Gummer tackles Sky monopoly

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The Independent Online
THE Government is reviewing the law which gives Rupert Murdoch a stranglehold on satellite television broadcasting to Britain.

The move, which could result in an increase in the size of dishes allowed outside most homes, would also open up a new range of free television stations to Britain's satellite audience.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, is examining plans to relax restrictions on the size of satellite dishes in most parts of Britain.

That would mean that with one dish, viewers could receive not only BSkyB services via the Astra satellite, but also broadcasts from the rival Eutelsat.

In most parts of the country dishes of up to 70cm may be erected outside buildings without planning permission. An extension to allow a 90cm dish, which is already permitted in areas where reception is poor, would allow viewers to tune into a range of stations already broadcasting free to the Continent.

It could also encourage big new players to come into the market to challenge Mr Murdoch's BSkyB.

The review is evidence that some ministers are increasingly concerned at the dominance which the Australian tycoon has established over the British media. This has been exacerbated by the tension between Mr Murdoch's UK newspapers and John Major's government.

The planning regulations covering dishes were set out in the Planning Policy Guidance published by the Department of the Environment in 1992. The Government could change them without primary legislation, although it would be obliged to consult interested parties first.

Ministers concede that the regulations were framed after fierce lobbying by Astra. At the time Sky was envisaging competition from BSB, with its smaller "squarial".

Recently backers of Eutelsat, which broadcasts the BBC World Service, Cable One, European Business News, MTV, and several Continental music stations, have lobbied both Government and Opposition, particularly in the party conference season.

The Department of the Environment has asked Eutelsat for more details of its case for an increase in the permitted size of dishes. Ministers are considering additional safeguards to ensure that the positioning of dishes is not intrusive. One possibility is that only one dish will be permitted outside any building.

Ian Johnston, trade communications director for the Eutelsat trade agency in Britain, said: "This is the only chance for competition in the UK, otherwise Mr Murdoch is going to dominate.

"Eutelsat has applied to the Government to lift the order for planning permission to allow up to 90cm dishes throughout the UK, in order to allow dual-feed satellite dishes which would give the consumer the choice between programmes on Astra and Eutelsat. A major part of Eutelsat's programming is available 'in the clear', with no monthly subscription required."

Eutelsat, which is a big player in the European market, believes it has been caught in a "chicken-and-egg" situation - because few people are able to receive its transmissions with their existing dishes, broadcasters inevitably prefer to use Astra to broadcast to the UK.

However, some industry observers believe Mr Murdoch's empire is unlikely to be hit hard by any relaxation of regulations.

They argue that an increase in the size of dishes allowed in the UK might be useful when Astra runs out of capacity and a second satellite is launched.

A 90cm dish will allow the mounting of two LNBs (Low- Noise Block Down Converters), the part of the dish which receives and converts the signal from the satellite. One LNB can be directed at each of the satellites, although they are in different positions.