Digital Switchover (North-East Wales)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:13 am on 14th June 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism) 11:13 am, 14th June 2006

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. There is a need for a little head bashing, although not necessarily only inside the BBC and one or two of the other channels—it should take place across the whole industry.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about his constituents. I am sure he is out there every night, assiduously counting the number of satellite dishes going up. There are short-term issues that have to be addressed, but those must not mask our opportunity. He mentioned why people in his constituency and elsewhere may have gone digital—to access particular television stations. However, by the time digital switchover is completed in 2012, there will be literally scores of channels and opportunities of different kinds, not least through the potential of high-speed broadband.

As I mentioned, Microsoft Entertainment is exploring with British Telecom and others the kind of services that it might be able to bring into people's homes. That will make traditional terrestrial channels look like something from the ark. There is real excitement ahead.

My hon. Friends are right to point out the short-term problems, which are not inconsiderable. However, the potential is such that, by 2012, the argument will not be, "Why did the Government make us all do this?" People will look back and say that this Government were right to have had the foresight to get this done and that the opportunity they created was enormous.

To use my hon. Friend's term, we have to head bash among ourselves to make sure that the technology that we are encouraging people to have in their homes will match the kind of services in which they will be able to take part. If we have one particular problem, it is this. We begin the process in 2008 and end it in 2012, but the technology going into people's homes in 2008 will be different by 2012. That is not the Government's fault. None the less, it would be foolish for them not to recognise the changes and the speed with which the technology is changing.

I say to both my hon. Friends that it is significant that, in Wales, take-up has been high. I recognise what part of the reason for that is. None the less, 80 per cent. of Wales has already made the switch. It is worth recognising that that is probably to do with more than the problem of access to some television stations.

The high take-up in Wales is very good news, but it leaves us with the important issue of the 20 per cent. who will need to convert before Wales switches over in 2009. Although many people are now converting their second and third sets too, many have yet to convert at all. We the Government, the broadcasters, Digital UK, Ofcom—all the organisations involved in providing help—have a great deal to do between now and 2009, and I do not underestimate that. We must encourage people to take up digital TV and understand the barriers to which I have alluded.

As a Government, we remain platform-neutral. How people make the switch is up to them, although I recognise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda: for some people, satellite may be the only option because of where they live.

It is vital that we put out as much information as we can to try to help people. I welcome the national information campaign that Digital UK, the broadcasters' organisation for switchover, has launched. Between now and switchover, Digital UK will be communicating with every single TV viewing household in the country to help them to prepare for that change.

We must also ensure that nobody is left behind. That is why we are putting together a special assistance scheme, from all the work that we have done, specifically focused on those for whom conversion may be a problem. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham that we do not for one second underestimate issues around low-income households in the UK. However, from the evidence that we have seen, being in that bracket tends not to be the barrier to conversion. Age and disability tend to be—not exclusively, but by and large. For that reason, to make sure that the assistance scheme is appropriately targeted, we have decided to aim it at those groups.

I turn to the specific points raised by my hon. Friend. Extending digital terrestrial television in Wales is particularly challenging. The hills and valleys in much of Wales make that difficult to achieve with ground-based transmitters. There are more than 200 transmitters in Wales—a far greater concentration than anywhere else in the UK. At present, only nine carry digital signals, covering about 57 per cent. of the population.

That will all change at switchover, and I should like to make some specific points that I hope will reassure my hon. Friend. First, after switchover, the coverage of freeview services across the UK will greatly increase, reaching the same proportion of the population as analogue signals do today. In Wales, we expect digital terrestrial coverage to go from its present level of about 57 per cent. to about 96.7 per cent. of Welsh homes, a larger percentage increase than in any other part of the UK. Coverage will increase substantially in Wrexham because the Wrexham-Rhos transmitter, to which my hon. Friend alluded and which is currently analogue-only, will be converted to digital. Secondly, people who receive their signals from one of the Welsh transmitters will be able to receive all the public service broadcasting channels in their Welsh versions. Those include S4C, the relevant BBC channels, ITV Wales, Channel 4 and Five.

Thirdly, people who currently have a choice of English or Welsh transmitter should continue to have that choice after switchover, although the Wrekin transmitter, in the ITV Central region, will not convert until 2011. I should make clear that there is no plan to change the boundaries of ITV regions. I recognise that that means that some of my hon. Friend's constituents, who currently do not have a choice of region even with adjustments to their aerial, will not have it after switchover either. However, all the regional services are available on satellite.

All our experience shows that even viewers who were sceptical about digital TV liked it when they got it. This month marks the fifth anniversary of the BBC's first interactive TV service, which covered the 2001 Wimbledon championships. Last Saturday, digital viewers of England's match against Paraguay had a variety of interactive options as they watched the game. That is the point about digital TV—it is about creating choice and ensuring that consumers across the UK are able to enjoy the services that broadcasting companies, and many others now entering the ambit of television, will provide them. Analogue television is about viewers being given what they are served by the broadcasters. With digital, the viewer is in control. For example, HomeChoice video on demand, which gives access to vast libraries of material, is already with us. It will grow with initiatives such as Sky's link-up with Easynet and the BT-freeview hybrid.

Whatever platform we are talking about—digital terrestrial television, cable or satellite—digital will offer a greater choice of channels and services for people at home. FilmFour will soon come to the freeview platform, and will be joined by two new channels from Five. That choice makes freeview by far the strongest digital terrestrial platform in the world, joining Sky, which is already one of the strongest satellite services in the world.

Cable will also make changes. Sky and Telewest currently lead the way with high-definition television, presenting the viewer with another opportunity to enrich their experience. All in all, digital is an exciting venture and a great opportunity for consumers. The Government's job is to ensure that no one is left behind, that there is no digital divide, that the elderly and disabled are not alienated from the technology and that everyone in the United Kingdom is able to enjoy the digital revolution.