NTL calls for broadcasting review

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The Independent Online

NTL has called on the Government to review the rules on broadcasting, which it claims favour satellite television company BSkyB. Britain's largest cable firm wants the Government to use the publication of the forthcoming Communications Bill to rewrite its policies on compulsory public service broadcasting.

Under the rules, cable and satellite television companies are required to broadcast BBC and Channel 4 programmes on their networks. But Astra, the satellite company, and BSkyB, part-owned by Rupert Murdoch, receive a fee for public service broadcasting. The amount is a closely guarded secret. Cable companies are required to broadcast the programmes for nothing. It is understood that Astra receives a fee for beaming BBC and Channel 4 into homes. BSkyB is paid a fee for decrypting the BBC broadcast signal.

Phil Kirby, director of strategy and policy at NTL, said: "The policy has been around for years. But there is no real definition of public service broadcasting. This distorts competition. The desire for public service broadcasting should not hold back commercial broadcasting."

There is no dispute over the BBC, fully funded by licence-payers, but there is confusion over companies classed as public service broadcasters. Publicly-owned Channel 4 does not pay the Government a fee for the use of the spectrum. But, it is understood, the Government is considering plans to charge the group up to £100m a year. ITV pays £300m a year for its spectrum. It is also under certain obligations to broadcast news and religious programmes but observers believe its spectrum bill could fall in two years as homes switch to digital television. Channel 5 pays £25m for its spectrum.

Mr Kirby wants talks with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which is producing the long-awaited Communications Bill with the Department of Trade and Industry. The draft is due in the spring.

Tomorrow, a separate Bill to set up the new communications regulator, Ofcom, gets its second reading in the Lords. Ofcom, when created, will play a crucial role in shaping future media policy.