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Federal

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 comments

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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?

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