Culture secretary Tessa Jowell has confirmed the timetable for the completion of digital switchover. The Border television region will be the first to go in 2008, with three regions switched over each year in the following three years, leaving London and three remaining regions for 2012.
In a widely trailed keynote speech to members of the Royal Television Society (RTS), Jowell said a support scheme funded by the BBC through the licence fee would ensure that no one was left behind in the transition to digital-only television.
Jowell said the support scheme would fund the cost of digital equipment for households with one person aged 75 or over, or households with one person with a significant disability. Low income households would receive some form of assistance in a scheme to be determined by the BBC and the Government.
Addressing the RTS' biennial Cambridge Convention, Jowell said: "Digital television is no longer a probability, it is a certainty. And I believe it can leave us with a legacy of more choice, for more people, than anywhere else in the world.
"When a new technology comes along, Governments have two choices. And only two. They can follow it, trying to make retrospective sense of how society is changing as a result. Or they can be ahead of the curve, shaping the future and ensuring that the fruits of technology are evenly spread. We have chosen the latter course."
Jowell said that while nearly two thirds of the population had "exercised their private choice to go digital" many of those yet to go digital needed help. "They have in many cases the most to gain from a fully digital world. And we have to make sure they aren't left behind."
Switchover will be co-ordinated by Digital UK, the industry-funded body formerly known as SwitchCo. Jowell's culture, media and sport department said the region-by-region timetable had been determined by broadcasters and media regulator Ofcom:
|TV Region||Proposed Date|
|West Country||2009||1st half|
|HTV Wales||2009||2nd half|
|HTV West||2010||1st half|
|Scottish TV||2010||2nd half|
|Tyne Tees||2012||2nd half|
|Channel||To be announced|
In her speech, Jowell said broadcasting the UK was going through a revolution. "The rapid growth of broadband and new media providing audiences with new ways to access content. The expansion of digital radio on DAB and other platforms. And, of course, the continued success of digital TV."
Jowell said switchover would "allow a large amount of spectrum to be released for new uses", such as new mobile communications, more channels on Freeview and wireless broadband.
"We made it clear in our response to the Cave review that the Government favours the use of market mechanisms to allocate spectrum. The market is best placed to decide who should use the spectrum and how. Our policy since Cave has been to favour technology-neutral auctions when considering mechanisms for assigning spectrum. This gives as much flexibility as possible to the market to decide on services, technologies and providers."
Jowell said the UK economy would benefit to the tune of between £1.1bn and £2.2bn from switchover.
To those that feared leaving London to 2012 might leave blank screens during the coverage of the London Olympics, Jowell had this to say: "I can assure you that I did not slog for two years to bring the games here just to see Londoners reduced to huddling round the wireless to find out who won the hundred metres. I am completely confident that our timetable is a sensible one which will ensure that digital services are delivered with no disruption to the viewing public during the Games themselves."
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