Labour to get double warning on digital timetable



MINISTERS will be warned this month that their multibillion pound dream of switching all the UK to digital television is threatened because key decisions have still not been taken.

Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, insists that the Government will start the process of switching off analogue broadcasts in 2006 and complete the job by 2010. But both the BBC and Ofcom, the communications regulator, will give warning in separate reports that firm decisions will must be taken soon to save the Government timetable.

The switch to digital would give every viewing household access to at least 35 TV channels and at least some degree of interactive communications.

The BBC is prepared to commit itself to spending hundreds of millions of pounds to ensure that everyone can receive digital terrestrial TV. The work would be carried out by transmitter group Crown Castle or NTL and the BBC would pay for the service through increased fees.

Converting 80 large transmitters would cover most of the UK, but 1,100 smaller transmitters would be needed to cover the entire population.

For about 25 per cent of the country, analogue services will have to be switched off before digital broadcasts can take over. An alternative way of tackling the problem is via digital satellite.

The BBC will warn the Government that it can go ahead only if receives an absolute undertaking that analogue really will be switched off. “We cannot waste the public’s money on a dual system,” one of those involved said yesterday.

The BBC will also state in a report due at the end of this month that there must be a firm switch-off date by the end of this year if the Government schedule is to be met.

Similar warnings will come in a report from Ofcom. Last year the regulator’s chief executive, Stephen Carter, told delegates at the Royal Television Society’s convention in Cambridge that “a date (for switch-off) would be jolly helpful”.

The plan is to convert the UK region by region, starting in 2006, but no firm dates have yet been set.

As well as stressing the need for setting firm dates, the BBC and Ofcom are expected to demand an extensive public education campaign.