Final switch to digital television is delayed

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THE GOVERNMENT has kicked in to touch the thorny issue of when to turn off the frequencies that currently beam television channels into people's homes. It is now expected to make existing television sets obsolete around 2013 rather than 2003 as had been forecast.

The analogue frequencies which now carry television broadcasts are to be replaced by digital signals. Later this year, the existing terrestrial channels and a new consortium of Granada and Carlton will begin broadcasting on the new digital frequencies. To encourage take-up of set-top boxes, and in future television sets, which can receive digital signals, the Government plans to set a date for the cut off of analogue broadcasting.

The previous government had pledged to look at cutting off analogue five years after digital transmissions begin. But, yesterday, Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said that five years was not a practical option.

Instead, the Government plans a public consultation period and to follow a National Economic Research Associates (Nera) recommendation to study take-up of digital television for two years before announcing a cut-off date.

"[Nera] believe the existing analogue frequencies can be closed down in 10-15 year's time," said Mr Smith. "We are ruling out the five-year option, it is not a practical option. We are not announcing a cut-off date now because it is not sensible to do so before DTT [digital terrestrial television] has even started or we have any idea what take-up is likely to be."

The Government wants to move to digital partly so it can sell off the analogue frequencies currently used by television to mobile phone companies and other private operators.

The television industry wants an early cut-off date to encourage take up of digital sets and services. Manufacturers could produce more digital televisions at a lower cost to the consumer, which in turn would encourage people to buy them faster.

Yet the Government wants to avoid the politically unpopular course of forcing people to change their sets or lose their favourite television programmes. In all, the cost to consumers of buying digital sets could reach pounds 1bn to pounds 2bn according to the Nera report. "It is the consumer who is king and our policy must be developed with the consumer in mind," Mr Smith said. "No one is going to be forced into paying for adapting to digital TV when they cannot afford to do so ... we will not wish to switch off analogue until digital receivers are universally installed in households as analogue receivers are now."

The Government plans to look at how a subsidy using the money from selling analogue frequencies might be used to help the last remaining people convert to digital sets.

British Digital Broadcasting, the company which plans to sell subscription digital television, put a brave face on the Government's announcement: "Today's announcement sends a clear signal: the future of television is digital," said Michael Green, BDB chairman and chairman of Carlton television.

The digital revolution

New technology allows television channels to be broadcast in a digital form that will take up less "bandwidth" or space in the radio spectrum. This could allow 200 channels to be broadcast over existing frequencies.

To receive the digital signals, viewers will need a set-top decoder for their existing television. In a couple of years, televisions will be available with internal decoders.

As well as broadcasting existing channels digitally, broadcasters plan a range of new channels, like the BBC's free 24-hour news channel. Other channels will be paid for by subscription, like those planned by British Digital Broadcasting.

To encourage take-up, broadcasters are likely to subsidise the cost of set-top boxes. The first boxes may cost less than pounds 200.

After two years of digital broadcasts, the Government will set a date when it will stop broadcasts on existing frequencies. Forecasts predict that this will be around 2011-2013.