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Tuesday, 10 May 2011 17:49

Why the 'set-top boxes for pensioners' budget allocation might not be as big as it sounds


The rabble-rousers and outraged tabloid readers/listeners/viewers are getting hot under the collar about a $300 million budget allocation for the Household Assistance Scheme associated with the digital TV switchover. I reckon their concern could be misplaced.

The way people are harping on about 'free set top boxes for pensioners,' you'd think it was a brand new scheme. Far from it.

This time last year, iTWire reported that more than 2000 households in Mildura - the first region affected by the analogue switch-off - had received assistance under the Federal Government scheme.

The Household Assistance Scheme applies to households where at least one resident receives the maximum rate of the age pension, disability support pension, carer payment, DVA service pension, or DVA income support supplement.

Why those groups? They're the ones most likely to have practical problems in handling the conversion themselves, and the most likely to have financial difficulties.

Naturally, there are conditions. Even if you qualify as a pensioner, you won't get any assistance unless you have a functioning TV and can't already receive digital broadcasts.

So what's in the 2011 budget? Please read on.

The scheme provides for the supply, installation and demonstrations of an HD set-top box and any necessary antenna and cabling work. If you qualify as a pensioner but have already purchased a digital set-top box or digital TV and you can't receive all the SD digital channels in your area, the scheme will cover additional work needed to get those channels. (Given that HD is no longer simulcast with SD, I reckon that should be eased to allow pensioners to get help with HD reception.)

All that's happening is that the Government is making provision in the Federal budget to continue the scheme as the analogue switch-off progresses to the more heavily populated areas including capital cities. The next area affected will be regional Queensland (6 December 2011), and the process will be completed in December 2013.

Parts of Australia seem to have caught the US disease which makes people think everything the Government does is wrong by definition, unless it involves doing nasty things to foreigners. (If you're an American that doesn't follow the Tea Party and similarly-minded groups, please excuse the generalisation. But Australia does seem to be developing a tendency to adopt the worst rather than the best practices of the US and UK governments.)

But even if you think the Household Assistance Scheme is something that the Federal Government should be doing (helping the some of the least able to continue to be able to watch TV after a forced change in technology), it is still reasonable to expect value for money.

The trouble is, we don't know how the $308.8 million allocated will actually be spent. So let's try to get a rough estimate. $350 per household has been bandied around.

There are around 17,000 households in Mildura, and 2000 were known to have received assistance. In the absence of any better information, let's assume that a similar proportion applies nationally.

How many households are we talking about? See page 3.

There are thought to be something like 8.7 million Australian households, and some 500,000 are in areas that have already gone digital-only. So if the Mildura proportion is representative of the rest of the country in terms of the concentration of full pensioners, that's very roughly one million households. (We're just talking in round numbers here, so bear with me.) That means the Government is thinking in terms of around $300 per household.

As maverick online retailer Ruslan Kogan has pointed out, you can buy an HD set-top box at retail for $49. The going rate to have someone visit your premises to plug in and set up a TV is about $100, so let's assume that will cover set-top box installation and setup.

That's $150 at retail, and you'd imagine the Government's buying power should push that down further, or allow for a higher quality unit at the same price.

What about the antenna? That's where it can get expensive. A simple replacement might be $120, a more complicated installation could cost $500. Of course, not everyone qualifying for the program will need antenna work.

My suspicion is that the Government is budgeting on the high side just in case more antenna work is needed than actually expected. After all, in the current climate it's especially important to come in under budget than over.


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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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