Science: Tuning in to confusion: When the Government determines the destiny of Channel 5, writes Steve Homer, it will also be deciding the future of British television

A big question mark hangs over the future of British television. In a month or so, the Government will make a decision on the fifth terrestrial channel. If it chooses the soft option, it may saddle Britain with outdated broadcasting technology which could handicap our electronics and telecommunications manufacturing companies.

Britain could have a fifth terrestrial channel reaching most of the country on the air in a couple of years. Alternatively, these frequencies could be reserved for up to 16 new digital services - but digital television will take longer, and consumers will have to buy new equipment.

Digital television has matured amazingly rapidly. It allows signals to be squeezed into a piece of radio frequency much more effectively than today's analogue system. Technical experts generally agree that, in the long term, terrestrial television will be delivered by digital means. This could bring many more services and free frequencies for mobile phones and other technology.

Today's PAL transmission system produces a good picture under the right circumstances. But it is horrendously inefficient. Fifty-one high-powered transmitters reach around 90 per cent of the population and nearly 1,000 relay transmitters bring the total coverage to 99.4 per cent. But each transmitter can interfere with others nearby. The only way to avoid this is for individual stations to be transmitted on different channels on nearby transmitters. So while 44 channels are available on our UHF TV frequencies, we can only squeeze in four stations.

If the PAL system were switched off today and replaced with a digital system, instead of four stations we could have 100 or even more. But the transition is the nightmare.

The most likely scenario is to offer the existing four or five terrestrial channels in digital alongside the analogue services, with extra services and/or benefits. Initially viewers will have to buy a separate box of electronics, like a satellite box, to watch the digital transmissions, but eventually the electronics will be built into television sets.

The recent upsurge of interest in digital television has focused attention on the frequencies due to be allocated to Channel 5. Using two channels that have only recently been cleared - UHF channels 35 and 37 - it was advertised last year but the sole bid, from a consortium led by Thames, was rejected. The problem is that not only will Channel 5 be unavailable to 20- 30 per cent of the population, but about half of those who can get Channel 5 will need to instal a new aerial, and millions of video recorders and satellite receivers will suffer interference. This last point will cost the winner of a Channel 5 franchise up to pounds 350m in retuning VCRs and satellite receivers, according to a report published recently by Dermot Nolan, director of the Convergent Decisions Group.

Quite separately from studying the technical feasibility of Channel 5, the Independent Television Commission (ITC) has been working on a digital project called Spectre. This aims to use so-called 'taboo' frequencies to transmit digital television in the UK. The taboo frequencies are those where analogue signals would interfere with adjacent analogue transmitters. Research carried out by NTL for the ITC has proved that, at medium power, digital signals will not interfere with nearby analogue transmitters. The problem with this approach is that it cannot give coverage to the whole of the UK.

The BBC has a different vision. It proposes using channels 35 and 37 for a national digital service. Each channel would be able to transmit between four and eight programmes, in a quality similar to today's PAL transmissions, to 97 per cent of the population. If high-definition television (HDTV) were introduced, each channel would be able to transmit one signal of HDTV quality, which it is claimed gives a crystal-clear picture.

The BBC proposes a single frequency network, to take advantage of the ability of digital systems not to interfere with each other. But the ITC believes that this a complicated technological trick and is many years away.

The Department of National Heritage expects to tell the ITC whether channels 35 and 37 are available for Channel 5 by June. However, while a fifth channel available to most of us in about two years' time at almost no extra cost looks attractive, it is likely that longer-term forces will prevail. No other European country has the luxury of two clear UHF channels. Phil Laven, the BBC's controller of engineering policy, says: 'We have a one-off opportunity. If we do not hold on to these frequencies for the introduction of digital services, I believe in the year 2000 we will look back and say: 'My God, what a short-sighted decision that was.' '

Change in television takes a long time. The move from 405-line VHF to 625-line UHF began in 1964 with the advent of BBC 2, which was only ever available via UHF. The 405-line services were not withdrawn until 1984. Terrestrial digital television is not likely to start before 1997. But while your current set looks fine for now, difficult decisions have to be taken in the next few months.

(Photograph omitted)

News
Residents of James Turner Street such as White Dee will have a chance to share their experiences of benefits on a Channel 4 spin-off show
peopleBenefits Street star says mixed-race children were subjected to trolling
Sport
Angel Di Maria
Football
News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
Life and Style
Jourdan Dunn gave TopShop’s Unique show some added glamour at London Fashion Week
fashion week
News
Groundskeeper Willie has backed Scottish independence in a new video
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor poses the question of whether we are every truly alone in 'Listen'
tvReview: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode to date
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

McAfee Security Engineer

£42000 - £48000 per annum + Site allowance: Ashdown Group: McAfee EPO Speciali...

English Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Experience...

Higher Level Teaching Assistants in Bradford and West Leeds

£65 - £75 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are currently seeking Higher L...

EYP

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Job opportunity for an Early years ...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories