SIMON ROYAL: Residents of the South Australian town of Truro are taking their fight over digital television to Canberra. They’re furious at the extra costs they’ll have to pay to install individual satellite dishes to receive the signal when it’s switched over. This, mind you, is for free-to-air TV – the stuff you’re watching now, hopefully. They say it would be more cost effective for the current analogue tower to be upgraded but the Federal Government is standing firm against that. Caroline Winter has the story.
CAROLINE WINTER: Truro may only be an hour’s drive north of Adelaide but it’s a whole lot further when it comes to 21st century technology.
KRISTIN FAULKENBERG: Well, that’s exactly right. It seems like we’re miles away. It’s something that you would assume that you can have, is decent television reception, but it’s not… it’s just not the case.
ROSS DAWKINS: Unfortunately for television it happens to be in the bottom of a gully. There’s a ‘rain shadow’ of… effect of the signal that just goes straight over the top of us.
CAROLINE WINTER: This snowy reception is what Kristin Faulkenberg and other residents have learned to put up with from an analogue signal. With the introduction of digital TV, she was hoping to tune in to something much, much better.
KRISTIN FAULKENBERG: I’ve tried to get a digital signal on two occasions, probably spent, you know, $750-odd if not more. I had to get the technician back and we’ve… you know, we still don’t get a decent digital signal.
CAROLINE WINTER: Since 1998, the analogue signal has been retransmitted by this tower to Truro and nearby Dutton from Mount Lofty in Adelaide. Ross Dawkins from the local community association [Truro and District Community Association] says it was initially funded by the Federal Government, then maintained by the local council, but when analogue is switched off across Adelaide and surrounding areas at the end of 2013 the tower will become obsolete.
ROSS DAWKINS: It frustrates me that we have a service here which has been paid for by community. The Government chose to upgrade the television from analogue to digital and, if they chose to do that, so they should choose to upgrade the current site.
CAROLINE WINTER: Truro is not alone. Broadcasters have decided to convert just 120 of the current 700 retransmission sites across the nation. In South Australia, Streaky Bay, Kimba, Wudinna, Marion Bay, Leigh Creek and Andamooka are just some of those to miss out. The battle for those communities now is how to upgrade and who will pay for it. Instead of converting towers to broadcast digital TV, the Government want these residents to use its satellite service known as VAST [Viewer Access Satellite Television]. It means each home will need one satellite dish installed and a set top box for every TV and that’s estimated to cost around $1000 per household.
KRISTIN FAULKENBERG: They’ve spent the money to get their telly… then they’re going to have to then spend more money and more money and then re-cabling through the house… yeah, it’s not fair.
CAROLINE WINTER: While subsidies between $450 and $750 are available to viewers, depending on location, the Federal Opposition’s Senator Simon Birmingham says residents will still lose out.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: All up, it’s going to be, for the average household, an out-of-pocket expense of about $500 per household on average. That’s a significant sum. On top of that, there’s a taxpayer subsidy so this is not a cheap way to go about it.
CAROLINE WINTER: Simon Birmingham argues there’s a cheaper, simpler option for both viewers and taxpayers. The cost of converting the existing tower to digital transmission is put at around $150,000.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Where you have several hundred households plus business premises, all either getting the Government subsidy plus having to pay the difference themselves, that can actually add up to being pretty close to the same cost as it would take to replace the tower that’s there.
CAROLINE WINTER: Mid Murray Council Mayor Dave Burgess says council, as in the past, is willing to help out.
DAVE BURGESS: We offered some assistance with some minor infrastructure in air conditioning for the hut and the shed, as we’ve done in some of the other communities that need these facilities, but obviously that offer has not been taken up by the Federal Government.
CAROLINE WINTER: Others argue much more is at stake than missing out on the likes of ABC News 24 or reruns of shows like The A-Team. Development plans are underway which could see Truro double in size in the coming years but new residents who move there after 2013 won’t get any subsidy at all.
ROSS DAWKINS: I think it’s just another one of the little issues that, when you move into an area like this, if the services aren’t there, that they’re just another one that ticks the box that says ‘no, I won’t go there’, which is disappointing.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So, for every business and for any new house, there is a significant upfront cost just to getting your television connected.
CAROLINE WINTER: But these arguments don’t appear to have swayed the Government. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy declined our request for an interview. In a statement, the Government says:
“The decision to upgrade self-help towers in any area is a commercial decision made by the broadcasters and not the Government. The Government believes the VAST service provides a reliable and professionally operated free-to-air television service and an appropriate safety net for communities such as Truro Grove where the broadcasters do not provide terrestrial services.”
CAROLINE WINTER: And during a Senate Estimates hearing this week the federal Communications department [Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy] denied the savings from the subsidy would cover the cost of upgrading the tower.
NERIDA O’LOUGHLIN: That’s the long term solution for these communities rather than them having to pay, through their rates to their councils, [for] the upgrade of the transmission towers.
CAROLINE WINTER: Already, the Riverland, the South East and the Spencer Gulf regions have made the switch to digital, with the rest of the state, including Adelaide, set to follow next December. The 21st century will come to Truro and those other towns but it will cost them and they will have to wait. Not only will residents have to pay for the Government’s satellite system, they can’t apply for the privilege for another 18 months.
KRISTIN FAULKENBERG: You know, it’s a little pocket that’s forgotten – like there’s probably hundreds of little pockets around Australia that are forgotten but, you know, add up the residents in all those little pockets… it’s very frustrating.