OPINION: If the US can face the hard facts about digital TV, why can't we?

When trying to convey something of the feel of what Ofcom, the super regulatory body, will be like, journalists tend to reach for US parallels.

The shorthand phrase, "a bit like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), easily springs to mind.

We now know that in one important respect the FCC is nothing at all like Ofcom.

Last week, the US body noted that market forces alone were not producing the transition to digital fast enough and did something about it.

By the beginning of 2004, the FCC ruled, all television sets 35 inches or larger will have to have digital capability - either inside the set or via an accompanying box. A year later, the rule will apply to medium-sized sets and by July 2007 all sets with 13-inch screens or more will be covered.

Costs will rise, most manufacturers are not amused and there be will the inevitable court challenge, but at least something is being done.

There is a realisation in the heartland of the free market that market forces will not be enough.

The contrast with the UK is illuminating. Here the only thing of substance happening is that every now and again the government repeats its 2007-2010 target for analogue switch-off, as if it were a magical incantation that will produce the desired effect without further effort. Meanwhile, every day the switch-off date retreats into the future as millions of analogue TV sets continue to be sold.

The one tangible thing the government is doing - a pilot scheme to switch a couple of small communities over to digital - is not producing good news either. Rumours are that conversion is costing close to £1000 a house.

There is also the small problem that more than 70% of homes have more than one TV set and more than 80% have more than one video recorder.

It looks like at least three digital converters will be needed to provide most people with the service they receive now.

A report from Mentor, the company that did most of the conversion work that allowed Channel 5 to go ahead, sets out some of the additional problems.

Given the complexities involved Mentor observes dryly, "such a time-scale would seem somewhat optimistic."

Our television service is created with so many transmitters, many of them small relays, that if they started immediately switching off one transmitter each working day, it would take almost five years to complete the closure.

In the absence of an FCC-style manoeuvre, or massive subsidies - and neither appears to be under consideration at the moment - what if anything can be done?

The Mentor report suggests it may now be time to embrace hybrid solutions.

How about drawing up a plan that uses a mixture of satellite and terrestrial to bring digital communications to the masses?

If that is not acceptable, why not offer digital to the main population centres and retain analogue as a sustaining service for the rest? At the very least, the government could dispatch an emissary to the FCC to see how market forces are not enough.


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