Outlook: Switching off analogue

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The Independent Online
Amid all the hype about commercial opportunities of digital television, it's worth remembering that the biggest winner from the whole process may well be the government. Even if you couldn't care a less about BSkyB's promise of a 200-channel revolution, or that exciting package of programmes soon to be available from British Digital Broadcasting (BDB), there's no escaping from digital. Some time in the next millennium, watching five channels on your old television will cease to be an option. Why? Because the government will have switched off the analogue signal that now supplies them.

The reasons for doing so will become abundantly clear tomorrow, when the Government publishes a discussion paper on the issue. Those parts of the radio spectrum used by analogue television are worth a fortune. If the government can get everyone to switch to digital television, it can flog off the analogue spectrum to mobile phone and data communications operators. Some reckon the auction could deposit as much as pounds 6bn in the public coffers.

This in itself ought to make the likes of BSkyB and BDB very happy. If all us couch potatoes know our tellies are going to be worthless - the 1996 Broadcasting Act suggested the analogue signal be switched off five years after digital television was launched, or when half the population had digital, whichever is the sooner - they are more likely to consider buying a set-top box and signing up to all those new channels with dispatch.

Not content with a dominant market position, however, they want more. Why not, they argue, use some of that pounds 6bn to subsidise the cost of digital televisions, so that even the less fortunate among us who can't afford to join the brave new information age will not be left out? Surely Tony Blair couldn't disagree?

Bunkum. Digital satellite and digital terrestrial are already enough of a licence to print money without handing out a public subsidy on top. If the Government really wants to be fair, it should leave the analogue signal on for another decade and let viewers make their own minds up. But in the end money always speaks and pounds 6bn is a mighty tempting sum.