Conroy’s Rock And A Hard Place, But Still Singing

When Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy announced his set-top box scheme for analogue television customers, the plan was simple; shut down analogue spectrum used by the television companies, keep quiet the minority television viewers who can't afford nor install a set-top box, and finally, make billions in the process by selling the newly made available spectrum (room in the air) to the phone companies need for the role out of 4G mobile services.

But now you see Conroy has a problem because he has told Finance Minister Wayne Swan that his department will earn billions of dollars in the auction of spectrum to the three big phone companies. This money has of course has been added to the federal budget, and will help it limp into surplus next year (the auctions are going through their long winding process at the moment – it is fascinating stuff I promise) and then all Australians will be able to sit down and sing ‘kumbaya’ via HD video from our new 4G phones, better connected and richer than ever before!

So, in keeping this minority group quiet, the idea is to throw a few million bucks into a pot and use that money to send an expert to visit each pensioner, have a cup of tea, install the digital set-top box to the television, press the ‘auto scan’ button, tick the ‘customer is smiling box’ and then leave. On paper it must have sounded so easy, in practice, not so. You see, Australia is an interesting place, we have hills and valleys, old aerials, new aerials, old cable, new cable and many other factors that affect the result of plugging new technology into old – so some of these set-top boxes don’t meet the criteria.

Conroy did have a small secret weapon in his blitzkrieg of the Analogue television landscape. He had the privilege of watching the analogue switch off in the USA a few years ago. What a mess! Analogue was being switched off, then the switch off was delayed, then it was off again. In America they tried a different system to appease the minority. They gave a voucher to the groups in the community who could not afford the $50 to buy a set-top box. The ideas was for these people to walk down to the local electronics store, hand in the voucher and go home to plug it in. It sounds easy, and cheaper than our idea doesn’t it? Some in the media have said it would have been a better idea to run the same process here. Problem was some of the Americans who met the criteria, already had a digital TV or set-top box, but applied for the voucher anyway, and then sold the voucher on a new voucher black market that opened up. Oh those entrepreneurial Americans.

So, for the Great Aussie Analogue Shutdown, the idea was not to go down that path, but to offer a more personal service. The result is hardly flattering to the government, but remember, when these auctions run their course be prepared for the billions in revenue the government (which is us) will make from selling the spectrum to the phone companies. That message will be spewed across press releases everywhere, leading to headlines like ‘Conroy Bags Billions’ and we will feel rich, rich I tell you! However, while feeling rich, I will remind you the money spent by the phone companies to buy the spectrum, will be earned back in the retail price of the phone contracts, which will be paid by….um……all of us – Yippee!