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Contradictory signals are coming from government over the issue of set top digital TV roll out says Fred Thorne
The publication of the DTI's White Paper 'Opportunity for All in a World of Change' and the coincident hearings of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons have lead to a sudden burst of interest in the potential for a nationwide digital-only broadcast TV service.
The white paper includes a commitment by the British Government to boost the roll-out of digital TV: 'We will launch several small scale pilot projects offering free conversion to digital TV to defined communities, in partnership with the Independent Television Commission and the industry, to understand better the use that people will make of the new technology, including those who only want free-to-air services.
We will start by offering conversion to a small number of households and build up rapidly to convert a wider community of a thousand or more households. Those taking part in the projects will be given intensive support so that we can establish viewer requirements'.
This has lead to a rash of denials that this will mean the government is prepared to subsidise the rollout of digital set top boxes to those consumers who are unconvinced by the current pay offerings that are a prerequisite to gaining a free digital connection.
However this view was contradicted at the Select Committee by Patricia Hodgson, chief executive of the ITC, who supported the proposal saying that the government may well have to give away free set-top boxes to encourage take-up of digital television. She claimed the step - or a similar subsidy - would be 'inevitable' to attract the entire population away from analogue services.
With estimates ranging from anything up to 30% of the population who are unlikely ever to convert to digital pay TV the industry evidently believes that it would be political suicide to turn off analogue without free alternatives being offered.
Any government looking to rake in significant revenues from the sale of the analogue bandwidths must factor in the cost of converting these remaining viewers to digital in their equations.