Analogue switch-off as early as 2006

Government sets out plans for increasing use of digital TV -- and getting rid of the analogue signal.

The analogue switch-off could happen as early as 2006, Culture Secretary Chris Smith said Friday.

Setting out his vision for the future of digital television, Mr Smith told a conference of broadcasters in Cambridge the switch-off could happen within seven years. Keeping his options open, he did not commit himself to a firm date. So far around 1.5 million households have made the switch from analogue to digital, via either Sky Digital or ONdigital. The timetable will be reviewed when 70 percent of the population has digital TV.

Mr Smith remained hopeful this would happen sooner rather than later. "I believe this could happen as early as 2006 and be completed by 2010. But that depends very much on how the broadcasters, manufacturers and consumers behave over the next seven years," he said. No switch-off will take place before 99.5 percent of the population has digital TV in their homes, Mr Smith said. In an attempt to boost Internet reach, he also promised Internet access for every home with a TV and a telephone after the digital conversion.

Mr Smith lay down a challenge to the broadcasters. "Work together to bring consumers attractive services and affordable equipment so that the whole county can and will make the switch to digital," he said. He stressed the need to make digital services affordable. "It means prices which are within the reach of people on low and fixed incomes, particularly elderly people for many of whom television is the most important and reliable companion in their daily lives," he said.

ONdigital chief executive Stuart Prebble welcomed the early switch-off date. "It gives confidence to manufacturers, broadcasters and viewers that the future is digital, " he said. "The decision also gives us a fighting chance of maintaining Britain's lead position in digital technology worldwide," he added.

A Sky Digital spokesman also welcomed the proposed date and hoped it would speed up ITV coming on board the Sky Digital platform. ITV is currently only available on ONdigital.

Mr Smith did not comment on controversial recommendations for charging a digital TV license fee of up to £24 to fund BBC investment in digital services. An announcement on this is expected later in the year.