The Government is taking a political risk as it pursues its 2008-2012 digital switchover strategy, John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons culture committee told the Digital Television Group's annual meeting yesterday.
Whittingdale, whose 10-member committee has just completed hearing evidence from 41 expert witnesses and reading 54 written submissions during its inquiry into switchover, said while it was too early to say what recommendations his panel might make, one thing was clear: "This is a huge issue, which is going to impact on every household in the land. If it goes wrong it will be a political disaster. The Government is taking a risk in doing this, and I regard it a brave political decision."
Whittingdale said his starting point in the inquiry had been to ask 'why are we doing this?'. In asking the question he was not doubting the benefits of digital television. "I am a huge supporter of digital television and I welcome the fact that its take-up is on the increase," he insisted.
But Whittingdale said his committee was considering why the change had to forced, and was assessing each of the cases—including economic, technical, and spectrum liberation—put forward for analogue switch-off.
Whittingdale—a former Conservative culture spokesman—said while clear estimates could be make on how much switchover might cost, assessing the monetary benefits was much harder. The technical case—that switchover would allow the Freeview digital terrestrial television (DTT) platform to reach the entire country—raised questions as to whether the Government was maintaining a platform-neutral stance.
Whittingdale said he had "some worries" about Freeview. While it was undoubtedly an improvement over analogue, the platform would always be capacity constrained, and millions of installed receivers would only be able to deliver television in the MPEG-2 standard. Much of the liberated analogue spectrum might be needed to transmit high-definition programmes in DTT, which would leave little for wireless broadband and other uses.
"At the end of the day, this is a political decision," said Whittingdale. Switchover was certain to happen, "so as politicians we have to make sure that it is going to work".
But Whittingdale said he was concerned over a lack of political leadership on switchover. During his inquiry the Government had fielded two ministers, one from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and one from the Department of Trade and Industry. Switchover is being coordinated by both departments, but Whittingdale said that gave the impression that no one person was in charge of switchover.
On the switchover process itself, Whittingdale said the Government needed to consider not just financial assistance for low-income households and the elderly, but also helping consumers learn how to use their set-top boxes and benefit from the new services. Whittingdale suggested that would require the voluntary sector to "help people to get out there and make it work".