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Digital Television

Mr. Hilary Benn: To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on the use of single channel 2MHz digital channels for community broadcasting. [160500]

Janet Anderson: Current practice is for frequency channels comprising 8MHz which provide a single analogue terrestrial service, or one digital multiplex carrying multiple programme services. I understand from the Independent Television Commission that it is unlikely to be feasible to employ channels of only 2MHz because transmissions would not be compatible with current European transmission standards and no existing digital television receivers would be capable of receiving such transmissions, in addition to other technical constraints. In planning for the transition from analogue to digital television the Government will consider all potential uses of spectrum. A post-switchover plan will be developed providing a clearer indication of the long-term prospects for local television.

Mrs. Gilroy: To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport what plans he has to appoint a digital champion to help oversee and take forward the take-up of digital television services. [160201]

Janet Anderson: I have no immediate plan to appoint a digital champion, but will keep this approach under review.

Mr. Paul Clark: To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport what steps he (a) has taken and (b) intends to take to promote uptake of digital television and, in particular, digital terrestrial television. [161014]

Mr. Chris Smith: As we announced in "Opportunities for All in a World of Change", the Government's aim is for the UK to have the most dynamic, high quality and competitive market for digital TV in the G7, as measured by take-up, choice and cost.

The benefits of digital television are wide-reaching: it provides better picture and sound quality, enables an increased choice of programmes, both free-to-view and paid for, and can deliver new kinds of interactive broadcast services such as home shopping and home banking. Furthermore, while universal access to the internet, which is an essential objective for the Government, is not dependent on digital television, we strongly believe that the take-up of digital television does offer a valuable opportunity for many who may not otherwise seek to do so, to have access to the internet through the use of a familiar technology.

We are now the world leaders in the take-up of digital television with nearly 30 per cent. of households already enjoying the benefits of digital viewing. Digital satellite, available in around five million households, is now well advanced and we understand BSkyB will achieve the full switchover from analogue to digital later this year. The roll-out of digital cable is progressing well, with ntl and

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Telewest having over one million digital customers. More than one million households have already decided to receive digital television through the terrestrial platform which requires relatively little receiving equipment and is likely to be the means by which many will continue to expect to receive their television services in the foreseeable future.

Everyday more homes move to digital but we are well aware that a significant number remain to be convinced of the benefits of making the switch. This is the reason why a number of important initiatives have been put in place recently, with the co-operation of the broadcasting industry and of the ITC, to promote the development of digital television in the UK. These initiatives are in the following areas: extension of coverage; information for consumers and research on their needs and expectations; and involvement of the stakeholders.

Government Departments and agencies are doing all that it is possible within the framework of international spectrum management arrangements to maximise the coverage of digital. We understand that the work on the equalisation of coverage across all six multiplexes--the "core coverage"--is well advanced. We have recently written to digital broadcasters, seeking their commitment to ITC plans to double the power on eight key transmitters, allowing improvement to the signal quality, giving better, more reliable reception of free-to-air and subscription services.

The involvement of the digital broadcasting industry is important in all areas: we will continue to meet all the stakeholders and ensure that the fair competition between them leads to an enterprising and consumer-friendly environment.

We intend to take a strong part in progressing the plans that the ITC is making to implement a programme providing a pilot series of neighbourhoods across the country with free conversion to digital television. Our aim in this is to understand better the practical and social issues which will be faced by people in taking decisions on switching from analogue to digital television.

These pilots will complement the findings of the Viewers Panel we established last year, and whose report, due in September, will help us to ensure that our policies are well informed by consumer concerns and needs.

We also hope that the DVB logo, now being promoted by broadcasters, manufacturers and retailers, will help consumers to purchase digital televisions with confidence so that they are not misled into buying sets with "digital features", under the mistaken impression that they are actually purchasing equipment capable of receiving digital services. We must now discuss with the industry how best to promote this scheme to be sure that all the consumers receive the appropriate information before buying a new TV set. Alongside this initiative, we must also consider whether a public information campaign will be helpful to demystify digital television.

We are committed to developing a strategic plan which will lead the UK to meet the criteria on affordability, availability and accessibility we have set to allow for full digital switchover within the period 2006 and 2010.

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Football Referees

Dr. Whitehead: To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport what recent discussions he has held with the Football Association about their policy of retiring referees at 42 years of age. [159832]

Kate Hoey: This is entirely a matter for the Football Association, and neither my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State nor I have discussed it with them. However, I understand that the age limit of 42 applies only to referees who are newly appointed to officiate at matches in the Nationwide Conference and the reserve leagues of the Premiership and the Football League. There is no age limit for officials in the recreational sport, and referees who officiate at Premiership and Football League matches may continue until they are 48.

Religious Broadcasting

Mr. David Stewart: To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on the opportunities available to Christian radio stations with analogue licences applying for digital licences. [160382]

Janet Anderson [holding answer 8 May 2001]: Religious bodies are currently disqualified from holding digital radio licences and are therefore unable to apply for automatic renewal of their analogue licences, under the provisions of the Broadcasting Act 1996. The White Paper "A New Future for Communications" makes clear the Government's commitment to remove the disqualification on the ownership of local digital licences by religious bodies, and invited comments on relaxing the restrictions regarding the ownership of other licences by such bodies. We are currently considering the responses made.

Mr. Swayne: To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if Premier Christian Radio's analogue licences will automatically be renewed; and if he will make a statement. [160396]

Janet Anderson [holding answer 8 May 2001]: The Radio Authority is required automatically to re-advertise, in an open competition, all analogue local licences in areas where the number of persons, aged 15 years or over, resident in the coverage areas of that service exceeds 4.5 million. The only analogue services exempted from this requirement are those who broadcast, or are committed to broadcast, on a digital multiplex in the relevant area. As Premier Christian Radio is prohibited by current legislation from holding a digital licence, its analogue licence cannot be automatically renewed. The Government are committed to bringing forward communications legislation which would remove this prohibition.

Mr. Swayne: To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport what plans he has to enable religious broadcasters to apply for terrestrial digital licences. [160395]

Janet Anderson [holding answer 8 May 2001]: The White Paper "A New Future for Communications" announced that the Government will bring forward legislation to allow religious bodies to hold a local terrestrial digital radio licence. We invited views on whether the restrictions on ownership of other terrestrial licences by religious bodies should be relaxed, and are currently considering the responses.

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Mr. Swayne: To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if applications for remaining digital radio licences for London will be determined before changes can be made to allow applications from Christian broadcasters to be entertained. [160394]

Janet Anderson [holding answer 8 May 2001]: I understand that applications for the third and final digital multiplex licence for Greater London have already been submitted, and the Radio Authority is expected to make the award in June. Legislation to correct the anomaly whereby religious bodies are prevented from holding local digital licences will be brought forward, but any such legislation could not be enacted by June.

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