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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (James Purnell): May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing this debate, and on the cogent way in which he made his case? I welcome the support from everyone who spoke in our debate for the commitment to switchover, which was universally welcomed. Rather than express opposition to the concept itself, Members were concerned that digital access will not extend far enough. The fact that Wales is one of the first two regions to go down that route was welcomed. Wales leads the world in the amount of digital TV that it receives, as 70 per cent. of households have digital TV sets—no other nation has such a high a percentage. There is therefore a genuine opportunity for Wales and the border region, when they go first in 2008, to secure leading-edge advantages for the local economy. I encourage hon. Members to work with the regional development agency, local authorities and the Welsh Assembly to make sure that Wales capitalises on that economic opportunity.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the digital switchover in September this year. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, that announcement confirmed that HTV Wales would be switched off in 2009. We decided that Wales should be one of the first to switch over because 43 per cent. of homes in Wales—nearly double the national average of 25 per cent.—cannot gain access to digital terrestrial television. We receive hundreds of letters every month from the constituents of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House complaining about the fact that they cannot gain access to digital terrestrial television. Without the digital switchover we could not respond to those concerns, because we would be unable to extend digital coverage.

Of course, many people prefer to receive their digital TV via satellite, cable or, in some areas, via broadband. In Wales, many viewers have already opted for satellite services. Some have done so specifically to resolve longstanding reception difficulties, including the lack of availability of Channel 4 on analogue in Wales, and to receive new digital services. For many other people, however, digital TV through an aerial is still the cheapest and most convenient option, which is why we are committed to extending the service.

Extending digital terrestrial in Wales is particularly challenging. Terrestrial reception requires a line of sight to a transmitter, but the hills and valleys in much of Wales make that difficult to achieve with ground-based transmitters. The solution adopted during the 1960s and 1970s was to build a network of relay transmitters to boost coverage, and there are more than 200 relay transmitters in Wales—a far higher number than in any other TV region. It would be fantastic to extend digital TV coverage without switching off analogue, but we are unable to do so. Only by removing analogue from the equation can we enable the digital network to be replanned and allow digital transmissions to use
 
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frequencies that are cleared internationally for high-powered use. That will be a huge amount of work. Removing analogue will create space for the network of 1,154 transmitters, including those small relay stations, to be upgraded.

This means that at switchover the same proportion of homes as can currently receive analogue services—that is, 98.5 per cent. of homes—will be able to receive channels on the three public service multiplexes. We have been clear that that is our commitment to universal coverage ever since Chris Smith laid down those criteria when he announced the Government's commitment in principle to digital switchover.

We recognise that for the 1.5 per cent. of homes that have no access to services, the figure of 98.5 per cent. offers no comfort. Even if it is a small number of households relative to the whole country, it is still extremely frustrating for people who do not have reception. Being able to play pub quizzes may be a compensating advantage, but it does not make up for being unable to receive television in Machynlleth or anywhere else.

In Wales digital terrestrial coverage will increase from around 57 per cent. to match current analogue coverage, which in Wales will be 97.4 per cent. It will be slightly lower than in the rest of the country because that is the current percentage. I recognise the point that the hon. Member for Ceredigion makes. We are seized of the need to see what can be done to help the remaining 1.5 per cent. Clearly, a number of them can currently receive satellite television, but we are working with Ofcom to conduct further research to find other ways of extending digital TV to those households.

Many homes are considering installing a taller or higher spec aerial or booster. Self-help schemes have sprung up around much of the country, allowing small communities to install their own community relays at their own expense to extend analogue TV into their locations. However, over recent months some of those schemes have started to fold as more and more people tip over into getting satellite TV. That can make self-help schemes unsustainable. Nevertheless, we will continue to work with Ofcom to see what can be done through self-help schemes and other technological solutions to expand coverage to that 1.5 per cent. We are confident that the eventual coverage will be even higher than the current rate for analogue television.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we are not extending the digital terrestrial transmitter network even further. It is a matter of cost effectiveness. We have already been criticised for our plans to extend digital terrestrial coverage to the 98.5 per cent. There were representations to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee recently, to the effect that instead of expanding digital terrestrial, we should rely on satellite for the last 10 or 20 per cent. The hon. Gentleman would probably agree that that would be of little comfort to his constituents, particularly those who are unable to receive satellite television because of proximate hills or buildings. Because of that concern, we have committed to go to 98.5 per cent., but to go further would, we believe—and Ofcom shares that belief—mean investing in transmission facilities which could not be justified on cost-effective grounds. That is why we are exploring other solutions such as satellite and self-help schemes, and even piloting the use of electricity wires to distribute television.
 
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On the point made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), we discussed that during the session on the issue. Of course it is frustrating for people who want to access Welsh services if they can get only English-language services. It is a difficult issue to resolve, as the mountains in the area shield those households from the Welsh transmitters. The Welsh services are available on satellite, which, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion rightly says, can already be accessed free from Sky, and the BBC and ITV are planning a freesat service, which we hope will help.

We will continue to look into the matter, and I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman to see whether there have been any new developments. That is the answer that I can give him with regard to the 1.5 per cent.—the important minority of people who cannot get access to analogue television. We are confident that we will be able to provide access to more people. I cannot guarantee that we will be able to provide digital terrestrial access to everybody, but we are working with Ofcom and we will be happy to continue to work with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on seeing what we can do to provide further coverage.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Tony Cunningham.]

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that preparations for digital switchover are extremely important and, like him, we have great confidence in the work that Digital UK is doing to ensure that there is full awareness of the switchover process. He will be happy to know that Digital UK has already started to advertise, both regionally and nationally. It is being very competently led by Ford Ennals and his team, and we have great confidence in their ability to carry out that task. He may be interested to know that Digital UK is planning to start its regional campaign in Wales in the first half of 2006, so that is imminent and I hope that that will reassure him that we are focusing on trying to ensure that his constituents are aware of the switchover date.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the targeted help schemes. We had to make some trade-offs when we were making the decision about whom to include within the help scheme. It is important to understand that our starting point for that is not one of affordability. Based on the evidence and the research that we had, we thought that with the price of set-top boxes already falling and available for about £25, affordability would not be the key barrier to people going over to digital. We thought that the key barrier—again this was backed up by our research in Llansteffan and Ferryside—was technical understanding and people being able to obtain the new equipment, have it fitted and learn how to use it. That is why we focused on the people who our research highlighted as having the greatest technical barriers to being able to make the switch.


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