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May 17, 2011

Five reasons why the govt should be wary about set-top boxes

Is the federal government's $308 million plan to provide pensioners with digital set-top boxes really a vital service for vulnerable Australians?


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.


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28 thoughts on “Five reasons why the govt should be wary about set-top boxes

  1. Mark from Melbourne

    ” and possibly deaths of untrained workers ”

    I didn’t realise plugging in a set top box could be so dangerous. Was Richards thinking of the risk of crazed pensioners attacking installers or just re-cycling the PR he used for the pink batts story.

  2. paddy

    There’s probably the basis for a bloody good article here Tom.
    But this isn’t it.
    I’ve just re-read this about 5 times and am still none the wiser as to what point you are trying to get across.
    (1) It’s too expensive. Followed by…
    (2) The boxes are too cheap
    (3) They won’t work on old TVs. Followed by an explanation of a workaround
    (4) Teaching old people takes time. Followed by a suggestion to “turn off the analogue signal and they won’t get confused?” (They also won’t get TV reception.)
    (5) Dodgy installers…….. I’m more confused about who can install STBs now, than I was when I started reading this piece.
    I’m sure “Greg” was a mine of useful info, but it’s *your* job to bash his thoughts and knowledge into something approaching coherent form. 3/10

    P.S. Sorry for the intemperate rant, but I’ve just discovered that I’ll be up for $600- $800 to get a satellite HD box installed due to living in a rural digital black hole.

  3. Angrybudgie

    Sorry, but just turning off the analogue will not stop them getting confused. My mother just kept saying that her t.v. was broken and would I come and have a look at it. Had this repeated several times until finally tossing out the set top and buying a new t.v. She didn’t think she needed that as the old one was only about 15 years old……however, NOW she isn’t confused… so perhaps Gerry is right, buy them digital t.v. sets for the same price..

  4. green-orange

    This scheme has already been operating for 18 months in Sunraysia and rural SA without any problems or hissy fits. Yet again a case of “if a tree falls in the forest, and the forest isn’t in Sydney, who cares ?”

    “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.”

    “Greg” is wrong. Installers can install any set top box. Hills boxes have a 12 month warranty and last longer than that.

    “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.”

    Bush STBs for one have RF output. They are the most common used in SA. And of course its the cheaper SD boxes which have fewer outputs.

    “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”.”

    Greg himself is “rather confused”. Once a STB is installed ANALOGUE TV IS NO LONGER AVAILABLE. The aerial is now connected only to the digital STB.

    “Australia has already said the lure of government cash could lead to shoddy installations by poorly trained technicians, something Greg agrees with.”

    The installation can be done by a child. There is no risk of danger at all.

  5. Scott Grant

    I would prefer it if a Crikey journalist would acknowledge the contributions of his colleagues in disproving a lot of the opposition and Murdoch nonsense about the Labor government’s fiscal stimulus package, including (short hand) Pink Batts and School Halls.

    One of the problems with propaganda is that it becomes embedded in people’s sub-conscious through simple repetition, no matter how untrue. Quoting from the opposition, without any attempt at discussing the merits of their claims, is bad enough. Repeating the word “fiasco” in regard to Pink Batts demonstrates that Tom Cowie does not read Crikey, or is unable to absorb the information provided by colleagues like Possum Comitatus.

    There are some valid points in the article (eg dodgy installers), but I don’t think it was balanced. As for that laughable quote from the DT, why bother? They can hardly be considered a credible source for anything.

  6. DPC

    How about a ‘set top box’ allowance delivered as part of a pension payment via Centrelink, and the option of refunding an electrician’s bill for up to two hours of their time should one be required for installation (also delivered via Centrelink, perhaps a form could be mailed out to every pensioner’s household with a reply paid envelope to submit the receipt included)?

    I’d wager that less than 10% of pensioners would require the help of an electrician as most would either be able to do it by themselves, or have family / carers to assist. As Green-Orange said installing a STB is not rocket science. Neither is reading an instruction manual to learn how to use one.

    Hence an opportunity for our more skilled workers to earn a bit of extra cash (instead of generating another industry of lowly skilled employees), likely lots of money saved, no need to set up a dedicated helpline, and pensioners retain the freedom to purchase the brand of STB they want (and that fits within the STB allowance).

  7. Meski

    Since when do we need installers (professional or dodgy) to install everyday appliances? Next thing, people will be claiming they have trouble setting the clock on their VCR’s. The most likely issue you’ll encounter is needing a new antenna – what causes a watchable but somewhat snowy analog picture will be painfully unwatchable in digital. The government would be better off giving out antennae than STB’s, if necessary.

  8. paddy

    DPC The problem with the current meme of “Set Top Box”, is that it’s not really the issue.
    The real issue is the changeover from analogue to digital transmission.

    For the vast majority of users, it is a quite trivial process of a buying a set top box and plugging it in. (or getting a free one from the Govt if you’re a pensioner)
    Hence the Gerry Harvey B.S. about “I could do it cheaper etc etc.

    However, the major costs, and pitfalls, are on the margins. Where the digital signal is weak (requiring a new antenna) or non-existent, requiring a satellite dish and a whole range of paperwork, a smartcard, a satellite STB and a stat dec from the installer, stating that the customer cannot get the terrestrial signal.
    Trust me, the “satellite” part is *very* expensive. 🙁

    Then again, I still can’t quite believe the Govt is so bad at selling what should be a fairly good news story for most people. More channels, better reception etc.

  9. my say

    what about the blind, ( 1) the incapacitated 2, the needy, 3 and the pensioners. 4
    and just dam well doing something for the less fortunate. 5

    these are the five reasons we should not give a toss what the media say.

  10. freecountry

    The concerns about shonky installations and worker safety relate to the fact that some customers will need an aerial installed. Aerials usually go on roofs and if even one installer breaks his neck under this program–even if the accident rate is one tenth of the industry average–it will not be a good look for the government.

    My main concern with this has not been mentioned here. Hasn’t the government learned its lesson about unnecessary central planning yet? Every town in Australia has an electrical shop which can, for a price, arrange the sale and installation of set-top-boxes for pensioners and provide backup service. Why are the existing providers being sidelined yet again?

    Why did the building stimulus have to be for school halls, for which in most cases no requirement had previously been identified? Meanwhile around the country, thousands of people already had approved plans to build or extend their houses which were only awaiting the necessary finance. Instead of the brilliant masterpiece of planning and orchestrating the BER, we could have simply had a tax concession for home building and sat back to watch things whir into action. Now we have a housing deficiency which was identified well before the GFC, and has gotten to crisis levels.

    Similarly, many schools must have had overdue improvements which were planned but still awaiting funding sing-off. The same with prisons and many other public buildings. For that matter, every council in Australia probably has millions of dollars worth of public maintenance or upgrades just waiting for funding, and the states probably have hundreds of millions worth. What would have been wrong with just using the stimulus money to bring forward a whole lot of public works that were ready to go and had to be done sooner or later anyway?

    Why does the federal government have to be such a control freak? Haven’t they learned yet that they’re not the only ones who know how to do anything?

  11. Climate Change

    Stephen Conroy is like a junior school boy, licking his chops in lolly shop. He cant articulate, skates over issues, screws up time and time again.

    NBN Boss should be terminated for misleading information yesterday. He knew he was in charge of the areas that paid millions in bribes. While he may have not handed over the money, he had to account for it in HIS P&L.

    The STB, its laughable if not so wastful.

    The NBN waste.

    Its Basil Fawlty and Manuel, but with OUR MONEY.

  12. autocrat

    “Climite Change”, you’re an arsehole.

  13. Climate Change

    @ Autocrat

    you are moderated

  14. Acidic Muse


    Comparing Climate Change to assholes is simply unfair given actual assholes have an easily discernible purpose in providing outlets for human effluent and hours of erotic entertainment for politicians of all ideological persuasions

    Whilst I shared some of Tom Cowie’s concerns about the potential for this program to be rorted by unscrupulous operators, I’m seriously wondering if he’s Deep Throat guy Greg actually has much idea or what he’s talking about

    Yes, you can buy a range of set-top boxes for under $100, but to enable them to actually receive a digital television signal, in most instances you’ll also need to install a new digital antenna . Mine cost me $99 at JB hi-fi in the city, a small box that sits mounted on the wall outside, not on the roof as our occupational health and safety doomsayers are asserting

    As the government has made abundantly clear since the budget, the figure contained in the budget was a projected average cost of installing this technology in each household – a well researched guestimation purely for the purposes of slotting a figure into the budget. The actual average cost of installing this technology in each household will ultimately be decided through a tender process.

    No doubt if the average cost per household ultimately comes in well under the amount projected in the budget, no one will be happier than the government. The government had actually invited Harvey Norman and Kogan Industries to tender for these contracts on the basis that they claim to be able to deliver the required technology so cheaply.

    I find it absolutely laughable that Free Country, Crikey’s resident economic rationalist, is seemingly advocating some kind of voucher system whereby every high street electrical store in the country would be able to grab a piece of this action.

    Think for a moment about the administrative costs of managing and monitoring such a program, where possibly tens of thousands of different retail outlets and contractors are either invoicing the government to do this work or even worse – collecting vouchers from age pensioners who’ve already bought a new digital TV and therefore don’t need a set-top box but take one anyway so their grand daughter can sell it on eBay.

    The economies of scale that a large national company could bring to bear in rolling out this program and the greater clarity with which the government could oversee that rollout are obvious to anyone who doesn’t have a political vested interest in throwing a spanner in the works from the outset.

    I do see a lot of merit in the “old telly” argument and again, one of the advantages of contracting someone like Harvey Norman or Kogan to do this work might be offering pensioners the choice of the set-top box or a set value offer brand-new digital telly – I know Kogan are currently selling 32 inch LED’s with built-in personal video recorders for as little as $400.

  15. Kevin Tyerman

    I assume from the article that aerials are no longer part of the budget for this programme, as it would have a bearing on the costs of installation and does not appear to be being allowed for at all.

  16. Perry Gretton

    While I think it would be wiser for old folk to invest in a new TV, a decent set-top box is a reasonable alternative provided it’s much better than the one I bought a few years ago.

    I paid about $80 for my box. The biggest issue for me, or rather my deaf wife, was the sub-titling. A lot of old folk have hearing difficulties and quality sub-titling is an important requirement, especially as television may be the only source of entertainment they receive. The box I bought super-imposed the titles across the middle of the screen, thereby obliterating the content!

    I bought a good digital TV. It wasn’t cheap at the time, but it was certainly worth it for the much improved sub-titling.

  17. arty

    Unfortunately for the Government this will end up as a mixture of pink insulation and new school facilities. It is impossible to run this project without end user complaints.

    The Opposition members will find the complaining pensioners and provide the text for the press releases for a media that cannot afford reporters.

    I feel sorry for whichever minister gets this poisoned chalice.

  18. leone

    DPC’s proposal to hand out a’ set top box’ allowance delivered as part of a pension payment via Centrelink, and the option of refunding an electrician’s bill for up to two hours of their time should one be required for installation (also delivered via Centrelink)’ is a ludicrous idea.

    Not all eligible pensioners will want a set-top box. I don’t. I bought myself and HD ready LCD TV years ago. Thousands like me have also sorted this out for themselves. Giving us all some sort of pension allowance anyway would be a huge waste of funds. I think this scheme will cost actually a lot less than the government budget estimate.

    It is a worthwhile idea though. I don’t think people realise just how important a TV set is to many elderly people. For some it’s their only entertaimnment and many just can’t afford to replace their old TV. Not all pensioners have families to help them out finanically or with new technology. Someone in government has managed to grasp this and has come up with this program. My congratulations to them for their understanding.

  19. arty

    Leone et al, please make up your minds. Exactly how do you think the Government should handle this obligation?

    Cash or equipment? Self installation or professional installation? What about cases of currently owned monitors that cannot accept the connection? What about unsuitable antenna? What about people like me that already own all necessary infrastructure? Will my wife also get a free set-up, or is the basis one set-up per household? What if I fall off the perch and my wife moves to our daughter who already has the gear, will my wife qualify to get a set-top box, or must all recipients of the free-bee already own a TV?

  20. philly

    the biggest cost and most underplayed is the wiring issue. As someone who spent his highschool years installing aerials in country NSW on my weekends and after school I think everyone would be amazed at the number of old homes that have Twin lead cabling between the external aerial and the inside wall sockets. This completely useless for digital and will need to be desired with coax. This why I didn’t tender because you’re not doing that work for $300 odd dollars and you have no way of knowing just how many of these homes you’ll come across.

  21. Climate Change

    @ Philly

    Yes all homes wired before 1985 probably have it

  22. Tom


    “It’s already been dubbed “pink batts for pensioners”” as an opening comment annoys me greatly. That it was an unbelievably poorly managed program is without doubt. That it is a tragedy in ‘the rush to the trough’ untrained people lost their lives making a dollar for themselves and a fortune for the owners of Dodgy and Co, Insulation ‘Specialists’ is also beyond any notion of doubt. The question as t0 whether the government, even as part of an economic stimulus program should be doing this sort of thing is political and I dont intend to go there but the fact remains that for those who’s houses didn’t burn down, they now have warmer/cooler, more energy efficient houses which in the context of the greater good on climate or polution avoidance has to be a good thing?

    @Free Country – surely given your views on what government does with “our money” you should be ‘Free Country?’

  23. Meski

    Coax isn’t all the same. Some of the older ones have much greater loss factors. (important especially if you have a long run to the antenna) The latest double shielded coax is a b*tch to work with. Very unforgiving of bend radius, it reminded me of working with RG-8 (10.3 mm diameter)

    Overall though, if I was setting up a TV for a technical illiterate to use, I’d go for a digital TV. Less remotes… (I’m not saying pensioners are, in fact my mum uses a VCR, Tivo, DVD, computer. 🙂

  24. Meski

    @Philly: and you’d be crawling over all those itchy, electrified, pink bats :^)

  25. Liz45

    @LEONE – I agree with you. Not everyone will want/require one. Some pensioners might just be waiting until the turn over is closer, although they may not be cheaper than now!

    @ARTY – If you “fall off the twig” after having one installed, then it’s your wife’s property to do as she wishes – she could use it in her own bedroom at your daughter’s house or wherever? (hope you stay around for a long time yet?)

    I think the whole point re estimated cost is the MAXIMUM price? This includes aerial, wiring etc. If the person isn’t shown how to use, they should have recourse. A decent person with a vestige of kindness would make sure an elderly person understood. They’re only older/elderly, not stupid!

    Apparently, there’s been 38,000 connected already. The sky is intact over my way!

    Both Abbott and Senator Nick Minchin already voted in favour for this iniative. Perhaps Abbott’s got early dementia apart from other conditions? Or perhaps it’s just convenient amnesia!

    A new TV for $350 would only have a small screen, and only covers the cheaper type, probably without any warranty or just 12 months. It is possible to get a lemon! People with sight problems want more than a little screen even in an average sized room. There’s a general rule re desired screen size and room size. If you sit 4 metres from the TV, a 55cms screen will not do – even with 20-20 vision! In fact you’d probably require a 80cms at least, 100cms would be better if you sit that far away – particularly if sight is a problem. Not too many of this size with a good reputation and warranty available for that price!

    I’m looking for a new Tv myself. My 6 yr old 68 cms CRT ‘croaked’ about 3 months ago. When I inquired about size, and told the salesperson that my current CRT was 68cms, he suggested an 80cms screen! I won’t buy a Plasma as they cost too much to run, and I’m not a sports mad person either. The sports I like are the slower variety anyway, so a good LCD/LED screen will do just fine! News/Current affairs/cricket/tennis, documentaries and movies would be my main use. It’s important to do some research before making this purchase, particularly if money is an issue. LCD is cheaper to run, and LED is better still. Even having LED ‘edges’ means cheaper costs! (as long as the ‘stars’ are fair dinkum?)

    I think the ‘rough measurement’ is 3-4 times the width of screen. So, I could probably have a 97/100cms wide screen, but I’d rather get one of the 5 top brands with a top picture(1920x1080p) and a decent warranty, than a cheaper larger one that has more chance of being a ‘lemon’! I hasten to add, that now is a great time to buy, as prices have come down markedly. How long it will last is another question. I’m going to buy one in the next month or so!

    I’m using my second TV at the moment. It’s about 16 yrs old (Samsung)but will take a HD set top box, but not the VCR and DVD player as well! It’s a nuisance to change around, but it can be done. I’m just not bothering with digital channels very much at the moment. Ony News 24 appeals to me anyway. The movies and re-runs on commercial digital channels are pretty pathetic (old) I feel, and the ads are worse than on analogue?I can’t afford pay TV.

    I’m on a full pension. I set up all the equipment with my TV – I just follow the directions? I feel great when I succeed! It’s the best way to find out how things work – to do it yourself! If I stuff up, I just start again! Likewise with my printer and other goodies? Determination or stubborness? It works!Now if I was 20 yrs down the track? Who knows!

    @MESKI – As for remotes! A good investment/present for an older person might be one of those universal remotes. I often get frustrated just having to pick up three of them in a row! The more expensive ones have VCR/DVD/Record etc printed on them! Some have larger buttons and print? Easy for arthritic hands and not so good eyesight!

    As for CLIMATE CHANGE being a smart arse! If he doesn’t really piss someone off, and have the living daylights choked out of him, he just might live to be a senior citizen!

    I have a great little poem someone gave me years ago:-

    ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to hide the bodies of those I had to kill because they really pissed me off!’!!! Amen I say!

  26. Eric Brodrick

    Will somebody PLEASE make a distinction between Electricians and TV Technicians !!!
    Most “Sparkies” do not have a clue about TV, Digital TV or how to install a set top box or a TV aerial. All most electricians know is “Big, Yellow Pliers”. They have NO FRIGGING IDEA of the subtleties of dealing with RF or how to plug up a set top box

    I therefore seriously wonder why “Master Electricians” have been invited to provide a quote on this story, or was Malcolm Richards’ quote just pinched straight out of the Telegraph.

    Why have Crikey not contacted TESA (Television and Electronics Services Association) who are the industry body for TV Techs and Aerial Installers?

  27. Liz45

    @ERIC – Thank you! I’d been saying the same thing myself, but thought it was just something I didn’t fully comprehend! I can install a Digital Set Top Box; in fact I did install mine, but I can’t change the switch on my ceiling fan as I’m not an electrician, and apart from it being pretty stupid of me to even try to do it, it’s against the law! A fully qualified electrician must do it!

    I couldn’t see how it would require an electrician, even if the aerial wasn’t adequate etc. A person who installs TV’s isn’t an electrician – perhaps some hold dual qualifications. I’m going to ask one to put in another outlet for my aerial (in my bedroom) so I’ll soon find out. (he doesn’t charge that much either – another give away perhaps?)

    Apart from the common sense practice of making sure the power is off when you put in plugs etc, I can’t see why an electrician would be required. I’m always very careful even when I’m handling plugs etc – make sure hands are dry etc. Just common sense stuff I feel!

    I’m glad you raised this point. Does this mean that you are a qualified person who does this for a living? You must be tearing your hair out in exasperation!

  28. Meski

    Some electricians (probably most recent graduates) would have the background to get this qualification fairly easily. Many are doing data cabling.

    Maybe we should be killing two birds and putting the NBN cabling in at the same time.


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