Government's digital plans come under fire

ONdigital chief calls for government to do more to kickstart digital revolution, but he also has his own agenda

ONdigital chief executive Stuart Prebble has criticised government commitment to a digital Britain.

The government plans to turn off the analogue signal as early as 2006, but with only a quarter of homes -- seven million -- currently enjoying digital services and demand lower than was hoped, some have questioned this target.

In a speech delivered to industry this week, Prebble said he believes the government and other interested parties could do more to persuade the nation to go digital.

"The government, the regulators, and the other broadcasters so far have not done enough to contribute to the vision of a digital Britain," he said. While Sky, cable and ONdigital have, according to Prebble, "been fighting the good fight on the digital battlefield", the government's plans for the analogue switch-off have gone awry.

The hope that digital channels promoted on the main channels would prove irresistible to viewers has just not been realised, said Prebble.

"BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge are more or less invisible, and no one believes they have attracted more than a handful of viewers to go digital," he said.

"While pay platforms have been doing their part to boost digital take-up and the journey towards analogue switch-off, the delivery of others so far has been disappointing." As a result, demand for integrated digital televisions has been far lower than many had hoped for, he added.

"The channels haven't been strong enough, and the public information campaign promised by Chris Smith hasn't happened."

Since culture minister Chris Smith made the analogue switch-off announcement in September 1999, six million TV sets have been sold in the UK but only a fraction -- around 150,000 -- have been digital, according to Prebble. He is now calling for the government to make it compulsory for all new television sets beyond a certain date -- he suggests 2004 -- to have a digital receiver.

Prebble's firm has around one million digital viewers, with cable accounting for another million and Sky owning the lion's share with around five million subscribers. ONdigital has its own reasons for wanting the government to buck up its ideas on the analogue switch-off. Its parent companies, ITV and Carlton, are considering slashing the funding that allows ONdigital to give away set-top boxes. Without the carrot of free boxes, ONdigital's market share could fall even further.

The government remains optimistic about the future of digital TV. "Research shows that 50 percent of British homes will have a digital TV by the end of 2002," said a spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

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