Fears in Europe as US zooms in on digital TV

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The Independent Online
Floundering European plans to develop the high-definition TV of the future seem set to be thrown into disarray by the US decision to abandon HDTV in favour of digital television, the latest advance.

Hundreds of millions of pounds have been poured into HDTV development in Europe over the last decade. But rows over funding and fears that the technology may be obsolete almost as soon as it is born are now blackening the outlook for Europe's grand design.

Over the last eight years, Philips of the Netherlands and Thomson of France have led the way in HDTV development. They have done so with support and financial help from their national governments and the European Commission.

The technologists have forged ahead in improving the clarity of TV vision, with the aim of bringing near-cinema quality into the home. The technical standard on which it is based, HD-Mac, is a departure from existing European standards. It is also dedicated to satellite and cable broadcasting.

Critics say Europe's HDTV is technology-driven, and that those involved failed to take account of what the public wants. In the early days, hardware manufacturers also failed to court broadcasting companies and programme makers. A new standard for television is little use without something to watch.

Two weeks ago, Philips revealed it had decided not to go ahead with HDTV sets unless it was clear programming would be available. That depends on ambitious plans (so far blocked by Britain) at the European Commission to launch a a 500m ecu research programme - much of which would be used to get the programmers and broadcasters up to speed.

The issue of funding, which led to acrimonious exchanges between Britain and its EC partners before Christmas, will come to a head in May when the Danish presidency tries to push a financing deal through. Britain argues that analogue HDTV will be quickly overtaken by digital television, already under development. If so, consumers could be left with obsolete hardware in a few years.

This argument does little to pacify the likes of Philips and Thomson. They are eager for revenue from the next generation of products and want to reap the fruits of their investment in HDTV.

However, developments in the US have added weight to Britain's case. After prevaricating for years over the way forward while Europe and Japan rushed ahead with analogue HDTV, the Americans have decided to leapfrog to digital television. The Federal Communications Commission believes digital technology should be used for TV just as for computers and telecommunications.

Digital television would be able to interact with other digital services and could be used for terrestrial as well as satellite broadcasting. The quality of sound and vision would be better than that ofanalogue HDTV. But perhaps more important to the US is that a leap forward to digital may enable it to wrest back control of the domestic consumer electronics market from the Japanese and European invaders.

Five consortia are bidding to develop digital TV in the US. One includes Philips and Thomson, but these appear to believe it is too soon to bring the technology to Europe.