parents, struggle with new technology and need assistance, so part of the $308 million will be put towards providing enough assistance to ensure people know how to use the boxes they are being given.

Part of installation will be some kind of run-down on how the box works, the government says, but Greg has found in his experience this will probably not occur: “Most installers will probably just set up the box, check it’s working and then get the signature. They won’t show them how to properly use it.”

The government has said it will also provide a free hotline for 12 months after installation of the boxes, but Greg says the easiest way to teach older people how to use them is to simply disconnect the analogue feed totally so they “can’t get confused”.

Some regional towns in Victoria, South Austrlia, Queensland and NSW have already begun switching off their analogue feed, with the full digital roll-out expected in capital cities by the end of 2013.

Installers might be dodgy

There are already fears the rush to cash in on the tender may mirror the pink batts fiasco and attract shonky operators into people’s homes. Master Electricians Australia has already said the lure of government cash could lead to shoddy installations by poorly trained technicians, something Greg agrees with.

“Most people in my industry have absolutely zero qualifications,” he said. “In fact I would be hard-pressed to find anyone that has. It’s a totally unregulated industry.”

Despite the government’s claims that the $308 million price tag will attract quality workers, there have already been reports of subcontractors getting as little as $84 for an installation — regardless of travel time. Master Electricians has raised concerns with the way people become government-endorsed installers, which involves an online exam.

“The result will be injuries and possibly deaths of untrained workers and the collapse of businesses that try to do the right thing but simply cannot compete with the shonks,” chief executive Malcolm Richards told The Daily Telegraph.

As well as photo ID, applicants need one year of experience installing set-top boxes, approved digital signal meter equipment and public liability insurance of $5 million to become a Digital Ready installer.

Peter Fray

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