The UK government could face a bill of around £400 million ($752m, €571) when it flicks the off switch on the country's analogue TV signal.

The cash will be needed to help socially disadvantaged viewers make the change to digital television, says a report from broadcast watchdog Ofcom's consumer panel.

However, the report stresses the government in power in 2012, of whatever political persuasion, should not give away set-top boxes to people who fail meet conversion deadlines. The money should be used for community help.

Says panel chairman Colette Bowe: "Digital switchover will be the biggest challenge for people who have to cope with it on their own, without the help of family, friends or neighbours.

"We are suggesting that a realistic way to meet this challenge is to mobilise existing community networks. This will cost money. But it will be the key to providing the support that vulnerable people will need."

The report also recommends an urgent public information campaign to explain what the changes will mean, how viewers will be affected and how much it will cost them.

The Blair administration's broadcasting minister, Andrew McIntosh says his government - assuming New Labour wins the next General Election - will respond to the report and produce a timetable for the great switchover by the end of 2005.

Around 55 per cent of UK households have already converted to digital TV.

Data sourced from Financial Times Online; additional content by WARC staff