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Digital Switchover

1 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I am pleased to have secured the debate. I have come to the Chamber hot foot from the Committee that is considering the Identity Cards Bill and understand that we are to have the benefit of your chairmanship there, Mr. Hood, so your chairmanship of our debates this afternoon in Westminster Hall is an unexpected pleasure.

I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) on his recent promotion. I also make it clear to the House that I approach the subject of digital switchover without the benefit, or possibly the hindrance, of any particular technical expertise.

The switchover to digital television is a multilayered subject that brings with it a whole range of technical and regulatory issues, only some of which I intend to touch on today. The Northern Isles, as elsewhere in the United Kingdom, are looking forward to the switchover to digital. Like others, we see it as progress. In recent years, however, because of our geographical remoteness from London, we have been left behind in several other areas of technical progress, particularly in the roll-out of broadband. If the Minister can give us nothing else today, I hope that he will be able to assure us that we will not be left at the coo's tail simply because we are geographically few and far away from London.

As I said, digital switchover is an enormous subject with many angles, but I shall focus today on two important issues: the impact of coverage on my constituents, and help for vulnerable groups.

In 1999, the Government set a target of 99.5 per cent. of homes being able to receive digital terrestrial reception. At the start of June, however, Ofcom announced that 98.5 per cent. of households should be covered by the digital transmitter networks. So there has been some slippage even in that short period. That slippage causes the Scottish highlands and islands communities, and indeed other peripheral parts of the UK, particular concern. A recent piece in The Guardian explained that the coverage had been

In the same article, Allan Williams of Which? magazine said that the decision means that

He went on to point out that

I hope that the Government agree and are already working on such alternatives. Subscribers in many parts of my constituency would dream of having the fuzzy analogue television pictures mentioned in The Guardian article, and we would be concerned if even that provision were to be lost.
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The Minister will be aware that the independent Consumer Expert Group has called for at least 99.5 per cent. of the population in each region, and not just in the UK as a whole, to be able to receive digital at the point of switchover. Will he make clear the Government's position on that proposal? Does he accept that such a small shift in target would give a great deal of comfort and reassurance to people in the highlands and islands?

Communities in my constituency are split into three categories of television reception. First, most people in the main towns and villages have reasonably good analogue reception and have the option of converting to digital by purchasing a freeview set-top box. Secondly, some people can receive analogue reception, but cannot use freeview through the digibox. That is true of many households in many parts of communities such as Yell, Brae and Unst in Shetland, and for some people living in parts of Hoy, Orphir, Longhope, Westray and Evie in Orkney. Finally, there are some communities, in Graemsay in Orkney and Ollaberry in Shetland, in particular, who have no analogue reception at present. They rely on satellites to access the main terrestrial channels. Digital switchover will affect each of those groups differently.

The first group will experience the process pretty much as will most people in the rest of the country, and my main concern in those communities is for the vulnerable groups. The second group, who have analogue reception at present but no set-top box option, causes me some concern. I am concerned about the incentives to prepare for switchover. Given the 98.5 per cent. target, it is highly likely that after switchover some people in my constituency who cannot at present obtain television reception using aerials will be able to do so. Additionally, some people who can use aerials at present to access the main channels will not be able to do so after switchover. I fear that the second group may be larger than the first and that freeview set-top boxes, if I can call them that, will not work in large parts of Orkney and Shetland.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern for a constituency that is covered by the ITV Border region, which, as I understand it, would be the first to switch over in the region? There is a low level of public awareness about the switchover and about what individuals will have to do to continue to have television reception after it happens.

Mr. Carmichael : I am grateful for that intervention. Yes, I think that Border Television, the company that gave us "Mr and Mrs", is a broadcasting institution that deserves every protection. As to the hon. Gentleman's point about the level of awareness, we should be on a rising curve. If the Government can, by way of public information, put us on that rising curve, we should have no problem in the end. However, we are not there yet. The hon. Gentleman's concerns are legitimate, and he has done us a service in putting down a marker for the future.

The Minister may be aware that his predecessor, the Minister for Sport and Tourism answered a debate on digital switchover on 15 March. His only answer to
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some of the concerns that I have set out about constituents' predicament post-switchover was that there

I hope that, four months down the line, some of that work has been done. I should be interested to know where we stand on them today.

When will we be in a position to know who will be able to use digital terrestrial after switchover? Will we simply have to wait for switchover to happen before we know whether or not it is worth while buying a digital box? What will the Government do to assist the 1.5 per cent. of the population who will apparently not be able to access digital terrestrial? Colette Bowe, who chaired the Ofcom consumer panel that considered what measures might be necessary to protect vulnerable groups said last November:

With slightly more temperate language, I could not have put it better myself. Will the Government ensure that people unable to receive digital terrestrial are given the necessary financial support to receive freesat?

Those in my constituency who have no analogue TV reception were not able to watch ITV or Channels 4 and 5 for part of 2003 after Solus cards, the predecessor scheme, became obsolete. Previously, the BBC had offered services "in the clear" on satellite, but thereafter removed their funding for Solus cards.

If my recollection is right, an Adjournment debate on 21 October 2003, which I attended, was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid). In reply, the Minister for Sport and Tourism was able to announce that ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 had come forward with a replacement card. Those cards cost £20 plus VAT, and he assured the House that they would

So far as we can ascertain, the provision continues to be valued by my constituents, but does the Minister have any information on a longer-term solution? Are ITV and others working towards operating "in the clear" on satellite so that people who do not subscribe to Sky can receive the main terrestrial channels? Once digital switchover happens, will the 1.5 per cent. of the population who are unable to get digital terrestrial be treated fairly?

In the time that remains, I want to speak about helping vulnerable groups. Last week, the Minister announced a targeted assistance trial; I believe that it will be run in Bolton. I understand that it will consider the best way to assist vulnerable groups. Will that be the full extent of the trial, or will it be the first of many?

The Minister will be aware that the issues affecting people in Bolton are not necessarily those that affect people in more rural or island communities. Does he accept that there will be a benefit in running further trials to deal with the problems of people living in communities that are less urban than those currently being trialled? Of course, many of the issues would be
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the same, but I suggest that there will be particular difficulties helping the old or house-bound in places such as the Northern Isles.

The Minister will be aware that take-up of digital among the over-75s is especially low. Only 16 per cent. of households in that category had digital in 2003. When will the Government be in a position to outline what support will be provided to the elderly, disabled and those on low incomes? I am keen to allow the Minister as long as possible to respond to a number of my questions.

I finish with a query that relates more to radio than television. I have received a number of letters from constituents who feel frustrated that they receive repeated adverts promoting digital radio services to which they cannot gain access. In the longer term, do the Government hope to switch over radio services in the same way as television? Does the Minister think it acceptable that, although we pay the same licence fee to TV Licensing, we are effectively barred from some of the services provided by the BBC, which is supposedly a public service broadcaster?

1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (James Purnell) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate. He has been a long-term campaigner on the subject and I thank him for his co-operation in advance of the debate. I shall try to answer as many of the points that he raised as possible.

Access to digital broadcasts is probably one of the most dominant issues in my postbag. The Department receives hundreds of letters every month from members of the public who want freeview and digital terrestrial television but cannot yet receive it. The only answer that we can give them is that they will have to wait until digital switchover. That, in a nutshell, is why the switchover programme is so important; it extends choice and, as the hon. Gentleman says, it will ensure that as many people as possible have access to digital TV.

Digital TV has been a great success and it is already in 62 per cent. of homes. Mobile broadcasting trials are under way and the BBC recently trialled podcasting with its Beethoven experiment. Yet despite nearly two thirds of the country getting digital TV, there are still people who, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted, cannot receive a single television signal or who have to watch poor, ghostly pictures. That is a real problem for his constituents and those of some other hon. Members.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the Minister accept that the problems that my hon. Friend Member for Orkney and Shetland described also pertain to rural areas of Wales? The real difficulty is that the 1.5 per cent. of households—roughly 300,000—that have trouble with the signal tend to be grouped in rural areas, so there is a disproportionately high percentage of them in places such as Montgomeryshire and mid-Wales. I hope that he can give us an assurance that the Government are seriously seeking practical solutions to prevent as much as 20 or 30 per cent. of the population in some areas from being left out of the digital switchover.

James Purnell : That is a good point, and I am coming to it. The key issue is that, even now, some people do not
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have access to analogue signals, not because broadcasters or the Government are unwilling to provide them, but because the cost of reaching that last 1.5 per cent. of the population is exponentially greater than the cost of serving the rest of the population. It costs about as much to extend coverage from 92 to 96 per cent. as it does to reach 92 per cent. coverage, and it costs the same again to go up to 98.5 per cent., so that extra 2.5 per cent. coverage costs the same as 92 per cent. coverage. The last 1.5 per cent. is very difficult to reach. That is why the Government gave the guarantee that we would reach the same proportion of people after the digital switchover as we do now.

It is worth taking a little detour into the issue of the 99.5 per cent. versus the 98.5 per cent. The difference in the figures depends on how we define receiving television. The definition that the Government use is that people should be able to receive a good range of TV channels that are of good quality; that definition takes us to 98.5 per cent. coverage. The remainder can receive some signal, although it is not terribly good and would not be graded as receiving TV by the people in charge of the technical specifications. Our guarantee is therefore that we will reach 98.5 per cent. coverage.

In a world of unlimited funds, one could continue building transmitters to reach more and more people, but the question that we have to face in rolling out digital television is how best to reach people. As we go forward, we need to consider the other technologies that are available. As the hon. Gentleman said, satellite is important, and take-up is higher in areas where people currently have less good analogue reception. Work is also being done on technologies for delivering television over electricity lines, and there is a technology called WiMAX, which is a wireless form of access to television. There is the potential to serve people more efficiently; what we need to do is balance the desirability of universal coverage against the practicability of providing it.

If digital terrestrial will not reach everybody, that highlights the important points that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made about the practicability of satellite and other options. Let me therefore turn to the issues that he raised, particularly digital satellite.

Mr. Carmichael : Before the Minister moves on from the coverage target, will he make clear his position on meeting regional, rather than UK-wide targets?

James Purnell : I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about that. We currently have national targets and we will investigate whether it is practicable to have regional targets, but I cannot give him a guarantee at the moment.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, digital satellite is no longer just a pay option. People can now receive the public service channels through satellite in a kind of freesat option offered by Sky. There was real concern when Solus cards stopped being an option, but people can now purchase the kit to provide, in effect, a free satellite option. The hon. Gentleman asked how long such an option could be guaranteed. At present, it is guaranteed for a minimum of two years. Therefore, there is now a reasonable option to get public service channels through satellite, and, post-switchover, that may be the best way for some of his constituents to access those services.
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The hon. Gentleman wanted to know what progress ITV, for example, is making on providing services in the clear. I understand that ITV has a problem with rights, in that it has rights to broadcast a proportion of its programmes only in the UK. If it were to broadcast on satellite, those programmes would be available outside the UK, and it would either have to take them off or increase the amount that it spends on programmes. We are happy that the BBC has agreed to go in the clear, as that solves part of the problem. I understand that the difference between the BBC and ITV is that the BBC has a much smaller proportion of programmes that are affected by rights, and it gets around the problem by not showing such programmes on satellite. For ITV, at about two hours of programming a week, the problem is more significant. We would encourage any solution, but the best option at present is for people to pursue the freesat option. With a cost that is comparable with the digital terrestrial option and with the two-year guarantee, that option is attractive to a significant number of people.

There are alternatives for people who cannot get digital terrestrial television, but we take seriously the hon. Gentleman's argument that more must be done. Ofcom is working with the broadcasters on specific technological solutions to increase coverage in certain areas. In fact, there are already many ad hoc arrangements—for example, a village got together to buy an aerial to boost the signal. As we go through the digital switchover, we will need to work through what can be done in particular cases, but, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands that technical exercise must be led by people who understand the technology rather than by politicians. People will not have only one option available to them. As I said, other solutions are coming through, such as new DSL technologies, including the new ADSL2, and experiments with broadband internet carried through the electricity lines. There will be a patchwork of provision.

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a guarantee for every household in his constituency, and I am aware that there will be frustration for each constituent who is not able to receive digital TV. However, I am confident that the vast majority—more than at present—will be able to do so. We will provide information in good time on whether people will be able to receive digital pictures. That information will include detailed postcode information, and I hope that there will be some technological means by which people can check before they buy a set-top box whether it would be a good investment. As I said, almost all the hon. Gentleman's constituents will be able to watch BBC and ITV digital programmes in one way or another. The figure may well be more than 98.5 per cent.. Although we cannot give a guarantee for every household, I hope that I have given him some comfort.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Will the Minister comment on the timetable of the digital switchover? It is of particular importance for Scotland, as the borders area is due to be switched over in 2008 and the rest of Scotland in 2009. In particular, will he discuss what steps he will take regarding affordability—for
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example, for those households that currently receive analogue but may not have upgraded to digital in three or four years' time?

James Purnell : Those are good points. I shall deal with them later in my speech, if I may.

A final point on analogue signals is that we will have to consider aerials, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said. That is important, but we believe that only about 5 per cent. of people need to upgrade their aerial to receive the DTT signal. However, to achieve that we must complete the digital switchover. It is the only way to increase the coverage of DTT. Until we switch off the analogue signals we cannot increase the power of digital signals. We made a firm manifesto commitment that that will happen between 2008 and 2012. The Government are committed to it, and broadcasters and transmission operators are working with manufacturers and retailers. We can give a clear guarantee that it will happen between 2008 and 2012.

In response to the point made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), we shall make an announcement about the timetable shortly. We had, however, given a commitment to let people know what our package for the vulnerable would be. We want to make both commitments clear at the same time, so that is why we are not confirming the timetable right now. We must be able to confirm both commitments in tandem.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked whether the trials would include the consideration of rural areas. I can reassure him that they will. The trial already undertaken in Ferryside and Llansteffan took place in an area that had many of the features that he described. Bolton has some rural areas and there are some outlying farms, but we shall continue in the wards that we are considering. We have already undertaken a trial in Wales. I know that conditions are not exactly the same as in his constituency, but there was a genuine parallel and we shall continue to consider the points that emerged as the trials progress.

One encouraging feature of the trial was that once people had experienced digital TV, they were overwhelmingly supportive of it. About 99 per cent. of people voted to keep digital TV, which shows that whatever people's concerns about it, once they experience the extra channels and, for example, the advantage of being able to watch extra tennis matches on the BBC by pressing the red button, they value the services. However, we must continue to communicate the benefits of switchover, and we are working with a new organisation, Switchco, which was created by broadcasters and the supply chain to lead the implementation of switchover, to ensure that everyone gets all the information they need.

Although the vast majority of viewers need only a source of good information to help them through switchover, some people will need more than information, which is the point that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland was making about vulnerable people. Although take-up is about 60 per cent. among the population as a whole, it is only slightly more than 30 per cent. among the over-75s. The elderly may need help to understand what they have to do when they receive a set-top box to install their boxes, to check their
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aerials, or to use their new equipment, and we acknowledge that a few people might also need financial assistance. As we said in the Green Paper on the future of the BBC, we shall require the BBC to establish and fund schemes for the most vulnerable consumers.

Some people might presume that the vast majority of elderly people need assistance with the technology, but in Ferryside such a presumption turned out to be wrong. It is easy to overestimate the difficulty that older people have using technology. We found that about 20 per cent. of the pilot group needed help and that most of them were able to deal with the issues by using a telephone helpline. In Bolton we are trialling not just the provision of information over the phone, but visits in person. We are considering the most appropriate way to help, whether it is through social workers, charities or other organisations. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, we shall launch a trial of targeted assistance in Bolton this autumn; we shall use that to work with about 250 to 300 households to identify any further issues on which we need to build.

I have addressed as many of the hon. Gentleman's questions as I can. We cannot give a guarantee for every single one of his constituents, but we can guarantee that we shall continue the current coverage. We believe that more people than now will be able to access the digital public service channels and we shall continue to introduce digital terrestrial services. At the same time, we shall work with the new technologies, so that the coverage achieved through a patchwork of technologies will reduce the problems that his constituents face and result in there being less concern about digital terrestrial services than there has been about analogue transmissions.

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