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|Monday, January 19, 2009||Printer Friendly Version|
Source: Adelaide Advertiser
TELEVISION viewers must not be left in the dark.
If the Rudd Government botches the switch-over from analogue to digital television, viewers of rural and regional South Australia will be among the first in the nation to be left with blank screens.
Television plays an important part in the lives of most Australians, particularly during the holiday season and if the Government messes this up the outrage will be quite rightly palpable.
Imagine during an exciting moment in an Adelaide Test match, one-dayer or Twenty20, or during the Australian Open, the news or a movie, your picture drops out, not to return.
This type of scenario is a possibility if the Government turns off the analog signal before communities and, most importantly, viewers are ready for digital-only transmission.
Under the timetable set by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, South Australians in the Riverland Mt Gambier and Spencer Gulf regions, will closely follow Mildura as the country's first digital switch-over guinea pigs.
Analog switch-off is scheduled in these markets some time between July 1 and December 31, 2010. Switch-over in Adelaide, along with all other capital cities, is set to occur between July 1 and December 31, 2013.
Setting the timetable is the easy part; the hard part is providing communities and viewers with the levels of support they need to ensure potentially thousands of Australians are not disenfranchised by this decision.
Senator Conroy himself concedes that if he gets this wrong it will represent a "significant miscalculation and stuff up".
But a disturbing fundamental flaw in the Government's plan is its refusal to outline what minimum benchmarks in terms of take-up have to be met before the analog signal is switched off in each region. For example, does Senator Conroy consider it acceptable for five per cent of viewers to be left without a picture, or even 10 per cent? We just don't know. At the moment all we can do is take him at his word - "trust me, everything will be OK".
As its stands much needs to be done to ensure Australia is ready. Infrastructure, including more than 1000 transmission sites across the country, needs to be upgraded, many of which are owned by communities who are wondering just who will foot the bill.
Blackspots have to be identified and eliminated and the public needs to be properly informed about what they will need to do to ensure they can watch digital television.
One gentleman who recently contacted me outlined that despite his best endeavours and considerable expense, he is still unable to watch the ABC on free-to-air digital. He spent $1000 on a digital set-top box and to upgrade his external aerial, yet is unable to get a picture despite living just 5km from a transmission site.
At least now he has the fall-back of watching the ABC in analog, but he won't have that option after switch-over and I am certain countless others would be in a similar situation.
The Government also needs to finalise a strategy to assist the economically disadvantaged to upgrade their analog equipment to digital. The elderly and others may also require technical assistance and support to ensure their digital equipment is properly installed and working.
After conducting his own test, Senator Conroy concluded that installing a set-top box "is not that easy". It has been suggested that free set-top boxes might be provided to pensioners and low income earners. with in-home installation assistance offered, as has occurred in the UK.
But Australia is a huge country and getting us ready for switch-over requires a lot more than just talk. It requires specific, practical action backed by appropriate levels of additional funding, which will have to be allocated in or before the next Budget if Senator Conroy's deadlines are to be met.
The Coalition fully recognises the undeniable benefits that digital television brings, including better picture and sound quality and extra free-to-air channels to watch, and that is why in government it laid a solid foundation for Australia's digital future.
We are also aware that if the Government fails to do the remaining hard work that is required to ensure Australia is switch-over ready, it will be viewers in areas like rural South Australia who will suffer as a result.
Senator Nick Minchin is Shadow Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Regular columnist Alexander Downer will be back next week.