BBC hints at digital set-top giveaway

But broadcaster insists no licence fee funds would be used to help Britain go digital

The BBC is downplaying comments by director general Greg Dyke Thursday that the broadcaster may fund a digital set-top box giveaway.

Dyke was addressing the problem of how digital television can become universal enough for analogue signals to be switched off -- something the government plans for between 2006 and 2010. Digital TV would have to reach 98 percent penetration for the switch-off to take place, but industry research suggests 25 to 30 percent of the population would be unwilling or unable to afford to change their current television system.

About 30 percent of the population currently uses digital services.

The BBC director general told MPs at the Commons media select committee that the corporation is discussing ways of driving adoption of digital television, and admitted proposed new BBC channels may not be enough to drive universal take-up. He allowed the possibility that the BBC could become involved in a set-top box giveaway or subsidy scheme. "We have been doing a lot of work on this. Could you give them away, and could the BBC fund them?" he said, according to published reports.

A BBC spokesman said Dyke's words should not be taken too broadly. "There is no question of the licence fee being used [to subsidise set-top boxes]," he said. "He was talking around the issue. He basically feels it will be impossible for the government to reach its switch-off target for analogue unless there is some other initiative to boost take-up, such as a distribution of free or cheap set-top boxes."

Although set-top boxes are currently free, users have to tie themselves into a contract with satellite or cable providers. These start at around £10 per month.

The BBC is also actively involved in the government's plans for encouraging Net use, but there has been little discussion of the use of the corporation's digital television presence to bring people online. "It's not something the BBC is directly involved in," said the spokesman. "If we come to the point where the digital set-top box is the primary window on the Internet as well, our services could interact further in that respect. It's very much in the future."

The BBC would not comment on industry rumours that it could be charged with carrying out the government's plans to bring Britain online, through interactive TV.

Interactive TV systems, already offered by British Sky Broadcasting, Telewest, ntl and others, are thought by many to be a way of bringing the Internet to the non-computer-savvy mass market.

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