Digital switchover of television and radio in the United Kingdom - Communications Committee Contents

CHAPTER 3: The switchover of television in the UK

30.  This chapter outlines the arrangements for implementation of the digital switchover programme for television and progress on implementation.

Section one—the implementation of the switchover programme


31.  The core partners in the digital switchover programme are:

·  The Government: the Departments for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) have joint responsibility for the policy of digital switchover. They have an agreement with the BBC that the BBC should fund Digital UK's public communications campaign and manage the Help Scheme for vulnerable groups (see Appendix 4);

·  Digital UK: Digital UK[19] is responsible for leading the implementation of switchover by coordinating the switchover activities of broadcasters and transmission companies; and running the public communications campaign. It is an independent, not-for-profit organisation established in April 2005 at the request of Government; and

·  Ofcom: the communications regulator is responsible for the regulatory regime for switchover through licensing broadcasters and spectrum management. Under the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom has an obligation to require public service broadcasters (except the BBC, which is governed by its Royal Charter) to replace analogue broadcasts with digital broadcasts, through the issuing of new broadcast licences.


32.  Digital switchover policy has three core objectives[20]:

(i)  Conversion of television transmitters to provide near universal coverage of digital television

The UK's entire network of 1,154 terrestrial television transmitter sites needs to be converted to digital in order to provide near universal coverage (98.5 per cent of households). This requires major and complex engineering work to convert each of the transmitters. This programme is being delivered[21] by the privately-owned transmission company Arqiva[22], which owns the network. It is contracted by the broadcasters for the upgrade of the transmission system for digital switchover.

(ii)  Informing the public about digital switchover

Digital UK manages the communications campaign, informing consumers, in advance of switchover, through a series of mailings to every household combined with national and regional advertising campaigns and regional roadshow events[23]. The Government directed that £200m from within the 2007-13 BBC licence fee settlement be used to fund the campaign. Digital UK provides, through the Digital Outreach programme[24], tailored switchover information, support and outreach to up to 12 million people identified as potentially vulnerable, but not eligible for the Help Scheme. Those targeted include people with mobility impairments; those with learning difficulties; the socially isolated; those who speak English as a second language; and certain older people under 75.

The communications campaign also involves providing consumers with information, at the point of sale, about suitable equipment for purchase. The 'digital tick' logo[25] on digital television equipment, launched by the Government in 2004, provides consumers with assurance that the products will work after switchover.

(iii)  Provision of assistance to vulnerable consumers

The Government-devised Help Scheme was primarily intended to address physical and cognitive needs rather than financial needs[26]. The key features of the scheme are outlined in Appendix 4.

There were two possible sources of funding for the Help Scheme: public service broadcasters or central government. The Government decided that the BBC should administer the scheme[27], that it should be funded through the television licence fee, and that £603m over the period of the 2007-13 licence fee settlement should be used for this purpose. The BBC set up a wholly owned subsidiary company, Digital Switchover Help Scheme Limited (DSHS Limited) to subcontract[28] and oversee the delivery of the scheme.

Section two: How television switchover has gone so far


33.  Four out of fourteen television regions have completed switchover (as at the end of March 2010)—Border, West Country, Wales and Granada, which amounts to 21 per cent of the UK population. According to David Scott, Chief Executive of Digital UK, (who gave evidence and figures as at January 2010), the switchover in each region has gone well. "So far we are 18 per cent of our way through this process but all the indications are that the digital television switchover project is on track and will conclude on time, and will be well within its budget" (Q 74).

34.  Other witnesses agreed that switchover was generally proceeding smoothly. Siôn Simon, then Minister for Creative Industries, told us that it had been conducted with very little difficulty so far. "I am wary of being hubristic or complacent because it is the kind of massive undertaking in which it is always possible for something to go wrong, but so far I do think it is 20 per cent of the way through and it seems to have been conducted, as far as consumers are concerned, with very little difficulty" (Q 551).

35.  At the time of writing, Granada was the biggest region to have switched over. The Government said the Granada switchover was a significant milestone involving over three million homes, and raising the percentage of UK switched over from seven to 18 per cent (p 148). Initial indications were that the vast majority switched with no difficulty. Channel 4 agreed, noting that Granada was always seen as the big test of the digital switchover programme by Digital UK and that it was completed successfully with minimum disruption (p 189). Digital UK told us that a formal evaluation of the Granada Switchover will be completed in April 2010 (p 13).

36.  Progress on switchover has benefited from market decisions of consumers. When the Government announced the switchover programme in 2005, 66 per cent of UK households already had at least one television set capable of receiving digital services. This rose to 88 per cent by the start of switchover in autumn 2008 (p 38). Therefore, many households had made the switchover voluntarily in advance of their area switchover date. Evidence from Five said that the switchover process had been "helped immeasurably" by the consumer's voluntary take-up of digital television (p 190). David Scott told us "I think that as we go through the process we are working with the grain of the market place" (Q 25).

37.  We welcome the fact that, so far, the television switchover programme is running to time. The programme is only about a fifth of the way through and only one major urban area so far switched over. It is too early to confirm the entire process as a success, but the progress so far has been encouraging. It has been greatly helped by the voluntary take up of digital television by the public.


Changes to the broadcasting infrastructure

38.  The extension of digital coverage to 98.5 per cent of the population requires large scale technological change in the infrastructure used to broadcast television programmes and the equipment that consumers use to receive them.

Build-out of the digital transmitter network

39.  We were told that build-out of the infrastructure is running to time and to budget. The BBC said that "switchover is the most challenging broadcast engineering project ever undertaken in the UK" (p 99), but that despite its scale and complexity it is progressing as expected and on time. David Scott told us that Digital UK has complete confidence in finishing on target (Q 20).

40.  David Scott went on to say that, because switchover is highly dependent on the build-out of the digital transmitter network, once dates are set for each region they are extremely difficult to move. The main element which affected the transmitter project was the weather, and contingencies were built in to deal with this. So far, Digital UK had been able to cope with the recent wet summers and snowy winters without getting behind in its schedules (Q 20).

Digital television equipment

41.  There are two main reasons why the equipment needed to receive digital television can prove more difficult for viewers to use than analogue television equipment. First, it is necessary to re-tune equipment in order to receive the digitally broadcast channels. This can pose a challenge, particularly as it may need to be done several times. Secondly, installation and use of equipment can prove problematic as digital television requires the use of menus and prompts which may be difficult for some viewers to use.


42.  The re-tuning of digital televisions and set-top boxes has emerged as the most difficult problem faced by some viewers who have switched over from analogue to digital television. Digital UK told us that re-tuning can cause difficulties because it is a new experience for people, but that the proportion reporting problems is very small: "We normally find that about one per cent of homes in the area will telephone us on switchover day asking for advice and information. The matter which they on the whole find difficult is how to retune their Freeview equipment, which they may have had installed for some years but not have retuned and so it is a new experience for them" (Q 17).

43.  A number of witnesses told us that consumer understanding had improved. Digital UK said that viewer understanding of retuning "improved significantly" after the national re-tune on 30 September 2009 (p 2). The BBC told us that, as a result of the national re-tune in 2009, Digital UK has assembled re-tuning guides for more than 300 different devices, and that management of re-tuning had now become a routine task (p 99). Channel 4 also suggested that issues relating to re-tuning were initially underestimated by Digital UK, but that this was recognised in early 2009, and messages had been successfully adapted (p 189).

44.  Digital UK told us that the Help Scheme would now include a set-top box which will help resolve the re-tuning issue for the scheme's beneficiaries. Peter White, Chief Executive of the Digital Switchover Help Scheme (DSHS), said, "… we are just about to introduce a new Freeview box ... That box really copes well with re-tuning" (Q 1).

45.  Age Concern, however, was not convinced that the re-tuning issue had been solved. It thought that re-tuning continued to be an issue in the Granada area and that insufficient practical support for re-tuning was available. They felt that this problem was exacerbated for those with dexterity or sight problems (p 116).

46.  We note that a small proportion of viewers are having problems with digital equipment. The main problem is re-tuning but we believe this is being addressed by Digital UK, which has improved its communications about the issue. Whilst we were made aware that some viewers have experienced re-tuning problems in the course of switchover, we conclude that, so far, the proportion of viewers experiencing these problems appears to be small and Digital UK is working to resolve the issues where possible.

Difficulty of installation and use of equipment

47.  Consumer Focus said that there was a "hidden complexity" to digital switchover for consumers in that many struggled to understand what switching meant in practical terms. They also drew attention to the difference between knowing it was happening and knowing what to do when switchover happened. Consumers needed to find the best equipment option for them, find out how to install the equipment successfully, and deal with post-switchover changes. Consumer Focus saw a tension between usability and more sophisticated functionality of devices. Manufacturers tended to prioritise increased complexity and technical add-ons over ease of use (p 118).

48.  The RNIB highlighted the difficulty for the blind and partially sighted in navigating channels via on-screen menus (p 125). Leen Petré, Principal Manager of RNIB said, "you need that information in a multi-channel environment to be able to know which channel you are on and to know what programmes are on and to make your selection" (Q 445). This can be solved by using text to speech technology, but the RNIB have had to invest £1m to bring such a solution to the market (p 125).

49.  Ofcom thought that a "small but significant minority" of viewers experienced some disruption with switching to digital, adding that many of the problems related to equipment that was difficult to operate or poor quality household installations (p 38).

Digital transmission problems

50.  Digital transmission raised a number of issues for viewers, including receiving transmissions from more than one television region; receiving a varying number of channels depending on location; and issues with poor reception.

Receiving channels from a different region

51.  Ofcom told us that some viewers get services from a different region or part of the UK, as well as their own region (referred to as regional overlap) (p 34). In effect, such viewers were being served by two or more transmitters. Digital UK pointed out that this was not a specifically digital problem. However, it meant that, post-switchover, some viewers found that their preferred region's services appeared lower down the list on their electronic programme guide (p 13).

52.  Digital UK said that regional overlap affected up to four per cent of homes in the Granada region, which received Welsh channels at the top of their electronic programme guides, rather than the channels transmitted from England, to which they were accustomed (p 2). Digital UK expected this to be an issue in the West region, which will switchover in spring 2010. Whilst these regional overlap issues were anticipated, David Scott of Digital UK acknowledged that they were not straightforward to deal with (Q 28). Age Concern reported that there was ongoing confusion about regional overlaps in the Granada region (Q 443).

Varying number of channels

53.  We were told that 90 per cent of the population will receive all the digital channels available on Freeview after switchover, but 10 per cent of the population would receive only fifteen to twenty channels. Ofcom went on to say that this has caused some of the latter group to feel that they are being unfairly treated (p 39). However, Greg Bensberg, Senior Adviser, Digital Switchover, Ofcom also pointed out that "the minimum policy we set for the public broadcasters going on to digital terrestrial and into switchover was that the public services had to be available to everybody who was currently on analogue television" (Q 251).

54.  Digital UK explained that it has raised the profile of public information concerning Freeview channel line-ups in all its publicity and information and that "criticism of the binary variation in channel line-ups on the Freeview platform has abated although not disappeared entirely" (p 13).

Poor reception

55.  A small number of households have been left without any signal on switchover, or believe that their reception is poorer than analogue services (p 189). One difference between experiencing poor reception on digital and on analogue is that a poor digital signal may mean no reception at all whereas, with analogue, poor reception tends to mean a fuzzy, but often acceptable, picture. In cases where there are intractable tuning or reception problems Peter White confirmed that the Help Scheme can provide "Freesat or a satellite service from Sky" (Q 38).

56.  We have received letters from members of the public in Cornwall who were having issues with poor reception several months after the West Country switchover had begun, in September 2009. Problems included pixelation; picture freezing; blank screens; varying number of channels and sound failures. One member of the public said, "We expected our reception to get better at switchover, but it has got very much worse. The picture pixelates, the sound frequently comes and goes at different times and we frequently get no picture at all for many seconds at a time".

57.  Whether or not these problems are widespread, and even if they are likely to be temporary, the situation is clearly unsatisfactory and represents poor value for individual licence fee payers who are not getting the service they have paid for. We recommend that the Government, working with Digital UK, gives urgent attention to publicising the available solutions to the minority of people who experience difficulties in receiving a digital television signal.

Informing the public about switchover

58.  Whilst general awareness and understanding of switchover is high, there were some issues with the communications campaign that still need resolving. These include: fragmented sources of information; inconsistency of information and retailer knowledge at the point of sale; and scope for improvement in the community outreach aspect of the campaign.

The Communications Campaign

59.  Representatives from consumer groups told us that the communications campaign had in the main been successful and has been adjusted and improved with experience. Digital UK said that it consulted with the Consumer Expert Group (CEG)[29] on its communications plans to help ensure that communications were clear and accessible, and that alternative formats were available where appropriate (p 14). Consumer Focus thought the communications campaign had largely been successful and that Digital UK took on board advice from the CEG as it went along (Q 462).

60.  Digital UK said that there is likely to be an underspend on the communications campaign budget of about £55m (out of £200m) over the switchover period (Q 1). This was in part due to the fact that Digital UK "are trying to tighten our communications and make them more efficient the whole time" (Q 10).

Consumer understanding and awareness of switchover

61.  The Ofcom/Digital UK tracker survey measures regional readiness for switchover among consumers. The latest survey (progress to Q4 2008) shows that awareness and understanding of switchover is high—at the end of 2008, more than 9 in 10 people were aware of digital switchover. The survey also reports that switchover date announcements have, as expected, driven understanding of regional switchover timings.

62.  The Ofcom Consumer Panel[30] found, unsurprisingly, that the technically confident have a much clearer sense of what digital switchover is and what the process entails. Conversely, those who are technically unsupported have low levels of understanding, no-one to ask for help and a lack of knowledge about where to go for information. This group tends to include those who are over 75 or who have physical or cognitive impairments.

Sources of information

63.  Consumer Focus drew attention to two problems: most information is provided online, which excludes those without internet access; and there is no single authoritative source of information and advice for consumers (p 119). Digital UK, broadcasters, manufacturers and the Help Scheme all produce helpful guides, but it is difficult for the consumer to establish whether sources are independent of the 'digital industry'.

Retailer preparedness for switchover and the sale of digital equipment

64.  Witnesses from the consumer sector thought that consumers were not always given adequate information at the point of purchase. Consumer Focus Scotland research concluded that vulnerable consumers were not well informed or prepared early enough for the process of switchover (p 193). It concluded that retailers were not consistently prepared for switchover and not all were giving consumers adequate information at the point of purchase. However, it acknowledged that the 'digital tick' scheme went some way to providing the consumer with independent assurance of quality and compatibility of the device with switchover.

65.  Leen Petré thought that inadequate point of sale advice had led to some consumers buying inappropriate equipment, for example equipment that was too complex for an older relative. She said that "people went out and bought digiboxes for their older relatives that were not suitable: that maybe did not have a subtitle button, that maybe had text on the screen that was not in the right colour contrast" (Q 462).

66.  Alison Hopkins, Principal Policy Advocate at Consumer Focus added that the CEG advised that retailers need to give further explanation of equipment to vulnerable groups, but this was not happening (Q 471). Both RNIB and Consumer Focus suggested that a set of questions, possibly in the form of a checklist contained in a leaflet, could be provided at the point of sale. The checklist would tell consumers about what digital products can deliver, explain the different features and help them to make better informed decisions (p 137).

67.  We heard contrasting views on whether mis-selling of digital television equipment has been a problem. There is some evidence from research conducted by Consumer Focus Wales that consumers may have paid for new equipment and aerials that they did not need. Tim Leech, Chief Executive of W4B, also told us of mis-selling of digital aerials (Q 447). On the other hand, Age Concern said there were many fewer instances of mis-selling of equipment than anticipated (p 116). Sarah Shannon, Regional Adviser (North West) at Age Concern, gave some specific examples, but concluded "generally our feeling on the ground was that it was not as bad as potentially it could have been and as we feared when we set out" (Q 469).

Effectiveness of Digital Outreach

68.  The final concern about the communications campaign was the effectiveness of Digital Outreach, the organisation created to raise awareness and understanding of digital switchover for eligible individuals amongst potentially vulnerable consumers and citizens.

69.  Consumer Focus explained that Digital Outreach plugs the gap between the Help Scheme and more general community needs. It trains volunteers, provides information to potentially vulnerable people, and organises public meetings, home visits, and switchover help centres. However vulnerable people are not always referred and public awareness is patchy (p 120).

70.  Sarah Shannon thought that there had been some duplication of resources with the Help Scheme. "There was a certain amount of overlap in that the same groups would be contacted more than once. There is certainly a need to look at that and to make it more co-ordinated, so that we work more together in raising awareness of the whole issue and not just one bit or the other bit" (Q 458).

71.  The communications campaign seems generally to be working well, but improvements might be made in three areas. First, Digital UK needs to make more information about switchover available in hard copy and through voluntary organisations as well as online. Second, Digital UK should provide more information at the point of sale to help customers choose digital television equipment suitable for their needs. Third, Digital UK should coordinate more effectively with Digital Outreach and the Help Scheme operators. We recommend that Digital UK, the BBC, the electronic retail sector and the voluntary sector should jointly consider these three suggestions.

The Help Scheme

72.  The Help Scheme helps people switch one of their television sets to digital. Those eligible for support include: an individual aged 75 or over; or who is entitled to disability living allowance; attendance allowance; constant attendance allowance; or mobility supplement; or living in a care home for six months or more; or who is registered blind or partially sighted. Seven million people are expected to qualify for the Help Scheme.

Underspend due to much lower take-up than anticipated

73.  The Government originally estimated that around 4.7m people would take up the assistance provided by the Help Scheme[31]. The take-up of the Help Scheme has only been 18 per cent of those eligible as opposed to the 65 per cent forecast when the scheme was devised. DSHS told us that this is likely to result in an underspend of £250m-£300m (Q 1). The Government is consulting with the BBC Trust on how the emerging underspend can be redeployed (p 148).

74.  Caroline Thomson, Chief Operating Officer of the BBC, offered two reasons for this underspend: people switched to digital of their own accord in much larger numbers than expected; and the price of set-top boxes came down a lot, so people bought them themselves thinking that the Scheme did not offer any additional benefits (Q 378).

75.  The BBC said that it is not wise to assume that take up will remain at 18 per cent, or to be categorical about the final level of underspend when less than a fifth of the UK has been through switchover (p 103). Peter White agreed and told us that spend on the Help Scheme could increase: "... we have had a change including care homes, which brings additional cost. We have also just finished research that shows there are some people who are still struggling with switchover that we would like to help, and we think it would be a good thing to help. We think that that is probably an additional five to ten per cent of the eligible people that probably could benefit from our help" (Q 1).

76.  Siôn Simon MP thought the underspend on the Help Scheme was the biggest lesson to be learned from television switchover: "I think on the macro level, the most obvious thing to go back to is the extent of the miscalculation of the Help Scheme fund. I think it is much better that it was miscalculated that way round and I think there are very good and understandable reasons, the principal one of which is that digital TV take-up in 2005, when the analysis was done, was 65 per cent and now it is at 90 per cent, and obviously that is a completely different context for the Help Scheme, and procurement came in at £100 million less, which one could never anticipate" (Q 552).

Who bears the cost?

77.  Our predecessor Committee, The House of Lords BBC Charter Review Committee[32], argued strongly in its report of March 2006 that the Help scheme should have been financed from general taxation and not the BBC licence fee. The Committee pointed out that those aged over 75 already benefited from a form of targeted help in that they were exempt from paying for their licence fee. The cost of exempting the over 75s is covered by the general taxpayer. The Committee said : " We can see no reason why help for the over 75s, and other vulnerable viewers, with the costs of switchover should be borne by the BBC when the Government already accepts that it is responsible for bearing the costs of the licence fee for over 75s".

78.  The Government rejected this proposal and similar arguments used by others in the consultation on the BBC's Charter. The result is that the money has been raised by a regressive tax—which is what the licence fee is. In addition it is estimated that over £300m will have been raised through the licence fee above what is necessary for the Help Scheme and the communications strategy. We strongly recommend that any scheme for digital radio similar to the Digital Swichover Help Scheme should be funded through general taxation.

Overall progress of the Help Scheme

79.  On the success of the Scheme generally, the BBC said that it had operated very successfully since its inception, and that installations of digital equipment had been completed with a very high degree of customer satisfaction—93.8 per cent of customers rated their willingness to recommend the scheme at over 8 out of 10 (p 102).

80.  Leen Petré told us that the shape of the Help Scheme was the right one, and that the three components of it had worked well: the provision of user-friendly equipment; the support with installation of equipment; and training in the use of the equipment as well as ongoing telephone support. She said that the quarter of a million people that the Help Scheme has helped would not have been able to make the switchover without it (Q 448).

The Help Scheme's publicity

81.  Nevertheless, we received some criticism of the working of the Scheme. Sarah Shannon said that, because the scheme and what it included were not publicised effectively, friends or family were buying equipment for relatives who could have qualified for the Help Scheme. The RNIB argued that it would be beneficial to advertise the Help Scheme nationally rather than by targeted mailshots (p 125). The CEG agreed that the Help Scheme should be advertised nationally but had received no response from Digital UK to its recommendation on this issue (Q 466). We recommend that Digital UK should review what improvements can be made in publicising the Help Scheme.

Inclusion of aftercare as part of the scheme

82.  The consumer groups had different appreciations of the aftercare offered by the Help Scheme. Consumer Focus said the Help Scheme was not designed to deal with post-installation problems, which left a gap in support. It also did not extend to day-to-day problems such as re-tuning, re-setting timers, which are a particular challenge to deaf or blind people (p 119). Sarah Shannon said that there was aftercare but that it only lasted for one month after switchover (Q 451). This was also W4B's understanding of the aftercare support provided by the Help Scheme (p 121). These misconceptions demonstrate that some of the details of the aftercare support within the Help Scheme have not been made clear. For the BBC said that, in fact, the Help Scheme provided free aftercare for a year after installation (p 102). The Help Scheme operator, DSHS, confirmed this (Q 52). We recommend that the details of the Help Scheme's aftercare are communicated clearly by the Digital Switchover Help Scheme to relevant voluntary sector organisations as well as to Help Scheme beneficiaries.

19   Digital UK is a private company limited by guarantee and owned by the BBC, ITV Network Ltd, Channel Four TV Corp, Channel 5 Broadcasting Ltd, S4C, Teletext Ltd, SDN Ltd and Arqiva Back

20   Preparations for Digital Switchover, Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, HC 306, 2007-08 Back

21   Initially the programme was going to be jointly delivered by Arqiva and National Grid Wireless, but Arqiva acquired National Grid Wireless in 2007 and traded under the brand name Arqiva from 2008 Back

22   Arqiva Ltd is owned by a consortium of eight shareholder groups, the two largest being Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) with a 48% holding and Macquarie European Infrastructure Fund 2 (MEIF 2) with 21%.Various other Macquarie-managed funds account for 13%, Industry Funds Management (IFM) has almost 13% and Motor Trades Association of Australia (MTAA) holds 5%. Back

23   The commercial PSBs also are required through their licences to inform viewers about switchover, but they are not contributing to Digital UK's communications campaign budget. Back

24   It awarded a £2.9m contract in 2008, to Digital Outreach to deliver the programme with a consortium of voluntary sector organisations. Services offered include training, information provision, meetings, events, home visits and help centres. Back

25   In September 2004, the then Department of Trade and Industry launched a 'digital tick' certification mark to enable manufacturers and retailers to use (under licence), to help consumers identify digital television products and services that are designed to work through switchover. Digital UK administers and coordinates key elements of the scheme on behalf of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. Back

26   Preparations for Digital Switchover, Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, HC 306, 2007-08 Back

27   It did this through the Green Paper: Review of the BBC's Royal Charter (March 2005), in which the Government stated the intention to ask the BBC to help implement and pay for a scheme that will ensure that no one is left behind at switchover. Back

28   DSHS Limited subcontracts the running of the Help Scheme to Eaga plc Back

29   The Consumer Expert Group is made up of representatives of consumer and disability organisations. It was appointed in 2003, by the then Broadcasting Minister, Lord McIntosh, to advise the Government on consumer issues relating to digital switchover of television. Back

30   Going digital: supporting consumers through digital switchover, December 2007 Back

31   Preparations for Digital Switchover, Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, HC 306, 2007-08 Back

32   The Review of the BBC's Royal Charter 1st report 2005-06 (HL 50)-Paragraph 200 Back

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