Government to offer free digital TV

A trial that will include free Internet access is likely to target deprived areas, and will be used to assess the UK's readiness for the analogue switch off
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor on

The government is to give away access to digital TV, the Internet, shopping and email in preparation for the analogue switch off and universal Internet access.

Free conversions to digital TV will be seen by many as an admittance from the government that it is losing faith in its planned 2006 analogue switch off. Nevertheless, seven million homes already have access to digital TV and the government is confident that half the nation will have switched by the end of 2002.

The programme is designed to give government an insight into the issues involved in switching the public to a digital signal. The "digital neighbourhoods" that will participate in the scheme are yet to be identified but the project is expected to be up and running in the next six months. The government is likely to target deprived areas and those that are excluded from the digital revolution, since Internet via digital TV is seen as the best way of reaching its target for universal Internet access by 2005.

"A cross-section of the public will be involved in the trial and we will monitor what they are watching and where improvements need to be made to drive the take-up of digital services," said a Department of Trade and Industry spokeswoman.

According to Trade and Industry secretary Stephen Byers, one in three households already have digital television. "We need to ensure that Britain leads the world in the development of digital television, and that every community shares in the benefits and that we don't see the creation of a digital divide," he said in a statement.

People in the trial will be able to watch all existing free terrestrial channels, as well as digital TV channels including ITV2, BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge. They will also be able to access interactive Internet services and send/receive email. About twenty broadcasters, manufacturers and retailers of digital technology -- including Sky, ONdigital and the BBC -- have expressed interest in the scheme and the government hopes some of these will be willing to plough money into the project. There are no plans for government to subsidise set-top boxes to the general public despite news that ONdigital's set-top box giveaway could soon come to an end.

Last week the chief executive of ONdigital Stuart Prebble claimed the government could do more to promote a digital Britain. "The channels haven't been strong enough, and the public information campaign promised by Chris Smith hasn't happened," he said at the time. The government is keen to clarify the benefits of going digital, following concern that consumers were being misled into buying TVs with digital features such as digital sound, under the impression that they were getting TVs that would connect to digital channels. Last month eMinister Patricia Hewitt launched a scheme to label digital TVs in an effort to end consumer confusion. "As a consumer myself, I know how confusing buying a new TV can be. Often the information consumers need is buried in the small print," she said.

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