Saturday, June 25, 2011

No Future For Set Top Boxes

Australia has been broadcasting television in both digital and analogue formats for ten years since 2001. TV began in Australia in 1956 and PAL colour broadcasting began in the early 1970s.

Australian made equipment can be used in South Africa, but needs to be retuned by a technician since South African analogue broadcasts use a sound-vision separation standard found nowhere else other than the Irish Republic. This was done, apparently, to protect local manufacturers from cheaper, more attractive imports.

Although digital television receivers have been available since 2001, and new analogue sets have not been sold for some years, the Australian government became concerned that, particularly older, Australians on pensions, benefits and otherwise limited incomes might find themselves not able to watch television in 2013 when the analogue transmitters will be shut down.

To this end, a number of households have been deemed eligible to receive - at taxpayer expense - a 'free' digital terrestrial receiver (set top box) or digital receiver providing analogue output compatible with the AV input terminals found on all but the oldest television sets still in service.

As someone with more than a passing interest in technology, my reaction was that this was good money after bad. If really concerned about indigent members of our community, surely the $300 per household budgeted for the STB programme would be better spent on a new digital television?

What follows is the text of a letter I composed to my local member who responded promptly with a wealth of information about the programme. For better or worse it has been running for a while and the government is pressing on with it.

My concern is that, by 2013 if not sooner, a significant number of those who have benefited from the programme could find themselves stuck with a fancy set top box connected to an obsolete analogue TV receiver at the end of its useful life.

As we all know, a cashed up government in search of political advantage never allows common sense reality to interfere with what it perceives as a vote winning agenda.

This is an edited version of a letter I wrote following the budget announcement. At the time I was not aware that the set top box (digital terrestrial receiver) programme was already under way.

I stand by my contention that the programme is not necessary at this point, while analogue broadcasting is to continue for a further two years, and that the amounts from $308 - $350 per household mentioned as the likely installation cost are excessive.

If the object of the exercise is that every low income, technically challenged household should start receiving additional free-to-air digital channels immediately, there may be some point to it, bearing in mind that almost all popular content is available via analogue transmissions. I have a digital television, as well as a digital tuner coupled to a conventional television, but 90% of what I watch is available on analogue.

My set top box is connected to a 12-year old analogue television. Its a moot point which device will die first. The STB receives all free to air digital channels, was very simple to connect and activate, and cost about $50 retail from Dick Smith who would have been pleased to explain to me how to install it had I needed their assistance.

Ongoing support is not an issue since no one bothers to repair cheap devices such as STBs when they break down. With labour costs in the electronics industry greater than $100 per hour, and a shortage of technicians, this is hardly surprising.

1. By 2013, if not earlier, the majority of Australian households will already be receiving digital television by one means or another. For the federal government to provide assistance will not be necessary, any more than it was for innovations such as colour television, the video cassette recorder, the home computer, the mobile telephone, the DVD player or the digital camera. Australians love new technology and have consistently enjoyed one of the highest per capita uptakes of new devices in the developed world.

2. $350 per eligible household is an excessive amount for a device which is both simple to install, currently retails from $50 - $100, and is becoming cheaper by the day. Connecting and installing a set top box is not rocket science.

3. Flashing this sort of money in front of third-party contractors who can source these devices for next to nothing from China, & install them in less than ten minutes, is setting the government, and the taxpayer, up for yet another rort which will do nothing for employment and manufacturing in Australia.

In support of the propositions above:

• Analogue/CRT television sets have not been sold for some years. Analogue television sets currently in use are nearing the end of their useful life and the number still in service by 2013 is likely to be small. The life expectancy of an analogue/CRT television set is between ten and 15-years, with the cheaper brands often failing inside ten years.

• As conventional television sets age, the picture quality declines. The addition of a set top box will do nothing to enhance the picture quality or longevity of older sets. All analogue television sets still in service by 2013 will be “old”.

• Small digital television sets are available for less than$400 and getting cheaper. If the Federal Government is determined to assist needy households with $350, then this money is best spent in the form of a rebate against the purchase of a new, digital television receiver.

• Set top boxes are not designed and built to withstand heavy use or last a long time. Regardless of the manufacturer’s label, most are sourced from the same factories in South China and intended as a stopgap measure pending the purchase of a digital television receiver. I have bought five different STDs from reputable retailers since 2005. One failed during the 12-month warranty period and was repaired, not replaced. Two developed faults outside the warranty period and had to be junked.

• At today’s prices, and getting cheaper, $350 is almost enough for a modest personal video recorder (HD PVR) with built in digital tuner that can be used with both analogue & digital television sets. This is a much better investment of $350 than a set top box.

• Of all consumer electronic devices to reach the market in recent decades, the set top box is one of the simplest to install and use. If you can connect a DVD player to a TV, you can connect a STB. Tuning is automatic; there is nothing to do as long as one’s TV has AV terminals, preferably more than one set of terminals or the DVD player or VCR will have to be disconnected to make way for the STB and/or an additional switching device to enable STB, DVD player & VCR to be connected simultaneously. The oldest analogue television sets, and some sets do last between ten and 20-years, do not have AV terminals and here the only way to connect a STB or DVD player is through a VCR or other conversion device. In other words, connecting a STB to an analogue television more than about ten years old is possible, but not recommended.

• Digital television reception does not require a new aerial in good reception areas. If one’s existing antenna system works adequately for analogue reception it will be perfectly satisfactory for digital reception, no matter what installers hungry for business tell one. In many areas with uncertain analogue reception, digital reception is superior – again without the need to upgrade the antenna unless its already faulty.

In short, most households are likely to have at least one new digital television set by 2013. For people who find that their analogue receivers are still performing satisfactorily, installing a set top box is both cheap and simple. In the not too distant past both television sets and video cassette recorders had to be tuned manually, channel by channel. Most people managed perfectly well using the supplied instructions. Many of us routinely have to resort to the manual twice a year for the purpose of resetting the digital clocks found in so many household devices. This is a chore, but its manageable.

Many elderly people, it is true, do struggle with technology such as mobile phones, computers and the internet. Communities, for the most part, already have support in place. It has never hitherto, to the best of my knowledge, been suggested that the government should supply these devices to pensioners, install them in their homes, and provide ongoing support. A significant number of older people can relate to being shown how to use a mobile phone by, for example, grandchildren.

I believe that there would be no shortage of volunteers forthcoming to assist elderly people in the change from analogue to digital television, including radio amateurs such as myself, CB radio operators and the like. Our first digital television receiver was delivered and installed by the retailer who set it up in our house at no extra cost.

If there are indeed households in Australia so disadvantaged that they do not have a television receiver, then perhaps we should be looking at supplying them with one although, as I have pointed out, the government has not to my knowledge previously directed social security payments – for this is what the programme amounts to – towards particular household items.

The latest JB HiFi catalogue features a 22” Teac digital television receiver with built in DVD player for less than $300 while the taxpayer is expected to contribute more than $300 for a cheap and nasty set top box which, with a bit of luck, will last at least as long as the ageing analogue television receiver to which it is intended to be connected. This simply does not make sense, and I can’t help feeling that our parliamentarians – as busy as I know them to be with a wide variety of issues – have been very badly advised concerning the current state of consumer electronics.

Finally, should the government’s set top box scheme go ahead as planned, then – perhaps - it should be looking at using paid volunteers, as in the case of the forthcoming census, rather than third party contractors. I know that I would be more than happy to go around installing set top boxes, not that I anticipate much demand for them, at a rate equivalent to a day’s wage.

Thank you for your interest and, in particular, the work you are doing regarding the highspeed broadband network, another area bedevilled by misconceptions and misinformation. To know how the WWW works one needs to spend time on it, and I welcome your presence on Twitter which helped to inspire this letter.

No comments:

Post a Comment