Leading Article: The ghost at the feast

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A cornucopia awaits us. Yesterday Virginia Bottomley, the new Heritage Secretary, allowed a tempting glimpse of the feast of television, radio and interactive services that digital technology will invite us all to. Her Green Paper on the regulation and launch of the new digital world speaks of no fewer than 18 new terrestrial TV channels and 42 new radio channels. These 18 channels will be organised into six terrestrial "multiplexes" which will be operated by providers. The channels can consist of up to one tenth "additional" services, such as interactive shopping, information or computer games. All we have to do is buy the new technology and enjoy.

Except that there is a ghost at this feast, one which has the long-term capacity to make us all choke on our meals. The problem is that the vast majority of new services that the public will be offered will not be "free- to-air". The digital revolution will be based on funding through either subscription or "pay-per-view".

Such arrangements require one more piece of equipment - a black box, which encrypts the scrambled signals of subscription and pay channels. This black box would be the "gateway" to the information and entertainment superhighway.

But who should provide the black box? Mrs Bottomley's paper allows that it would be absurd if all the providers were to set about building their own, incompatible gateways. "It may well be more practical", it says, "for a number of broadcasters to make use of a single system." It sure would - the whole enterprise is fraught with risk. It's fine if you invest a lot of money and end up with the industry standard (as VHS of Japan did over VCRs), but it can kill you if you're the one who hitches up to Betamax.

Enter Rupert Murdoch. If the Department of National Heritage is not interested in promoting a national standard gateway, Mr Murdoch may be able to help out. Sky already uses a box - one in which it has invested a lot of money. And it is hard to see this or a new version of it not becoming the industry standard - everybody may end up having to use the Sky gateway.

This is a problem. Diversity of editorial content, of ownership and of access to the market are needed to guarantee the best long-term service to the public - and the greatest health of a democracy, dependent upon the flow of information. Domination by one commercial operation could threaten this diversity.

Oh I know, says Mrs Bottomley, but in our paper we specifically state that any provider of such management systems must not discriminate in favour of or against any multiplex provider or broadcaster. And they cannot unreasonably refuse services either. Oftel, the telecommunications regulator, will ensure that all is well. So there will be no domination.

But we have been here before, Virginia. Murdoch trounced the Monopolies Commission over the Times, Today and BSB. He saw off regulation over Sky. His companies have used every cross-promotional trick in the book to lever each other's commercial position. For Mr M, competition is not something to be welcomed, but defeated.

So trust is not enough. If there is not to be a specified industry standard gateway, then the regulatory regime over the gatekeepers needs to be absolutely watertight.

It should specify a published rate card and the separate tendering of different services, rather than their bundling together. Should a black box monopoly be achieved, it must specify that Oftel fix prices too. It is the least that should be done.

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