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Digital television gets DTI go-ahead

The way was cleared yesterday for the launch of up to 200 digital television channels by late 1997, following the publication of final regulations from the Department of Trade and Industry on set-top box technology.

BSkyB, Rupert Murdoch's satellite broadcaster, is now expected to award contracts to six set-top box manufacturers, including Pace Micro Technology, Sony and Nokia. The contracts are being negotiated, and will be confirmed before Christmas.

The boxes will be subsidised by a Sky-led consortium involving Midland Bank, BT and several leading retailers.

The final DTI regulations incorporated new safeguards to prevent anti- competitive behaviour, including a requirement that companies controlling the "conditional access" technology used to operate decoders provide detailed information to broadcasters about the system before launch.

This was a main demand of the BBC, which had been lobbying for tighter controls on set-top box access, fearing a monopoly by Mr Murdoch could restrict the open market.

Mr Murdoch's News Datacom owns the patents on the only functioning conditional access system in use in the UK.

But the BBC's chief demand - that Mr Murdoch be forced to licence his technology to broadcasters - has been ignored in the final regulations.

The BBC gave a "qualified welcome" to the revised rules, but warned that "broadcasters and consumers still face uncertainty", particularly if Oftel, which will regulate access to digital television, is "unable to enforce an open market".

BSkyB was believed to be relaxed about the changes, and was preparing to launch its digital service on schedule in the autumn of 1997.

Other broadcasters had hoped to force BSkyB to make its boxes compatible with other digital platforms, including digital terrestrial television and digital cable. The regulations do not enforce compatibility, as the Government preferred to leave it to Oftel to determine whether suppliers were behaving anti-competitively.