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Fury of digital TV refuseniks 'could bring down PM '



Ordinary people have surprised themselves and the Government with the effectiveness of their protests against the council tax. Yet their actions could be dwarfed by potential fury over switching off the traditional analogue TV signal.

'It's a massive issue,' warns David Sinclair of Help the Aged. A government 'could lose an election on it'.

Many elderly people watch TV for three or more hours a day. But when the digital revolution takes place in earnest, TV will provide far more than just entertainment and education. It could become an interactive lifeline between the frail and elderly and the outside world.

At least one sheltered housing venture is already using interactive TV for residents to contact the manager if they are unwell, for instance, or if something breaks down or goes wrong in their flats.

The gap between rich and poor would accelerate dramatically if access to new TV technology was denied to poorer people who are already socially excluded. The switch-off to make way for all-digital TV is now planned by the Government before 2010, though an exact date has yet to be set.

Enthusiasts claim that, as well as interactivity, digital gives you a better picture and paves the way for far more channels, mobile television and who-knows-what-else. Singaporeans, for example, can watch TV on mobile phones, on the bus and in their cars.

The problem in Britain, however, is that while 50 per cent of homes already have digital TV - many paying between £13.50 and £40 a month to Sky, and others via cable or the Freeview set-top box - there will be a large minority who cannot, or will not, pay up. Paying the TV licence - £121 in 2004/05 - is already one of the three taxes that people resent most (with inheritance tax and petrol duty), says IFA Promotion, the marketing group for financial advisers.

Up to 1.5 million households - covering 6 per cent of the population - are expected to be serious refuseniks, says a Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) study, 'Attitudes to Digital Television', published last January.

It found 'considerable latent opposition to switchover', particularly among people with moral objections who think we watch too much TV and do not want yet more channels.

The Government could make billions of pounds when analogue is shut off by auctioning some of the broadcasting spectrum it now occupies. So it is encouraged to see so many households moving to digital already. It is less happy that about 6 million households cannot receive Freeview, where viewing up to 40 channels is free once you buy the box. They would have to pay to get all five main channels on digital TV.

To go digital now, viewers must get a satellite dish and subscribe to Sky, at a cost of between £13.50 and £40 a month; get cable through Telewest (£13.50 a month, including phone line rental) or NTL (£9.50 a month in London) if you are in their areas; or pay a one-off price of up to £80 for a set-top box for Freeview.

However, even in the Freeview areas, at least a third of homes need other equipment, such as a new aerial, costing £80 or more. Furthermore, a quarter of all homes cannot receive Freeview at all.

Freeview and the BBC, its part owner, say no more transmitters can be added to the 80 in place without distorting the signals already being transmitted.

'The situation is not very clear for consumers at the moment but it will be resolved,' says Richard Lindsay-Davies, public affairs director of the Digital Television Group, an industry body that has the Depart ment of Trade and Industry as an associate member.

A mechanism was briefly set up to help some of the 6 million households outside the Freeview reception areas. Until the end of January, those who had previously subscribed to Sky but who had let their subscriptions lapse were able to go on receiving BBC, ITV and channels 4 and 5 by paying £23.50 for a 'Solus card'. This enables them to get digital until at least the end of 2005.

However, only 70,000 homes had applied the time the offerclosed. Lindsay-Davies advises people outside Freeview and cable areas to 'subscribe to Sky for a year and then unsubscribe' if they want to go digital at a low cost. Existing non-Sky subscribers can still get BBC channels via their satellite dish (see website address opposite) but they will not get ITV and channels 4 and 5 without a Solus card.

Lindsay-Davies suggests everyone will be able to get Freeview when analogue is switched off and some of the airwaves freed up can be used to broadcast digital signals. But there is a long way to go before we get there.

Help the Aged, which is eager for pensioners to get the growing benefits of the new technology, expects a firm Government decision on a switch-off date later this year. Others are not so sure. At some stage, the government of the day may need to pay the conversion costs of the remaining refuseniks. But it will want a far greater digital take-up before it listens seriously to appeals for it to pay the bills of the poor, elderly or other groups it may target for assistance. It has said it will not turn off analogue until digital is 'an affordable option for the vast majority of people'.

This will be a difficult issue to resolve. The Government is keeping its head down. The Digital Television Group, Freeview and the BBC all refused to provide a table showing Freeview coverage.

They say such a table does not exist, or would not be 'meaningful'.

However, Wolfbane Cybernetic, a hi-tech company based in Oxford, has produced a map with this information. It accepts that an official table would be more accurate because its calculations do not take account of the effect on reception of valleys and hills, nor the direction in which the transmitters point.

The map shows that while densest population centres get an acceptable digital signal, much of the UK does not. Instead it receives a weak or unreliable one requiring expensive aerials and extra amplification, or no signal at all, because hills and valleys are in the way.

Digital TV is tricky for the Government. Britain is said to lead the world in this revolution so other countries will watch us closely. The British market is dominated by a powerful monopoly satellite supplier in the form of Sky. Then there are the cable firms, which have both had serious financial problems.

Ministers are now playing a game of stealth with a population whose understanding of digital is patchy. But when the public realises how much some people stand to gain from the technology and how others could be left out, it may react angrily like the elderly council tax rebels, some of them willing to risk jail.

If parts of Britain are cut off from analogue TV without proper planning and assistance, leaving people with blank screens, it could bring down a Prime Minister.