Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Second Report

12.  Memorandum submitted by Dr Brian T Evans


  The introduction of satellite and terrestrial digital television in Wales will provide the viewer with many more television programmes. It is probable that one of these new programmes will be a gavel to gavel coverage of the Welsh National Assembly. This memorandum discusses the additional services that might be provided as an adjunct to the pictures of the Assembly at work.


  There are three types of digital television set top box, one for satellite, one for off air terrestrial and one for cable. Each one is slightly different though the final picture looks the same. The satellite and terrestrial boxes will include a connection to the home telephone line. BSkyB intend to use this telephone connection to configure the software in the box so as to enable it to display programmes for which a payment must first be made. On Digital, the terrestrial provider will do the same. The cable TV set top box does not need a separate telephone connection because the existing TV cable can be used for the telephone link.

  The digital set top box technology thus provides a two way link into each viewer's home. The two way link is primarily intended for programme access control and for interactive programming such as home shopping. It might also be used for viewer feedback to the National Assembly.


  There is a significant difference between European and American experience of telephone usage. In America all local calls are included in a fixed monthly fee so that the marginal cost of an individual phone call is zero. It is therefore no surprise that Americans remain logged on to the Internet all day because the cost of both the internet and the telephone connections are not tarriffed on time. In Europe the cost of our telephone calls is dependent on time and is subject to a minimum charge of 5p. Internet usage is therefore not so widespread because users are aware that "surfing the web" is not free.

  The Freephone 0800/0500 service transfers the cost of the telephone call from the caller to the willing recipient of the call. The cost of each incoming freephone call is agreed by negotiating with one of the many telephone companies that now provide a freephone service. A number of commercial "call centre" companies can handle the many telephone calls that arise in response to televised appeals (via freephone or premium rate access numbers.)

  Exceptionally large numbers (100,000+) of incoming calls may be beyond the capacity of call centre operators so require a different call handling technique. BSkyB have used the recently introduced "Caller Line Identification" (CLI) technology to speed the processing of Pay Per View (PPV) subscriptions. (We are more familiar with CLI in the form of the 1471 service which automatically tells us the telephone number of our last caller.)

  This is how the service works. A BSkyB viewer telephones the special 0800 number advertised on screen for the forthcoming special event—such as a high profile boxing match. Within a few seconds the BSkyB computer checks the telephone number against its viewer list and finds a match. It only remains to debit the viewer's credit card and turn on the set top box. All this is achieved in less time than it takes to say "Hello".

  The CLI technology, whether incorporated in the telephone network or in the Conditional Access part of the television set top box, provides automatic identification of the caller. The National Assembly and/or its individual Members may choose to use this information to identify constituents who regularly or occasionally wish to contact them. The inclusion of a "gatekeeper" would permit National Assembly Members to identify and quantify views which were expressed from their own constituents, views from lobbyists and from other informed sources.


  Today's familiar Teletext service is also available on digital television—but with many more pages and with a much faster access time. It can show, in both languages, a verbatim report of the work of the Assembly as well as the detailed work of committees. If required it can also offer a subtitling service in both languages.

  The ability to control access to each set top box will allow some viewers access to "premium" broadcast services from the National Assembly. Two examples: Committee Members, who are unable to attend in person, might take part in an "in camera" debate from home. Focus groups, whose members might be drawn from across Wales (and beyond) might be shown footage and take part in a private discussion with Members and/or officials of the National Assembly.


  The National Assembly is set to enjoy a higher profile than existing local government councils. Expectations may be raised and there may be a high level of response to the broadcasts. Digital technology allows the responses to be filtered. This filter or gatekeeper function requires both technical and political care in its administration in order to avoid viewer disappointment.

Tantara digital broadcasting

30 September 1998

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