ITV Digital collapse could harm Internet take-up

Is the government's target of universal Internet access by 2005 heading for trouble?

The UK government's target of achieving universal Internet access by 2005 could be wrecked by the collapse of ITV Digital, MPs warned on Wednesday.

The select committee of culture, media and sport believes that the high-profile failure of ITV Digital, which ceased transmitting its pay television channels after administrators failed to find a buyer for the business, will damage the take-up of digital television. This could have a knock-on effect on Internet take-up, especially within lower-income groups, and sink the government's target of universal Internet access by 2005.

The committee would like the government to consider giving away interactive set-top boxes that people could use to access the Internet as well as to view digital television.

"If the take-up of digital television does falter as a result of ITV Digital's failure, and a cheaper and non-interactive set-top box comes into vogue, then a major opportunity to achieve progress with an important government target may have been wasted," said the committee in its Communications report, published on Wednesday.

At a press conference, Gerald Kaufman, the chairman of the committee, said that the government should consider providing free set-top boxes if another government target -- of getting all UK television viewers to switch from analogue to digital by 2010 -- is to be achieved. "If the government is to achieve its target it must consider taking new action," said Kaufman.

Kaufman also said that such a move could be seen as unfair, given that around eight million people have already paid to upgrade to digital TV.

In March 2000, the prime minister, Tony Blair, committed the government to ensuring that everyone in the UK who wants it will have access to the Internet by 2005.

Digital television is seen as an important way of achieving the government's target, and of combating the digital divide. Families who don't want, or can't afford, a personal computer could surf the Internet and send email via a digital television set, or an interactive digital set-top box linked to a traditional analogue TV.

According to the latest figures from Oftel, 11.5 million UK households -- 46 percent -- have Internet access.

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