Signalling the direction of Britain’s dTV policy, Barry Cox – the newly appointed chairman of the Digital Stakeholders Group [WAMN: 21-Jan-02] – has declared that national access to digital terrestrial broadcasts is “highly desirable” before the analogue signal can be switched off.

Responsible for increasing the uptake of dTV, Cox said one of his first goals is to raise the quality of the terrestrial signal, with the ultimate aim of allowing every home in the UK to receive digital broadcasts via their aerials.

“We are never going to get [analogue] switch-off unless it is clear how most people in the country can get the signal,” he commented. This signal, used by the only digital terrestrial pay-TV operator ITV Digital, is currently just 60% reliable.

Such improvements would boost access to digital channels available without charge, such as ITV2 and BBC News 24. “There is a substantial body of people that does not want pay-TV,” Cox continued. “If digital [switch-over] is going to happen, it has to be a free-to-air route.”

Although nearly 40% of Britons have gone digital, only 300,000 have done so without a pay-TV subscription package, jeopardising the government’s analogue switch-off target date of 2006–2010.

The comments will hardly remove fears among some operators that the government-backed DSG is covertly trying to help the ailing ITV Digital at the expense of its satellite and cable pay-TV rivals. Such speculation is not helped by Cox’s position as deputy chairman of free-to-air broadcaster Channel 4, even though his deputy is Sheila Cassells, head of economic policy at satellite firm and leading digital supplier BSkyB.

“The government is genuinely agnostic about what is the mass digital medium,” Cox stressed. “It could be construed that I am more concerned with [digital terrestrial TV] but that is the practical problem at the moment.”

It is estimated that the BBC will have to spend an extra £100 million, and ITV and Channel 4 £200m, to convert enough transmitters to make terrestrial dTV available to 95% of the nation – the minimum before analogue switch-off. Cox also wants television manufacturers to produce cheaper digital-capable sets.

News source: Financial Times