BBC ordered to pay £800m to help public switch to digital

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The Independent Online

Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, yesterday revealed details of the programme designed to enable every British home to switch to digital during the next seven years, with special assistance being given to people over the age of 75 and those with serious disabilities.

Some elderly and disabled people will be given one-to-one assistance in installing cable or satellite equipment, while others will be encouraged to switch to digital television through targeted leaflet campaigns and a national helpline. About 2 million of the 6 million households qualify for a free connection, with the rest being offered discounts.

Ms Jowell, addressing the Royal Television Society's annual Cambridge Convention, admitted she faced an "inevitable battle for hearts and minds as we seek to convince a minority about the merits of switching to digital". She claimed the digital switchover would benefit the UK economy by £1.1bn to £2.2bn.

The total cost to the BBC is estimated at £865m but will be factored into negotiations with the Government over the settlement of the licence fee.

Ms Jowell said: "There will be people who will find digital television confusing and feel unsettled by the technology."

Some consumer groups voiced concern that the promise of assistance did not go far enough. Alison Hopkins, of the National Consumer Council, said: "The scheme restricts help to households where someone is over 75 or has a significant disability. This will leave many others on low incomes struggling to pay for the equipment or who, while not disabled, may find it difficult to cope with the new technologies."

The cost of a set top box has fallen to about £35 and they are likely to be sold for £25 by some supermarkets in the run up to Christmas. But aerial upgrades, can cost between £80 and £190.

Already 63 per cent of households have converted to digital, with 2 million households converting in the past 12 months.

The Government has conducted trials in the Welsh villages of Llansteffan and Ferryside, which were both switched to digital-only television. Although there was overwhelming support from villagers and 81 per cent installed their own equipment, the cost of technical support was £2,000 per household.

The BBC said the switchover, would "ensure the benefits of digital will be available to every licence payer without having to pay a subscription".

Changeover dates

* Border 2008

* Granada 2009

* Wales 2009

* West Country 2009

* Grampian 2010

* Scottish 2010

* West 2010

* Yorkshire 2011

* Central 2011

* Anglia 2011

* Ulster 2012

* Meridian 2012

* Carlton 2012

* Tyne Tees 2012