Digital launch heralds TV revolution

New era for broadcasting: Latest technology is welcomed as 'the most significant step forward since the cathode ray tube'
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The Government yesterday published its policy for digital television and radio in Britain which will herald a huge increase in the number of channels available, and will bring high-definition, wide-screen pictures and compact-disc quality stereo sound.

At the moment, using analogue technology, frequencies are allocated to individual broadcasters with a single frequency needed for each television channel. Digital technology will allow several television channels to be broadcast on the same frequency, all with unprecedented high quality sound and vision.

Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, said: "We stand on the verge of a revolution. Digital broadcasting could transform the viewing and listening habits of the nation, as well as providing thousands of new jobs.

"Digital broadcasting is perhaps the most significant technological and commercial step forward for television and radio since the development of the cathode ray tube."

To watch digital television, which will be available alongside analogue from 1997, consumers will either have to buy "set-top boxes" to convert the signals for their existing equipment - which could cost about pounds 300 - or buy new digital sets. Some channels, including the present national broadcasters, will be free. Others will be financed by subscription or "pay per view". But as the Government launched its consultation paper yesterday, some problems immediately emerged. First, civil servants at the Department of National Heritage admitted that the additional pounds 300 boxmight not enable viewers to receive all the digital channels.

Second, although the Government is limiting the number of channels one operator can control, the ceiling is likely to be as high as 50 per cent, so one company could operate half of all Britain's terrestrial television.

Third, the 18 or so new government-regulated terrestrial channels will be dwarfed by the digital explosion on satellite and cable which could see more than 400 new channels by 2000.

Terrestrial digital television will be delivered through six frequency channels or "multiplexes", each able to carry at least three channels, available to between 70 and 90 per cent of the population. The existing national broadcasters - BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 when it is established - will be guaranteed access to it. The Government will also allow the BBC to bid for extra capacity on subscription or pay-per- view services alongside its free service.

There will be seven radio multiplexes, each with capacity to offer at least six digital stereo programme services. One has already been allocated to the BBC and will start broadcasting next month. Listeners will need new digital radios.

Licences to operate the multiplexes will be awarded by the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority, and applications will be assessed on the basis of the speed and geographical spread and the variety of channels or radio stations offered.

After a consultation period of two months, the Government will introduce legislation in the next session of Parliament. Mrs Bottomley said: "These proposals are designed to create a sensible regulatory regime which will protect the consumer and provide competition while encouraging new investment in the new digital technology."

Both the BBC and ITV gave the proposals a broad welcome. Bob Phillis, BBC deputy director general, said he was pleased the corporation's public service channels would have a guaranteed place in the digital future, but added that the role of a multiplex provider needed to be carefully thought through.

The chairman of ITV, Leslie Hill, said the quality and popularity of programmes would be the key to success. He added: "This announcement marks only the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a very long process."

But Andrew Neil, former chairman of Sky TV, warned that BBC and ITV only had three or four months to act, "otherwise they will find that satellite broadcasters in general and Rupert Murdoch in particular will have the whole market sewn up".