BBC in talks on digital television

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The BBC has joined the Japanese electronics company Sony and BT in an industry-wide working group to develop digital terrestrial television.

A BBC source denied that the group constituted a commercial alliance.

"Membership will be open to all those with a genuine interested in devoloping common standards to encourage the emergence of digital television," he said.

The group, which will also include the ITV companies, Channel 4, the transmission company NTL and Motorola, will issue a press release today or on Monday detailing the memorandum of understanding.

The BBC refused to comment officially. A spokesperson said: "The BBC has always emphasised that co-operation among programme makers, service providers, set manufacturers and retailers would be essential if digital terrestrial is to succeed."

News of the working group follows the publication last week of the Government's consultative document on digital terrestrial television, inviting comments on how "through-the-air" digital broadcasting might be developed in the UK.

The Green Paper suggests that companies will be able to bid for "multiplex licences" allowing them to broadcast up to three streams of programming. The transmission and reception technology has yet to be fully developed but it is believed the system could operate by 1997.

BT is viewed as a natural partner for broadcasters in the development of digital terrestrial television.

Under current rules, it is barred from using its network to broadcast television signals, in a move designed to encourage the development of the embryonic cable sector. That prohibition will be reviewed at the end of the decade.

Digital terrestrial television, by contrast, is open to all comers, subject to a few minimum restrictions.