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By Olwyn Hocking,
Thursday, 27th January 2011

The 'Big Switchover' will see the end of analogue

Digital TV

Circle December 31st 2012 — it could be your last chance to watch analogue TV...and the deadline could be four years earlier if you live in the Border region, where TV viewers are expected to be the pioneers in the rollout of digital-only services.

Government adviser and technical expert Henry Price, formerly at the BBC, revealed at the RTS September event the likely problems along the way to the long-heralded shutdown of analogue signals.

We're already experiencing one such pitfall — consumers are making decisions now to purchase kit which will no longer work after analogue switch-off. Many people will be victims of this — one was in the RTS audience! — and this is one reason the government is being urged to make a definitive statement on timetable as soon as possible. This will increase pressure on manufacturers to ensure consumer awareness. The recently-revealed digital logo, pictured here, is to be used by retailers on kit which will survive switchover.

Henry predicted that timetable announcement is due soon after November 2004. It's likely to be a four-year gradual programme beginning in 2008, when region-by-region the analogue signals will end. Regions will be given two year's warning — so Border viewers should receive theirs by 2006.

But 535 viewers in South Wales will sample digital delights far sooner. For four months, they're taking part in the official pilot — their positive response so far doubtless helped by DTI funding for the equipment they'll need.

The rest of us will have to dip into our pockets — and we may have to dig deeper than many people expect. Although more than 50% of homes have digital TV, most are only connected to their main set. 45% of us have three or more sets; 92% have one or more VCRs... that's a lot of devices to convert.

Of course, people may not convert like-for-like. The government criteria is simply availability and affordability. 98% of homes can now receive services, and the basic cost of conversion of one set will not be great. If you want to change your VCR to a PVR, the cost may well have fallen to £100 by then for a far richer range of services.

A bigger hurdle is the 15% of people who simply cannot cope with the change. Whether they're stubborn 'refuseniks' or simply technophobes, help will be needed. The cost of support could be huge — the logistics of handling a whole region on an overnight switchover rather frightening. Even more scary — the switchover will involve three rescans over several months, as channels are switched one by one and multiplexes are re-shuffled to release the maximum spectrum.

This is the point at which the cynical point the finger at what they suspect is the driving force behind switchover... all this pain, just to release billions of pounds in an auction of spectrum space? Not so, said Henry — the sluggish sales of 3G phones has demolished that possibility. Instead the benefits to the public purse may be a relatively modest £1.5bn. There'll be little profit after the costs of managing the change. Broadcasters will eventually make savings, once the dual broadcasting of analogue and digital is brought to an end. Manufacturers are uncertain — integrated sets have a high return rate because of concerns over the quality of some digital signals.

The RTS audience was interested in whether the 14 channels released by switchover could open up more local TV. Henry agreed it was a popular issue and technically possible. "I'm sure that will come up — why not provide one frequency — there's a lot of demand for that." But local channels could not afford multiplex costs — government subsidy or Ofcom intervention may be needed.

After so many worrying statistics, Henry had a bright note of hope. Berlin switched a year ago and reported no problem whatsoever. Will Britain repeat this smooth switch? As the nation with some of the highest TV viewing levels in the world, it's unlikely couch potatoes will tolerate blank screens or digital break-up for long!

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