As MPs on the culture, media and sport select committee prepare to begin their inquiry into digital switchover a one-day seminar in Westminster yesterday provided chairman John Whittingdale a chance to consider all the key issues.
Whittingdale's committee announced the probe in July. Issues to be examined include the costs, benefits and feasibility of the Government's 2008-2012 timetable, as well as how those on low incomes and the elderly will be assisted.
Among those due to give evidence on Tuesday is David Elstein, chairman of Sparrowhawk Media (owner of the international Hallmark channel) and a non-executive director of ntl. At yesterday's Westminster Media Forum seminar on analogue switch-off and new digital services, Elstein—Channel 5's launch CEO—said switchover would prove ten times more difficult than the Channel 5 retuning exercise and ten times more expensive.
Elstein said the total cost of switchover would end up between £11bn and £13bn. Ford Ennals, chief executive of Digital UK, the industry-funded body coordinating switchover, put the total cost at £4.5bn. Ennals hit back at a survey which this week claimed only a third of viewers were aware of switchover.
"At a national level awareness is 65%, 36 points ahead of where it was a year ago; in Border [the first region due to go digital only in 2008] it is 74%. So we are making progress," said Ennals.
David Johnston, digital director at Philips Electronics, said it was vital that the information campaign preparing consumers for switchover avoided confusion. "It is absolutely important that the consumer receives a clear message, understands what is going to happen and buys products with confidence," said Johnston.
Danny Churchill, technology consultant to DSGI (formerly Dixons), said sales of digital receivers and recorders would need to increase by 60% each year if switchover was to be met. Since Border was due to go digital-only in three years' time sales would have to increase there by 260%.
Churchill said it was important that the industry avoided a "back-end panic" with potential shortage of equipment in shops. "We need consumers to start thinking early about the fact that they are going to have to switch. If we are going to avoid a back-end panic we will have to create a front-end demand," he said.