Invest in digital or miss switch-off deadline, ministers told

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The American company behind digital TV service Freeview has warned the government that unless it invests millions of pounds on upgrading transmission networks it will miss its target of switching off the existing TV signal by 2010.

Crown Castle, which last year teamed up with the BBC and BSkyB to launch Freeview as a replacement for the defunct ITV Digital service, said today the government would have to pour public money into boosting digital coverage.

"Without government backing and the funds required digital switch-over will happen many years later than the optimum. The decision to auction off the spectrum has limitations for the further investment of commercial organisations," said Berwyn Roberts, the sales director of Crown Castle.

The government has repeatedly insisted it can reach its target of switching off the current analogue signal between 2006 and 2010, a claim today reiterated by the e-commerce minister, Stephen Timms.

But Crown Castle, like many other TV companies, has warned that readying transmitters and broadcasters for the changeover is likely to take at least three years. And the government has stipulated that at least 95% of the population must have digital television receivers before switch-off.

Freeview has been hailed as a success, with 500,000 consumers buying the £100 decoders needed to access the 30 channels and the number of households who have upgraded their sets is expected to top 2 million by Christmas.

But digital television viewers still make up less than half of the population.

And while 41% of households have digital sets, there are numerous portable sets that have to be converted along with millions of video recorders before switch-off can take place.

The Freeview signal covers around 80% of the country after being boosted prior to the launch of the service in an effort to avoid the technical issues that dogged ITV Digital. But the industry feels that government help will be needed to reach full coverage.

The marketing manager of set-top box manufacturer Pace also called on the government to intervene and start putting together a more detailed timetable for switchover, as well as investing in a high profile consumer education campaign.

Mr Timms today admitted the "halcyon days of the 3G auction [which raised £22.5bn for government coffers] are behind us".

Broadcasters are also concerned the government will miss its self imposed switch-off target of 2010.

David Dorans, the general manager of the BBC and Telewest joint venture UKTV, said that to start switchover in 2006 would be "impractical" and that the government was "facing a backlash" with experts predicting that switchover may not be possible until 2014 at the earliest.
 
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