Cumbrian town paves the way for television's big switchover to digital

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Whitehaven has seen better days. The mines have long since closed; the west Cumbria town would have probably been abandoned long ago, had it not been for jobs the nearby Sellafield nuclear power station provides. Perched on subsiding cliffs, a monument to the miners declares "an end of an era". And that is just what it feels like here in Whitehaven: an outpost of old England gradually eroding into the sea.

Yet all is not quite lost. Whitehaven has become the unlikely pioneer of Britain's digital television revolution. This week, the BBC will begin the process of turning off the town's analogue signal. Whitehaven is about to become the first place in Britain to become entirely reliant on digital TV.

About 25,000 Whitehaven households will lose their analogue signal tomorrow. BBC2 will be the first channel to go, followed, on 14 November, by the rest.

Digitalisation is big news here. A giant blinking LED display on the harbour counts down the days and hours until the big switchover. Councillors have gone on television to boast the switchover will put Whitehaven on the map. The local paper, The Whitehaven News is so enthusiastic it has run a story on the switchover every week for the past year.

In a makeshift office in the Help The Aged building, the staff of Digital UK, the organisation leading the UK's switch to digital TV are working away in a corner just past the electric blanket testing room.

Perched among piles of Argos bags full of digiboxes, Digital UK liaison officer, Sarah-Jane Gray, grins with enthusiasm. "It's been quite exciting for the town, and there's been a lot of anticipation. It can only be a good thing that people south of the Watford gap know about Copeland."

Copeland is the borough served by Whitehaven's television transmitter, known affectionately as "Bigrigg", after the small village near by. This was deigned the perfect place to test out digital television, since its boundaries are clearly defined by the Cumbrian mountains in the east and the Irish sea to the west.

At the digital help centre on the high street they clearly know their demographic. A pile of cassette tapes with an audio step-by-step guide are being given away alongside a bowl of mint humbugs. Maybe this was the ultimate test: if Whitehaven – once voted the third best place in Britain for the over-50s – could cope with the digital switch, then surely anyone in Britain could.

It certainly seems to be testing some here. "Digi-tal?" asks Geoffrey Jackson, 79, as he stands in the drizzle outside the Kinsella and Sons greengrocers. "Oh no pet, we don't bother with that. I do my shopping in the mornings and I walk round my garden in the afternoons. I'm not that bothered about digital or owt else".

Others are sceptical. Angela Parkinson, 33, puts down her lunch of battered cod and complains: "It's a big con and it's really confusing. We had to pay extra to get Sky Plus just so we could get a signal on all our televisions".

Only those on benefits or over 75 years old will get their digibox free of charge.

Simon Macdowell, the local butcher, sighs: "They've [the council] been talking about it for long enough but there are still plenty of folk who will leave it until the last minute. They'll turn on their TV one day and go 'oh, I haven't got a picture'."

But Brooks, the town's major electrical shop, says it has been doing such roaring trade since they heard about the switchover, that they have had to hire an extra five members of staff.

At 10am, it is already buzzing with elderly customers staring in wonderment at the array of colourful HD screens. Worried couples peer at the price tags of the flashy gear, showing visible relief when it is explained they won't, in fact, need a brand new television.

"It's been chock-a-block ever since they announced the switch", says the assistant manager Phil Coyles.

"We've never seen anything like this apart from at Christmas . You get a lot of elderly people who are confused about what buttons to press, and how to tune them, so we needed a lot of people on hand to explain".

There are still many in Whitehaven who remain nonplussed. Tommy Casson, one of many unemployed in the town who have been sent a free set-top box to cope with the swap, says "A've got one of 'em digi things, aye", as he inspects the window display at Curry's electricals. "I got it free in the post but, looking at those prices, I might not have bothered otherwise."

And then, pipe in mouth, the 62-year-old says the words every BBC executive has been dreading to hear: "It's only television isn't it?"

Signal change

* Digital TV signals compare favourably with their analogue counterparts because they convey much more information in much less time. Britain's digital switchover starts tomorrow in Whitehaven, Cumbria, when about 25,000 households will have their analogue signal turned off. Any television set or video recorder that isn't tuned to a digital signal once the switchover is complete will not be able to receive television programmes. The switchover will take place at different times in the 14 ITV regions of the UK, culminating in London's conversion to fully digital television in 2012. For digital TV to be accessible to everybody in the country, the digital signal needs to be available for free everywhere. Television sets that currently receive more than the standard five terrestrial channels will almost certainly be ready for the switchover. Those with only terrestrial channels will have to either make a one-off purchase of a set-top box, or apply for monthly subscriptions. Boxes, such as those that provide the Freeview service, range from £30 to £70. Digital television services will provide, as standard, at least a dozen additional channels for free, including BBC3, BBC4, ITV2, ITV3, More4, and news channels. It will also provide dozens of other optional channels, a sharper picture, and the option of interactive viewing.