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Digital Switchover (North-East Wales)

Volume 447: debated on Wednesday 14 June 2006

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Williams. I hope that the conversation over the next half hour will be of interest to you; I suspect that it will.

Television broadcasting provision in north-east Wales in general and Wrexham in particular is complex. In my living room in central Wrexham, it is possible to receive analogue TV signals from three separate regional broadcasting areas: Wales, north-west England and the ITV Central English region. At present, it is difficult to obtain information about which channels individual viewers watch and, in particular, how many viewers in north-east Wales watch out-of-area services from England. In 1999, at the birth of the National Assembly for Wales, the Welsh Affairs Committee suggested in its inquiry at Westminster that that figure might be as high as 10 per cent. across Wales. I suspect that in north-east Wales the figure might be higher.

My first request of the Minister is to ask him to commission research, perhaps through Ofcom in Wales, on viewing patterns in north-east Wales. That is not merely a subject of academic interest. At present, only Welsh TV channels engage with the development of civic society in Wales—a development that is now rapid. If viewers in north-east Wales do not watch channels from Wales because the services do not interest them, their disconnection from the rest of Wales will grow, which could have profound implications for devolution in Wales.

Local TV signals in north-east Wales are broadcast from three transmitters: the Wrexham-Rhos transmitter, Winter Hill in north-west England and Wrekin in the ITV Central region. In my living room, the signals vary in quality; Winter Hill is best, Wrexham-Rhos is next and Wrekin is worst. Poorer quality signals blur in analogue but they are still perfectly visible.

I raise the issue now to explore the effect that digital switchover will have on TV reception and whether it will limit my constituents’ choice of the number of channels that they can watch. With digital signals, poorer quality transmission leads to intermittent signals rather than blurring. When transmission is interrupted viewers are much less likely to stick with a channel. After switchover, I want to see maximum choice for my constituents. Those who wish to must be able to receive transmission from Wales and those who wish to must be able to receive transmission from England. If digital switchover means that the habits of a viewer are disregarded overnight, there will be considerable outcry.

I am certain that the possible impact of switchover has not yet registered in the minds of the vast majority of my constituents. The current position is simply unacceptable. Viewers in Wrexham cannot receive digital services from Wales through freeview. Signals come from Winter Hill in north-west England and thus there is no BBC Wales, HTV Wales or S4C on freeview channels. That has the considerable impact on coverage of Welsh affairs that I mentioned earlier. Can the Minister assure me that following switchover, viewers in Wrexham, which is the largest town in north Wales, who want to receive freeview digital TV services from Wales will be able to do so?

As I said, I want my constituents to have maximum choice and I believe that those who want to watch English television too should have the right so to do. Will it be possible for individual viewers to choose which digital signal they receive? At present, different regions can be viewed on the same television set. Given the break-up effect of poor digital signals, is it possible that choice could be reduced by switchover because channels such as ITV Central might no longer be available to viewers? What steps can a viewer take to ensure that the number of regional channels that are available through analogue signals can be viewed on digital in the future?

I would also be grateful if the Minister clarified what steps will be taken to ensure that the cost of maintaining viewers’ level of choice will be met. I anticipate that the costs will include those of not only a digital box, the idea of which is beginning to enter the public consciousness, but additional aerials. If one might require an additional aerial to preserve a signal from north-west England and the ITV Central region, for example, the cost of securing it will be considerable.

Given that the changes are driven by Government policy and that individuals on poorer incomes might not be in a position to fund such extension of reception, will the Government take any steps to support the provision of additional aerials and boxes? In short, what help will there be for consumers who are prejudiced by digital switchover?

As the Minister knows, the changes in Wales will happen in 2009-10. I have been fortunate to receive helpful briefings from Ofcom and Digital UK, and to have had a number of discussions with broadcasters from Wales in particular but also with some from outside Wales. I want to thank them for their help. There is a common interest in ensuring that the digital switchover happens and is successful. I have grappled for some while with the complexities of switchover in order to get my head around them, and it is clear that Digital UK has a big job on its hands in explaining the implications of switchover not only to the general public but to the media and politicians, who at this stage have not appreciated the scale of what is to occur. I have found that one of the most helpful phrases is “analogue switch-off”, rather than “switchover”. The phrase “switch-off” makes it clear that what is there at the moment will disappear. That has not yet entered the public consciousness as something that will have a profound impact.

It is clear that, for the reasons that I have set out, switchover will have a localised impact. It is vital that the information from Digital UK should be localised. What plans are in place to focus on localised information from Digital UK? Like many others, I recently saw the beginnings of the national advertising campaign, and I have benefited from a briefing meeting with Digital UK, for which I am grateful. We need more localised information.

Some of the issues that face my hon. Friend’s constituency are differently cast in mine. It seems that there is an enormous inequity as freeview is not available to many households in Wales, which is worse off than other parts of the country in that respect. When freeview becomes available to everybody because of analogue switch-off, as my hon. Friend calls it, it will be only a poorer version of the freeview that is available in many rural and semi-rural areas of the UK. Will that not make a lot of people feel that they are not getting the same deal from the BBC as the people of Chelsea and Westminster?

Absolutely; I echo my hon. Friend’s concern. My other concern, based on my dislike of monopolies, is the suggestion that satellite television rather than freeview can be used to allow access to television services. That is unfair in the extreme. Those of us who hold strong views about Sky and who do not want to use satellite services do not wish to be forced to obtain a satellite aerial from a particular broadcaster because it is the only way to obtain a secure television signal. It is important that we work to improve freeview reception. I welcome freeview—it is a tremendous innovation—but the service needs to be broadened and spread to as many households as possible.

I do not want to be negative about the digital switchover. Digital television has tremendous potential, and I know that the local media community in Wrexham has a great appetite for services to be broadcast that represent what is happening there. We in north-east Wales feel that we do not receive a satisfactory level of coverage from existing services; the BBC within Wales focuses on other areas of Wales to the exclusion of our culture, and services from the north-west of England do not generally cover our area.

There is a great appetite and capacity among those in the media community in north-east Wales, especially at Yale college and the North East Wales institute at Wrexham, to explore digital television and especially local digital television. About two years ago, the BBC in Wales held a laboratory broadcasting experiment in Wrexham for a week, which led to the successful, high-quality production of local television; it was viewed within a room and not broadcast, but it showed the capacity to make programmes and the appetite for viewing local news in a more localised manner.

One of my major concerns about freeview is the development of gaming shows and channels that seem to appear from nowhere, and without discussion or consultation about their content. I hope that the strength of appetite for local digital television will in due course be registered by the Government, and that it will be taken forward in order to benefit areas such as north-east Wales, and particularly Wrexham.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to put my concerns on to the radar. It is important that Members of Parliament engage with the issue, because we are leaders in our communities and can put such matters before our constituents. I am pleased to have seen some local recognition of the debate, and pleased that the issue has now been discussed. Of course, that discussion is coupled with the launch of Digital UK.

The Government are making good progress with the roll-out of digital television, and I commend them for that, but I hope that the local issues that I have raised—I make no apology for them—are addressed as early as possible, because the earlier they are dealt with, the better the resolution will be and the more positive the outcome will be for digital television.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on initiating this debate on digital television and the digital switchover as it affects his constituency. He is right to want to put his concerns on the radar. Indeed, he should make no apology for raising local issues. Everyone in the country has a huge opportunity. It is right that Members of Parliament should take a strong and extensive interest in the subject because of the changes and the opportunities that their constituents will undoubtedly have once we complete the analogue switch-off in 2012. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about what the switchover and the switch-off of the analogue signal will mean generally in the United Kingdom and specifically for people in north-east Wales and in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

My hon. Friend raised a number of important questions that I hope to answer, and those that I cannot answer I shall refer to Ofcom. He spoke about a number of specific issues, some of which will need to be explored further. I will be happy to write to him and to meet him in order to explore the reality of the matter during the next few years before the change comes into effect in his constituency.

As my hon. Friend said, it is important to recognise the enormous opportunity that the switch-off and the digital revolution will bring to the UK and to his constituents. However, we may not yet have taken on board quite what that revolution will bring. Indeed, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee said in its recent report on the digital switchover that we might almost be hitting the “lowest common denominator” in our vision of what it could bring about.

Yes, it will mean that people will have access to many more channels—channels that are currently enjoyed by most people in the UK, but not all. When the full programme of switch-off is complete, and the signal is boosted once everyone has access to digital, people will have a great deal more than the 33 channels, which is sometimes all we speak of. If we get it right, if we manage to get the synthesis between ourselves and the software and hardware manufacturers—those that make the televisions and those who provide the services, through whichever platform—we will truly have revolutionised the way in which people can enjoy all kinds of services, of which the television channels are only a part. Indeed, companies such as Microsoft Entertainment are beginning to explore the full potential of digital television.

I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents, like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and others, will be able to enjoy all the benefits. We are already beginning to see a glimmer of that, with people being able to enjoy things such as the World cup and using the red button to gain access to all kinds of other dimensions of the game.

By the end of March this year, almost three-quarters of UK households had converted at least one television set. It is worth pausing on that point, because in some ways the debate has been characterised as if the Government were forcing people to make the conversion. That is not the case. We will have switched off everything by 2012, but three-quarters of households have already embarked on this great venture. They are not being pushed into doing it. They want to do it—and for a very good reason.

People realise the opportunities. Consumers in Britain and in my hon. Friend’s constituency are demonstrating that they want to be part of the change. None the less, we must recognise that some out there have not yet taken on board the advantages that digital television can bring. On the evidence that we have seen, some may feel that, because of their age—the most likely reason—or because of disability and not because of income, it is too great a challenge at the moment.

Part of our policy is to ensure that the digital revolution and the change to digital television is available for everybody, and that we provide help or know-how to those for whom age or disability are barriers to taking it up. In trials that we have conducted—for example, we held one in Bolton—we have found that, if we offer help to people, regardless of age or disability, not only do they want to do it, not only can they do it, but if we ask them afterwards how they feel about it, 98 per cent. of them say that it has made their lives better.

Yes, everybody wants to go digital in Rhondda because they want to watch Channel 4 instead of—or at least as well as—S4C, and they want to watch some decent rugby. The way in which the Government have structured broadcasting in the UK and broadcasters have managed to attract rights is deliberately geared towards making people go in that direction. However, the difficulty is that the only way to go digital in Rhondda is by paying money to Sky. I can count the dishes outside the houses in Rhondda to find out how many have gone digital. The problem is that people have been waiting for some time for a freesat service from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. I hope that the Minister will bash some of those broadcasters’ heads together to provide a non-Sky freesat option as soon as possible, so that people in Rhondda have some choice.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. There is a need for a little head bashing, although not necessarily only inside the BBC and one or two of the other channels—it should take place across the whole industry.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about his constituents. I am sure he is out there every night, assiduously counting the number of satellite dishes going up. There are short-term issues that have to be addressed, but those must not mask our opportunity. He mentioned why people in his constituency and elsewhere may have gone digital—to access particular television stations. However, by the time digital switchover is completed in 2012, there will be literally scores of channels and opportunities of different kinds, not least through the potential of high-speed broadband.

As I mentioned, Microsoft Entertainment is exploring with British Telecom and others the kind of services that it might be able to bring into people’s homes. That will make traditional terrestrial channels look like something from the ark. There is real excitement ahead.

My hon. Friends are right to point out the short-term problems, which are not inconsiderable. However, the potential is such that, by 2012, the argument will not be, “Why did the Government make us all do this?” People will look back and say that this Government were right to have had the foresight to get this done and that the opportunity they created was enormous.

To use my hon. Friend’s term, we have to head bash among ourselves to make sure that the technology that we are encouraging people to have in their homes will match the kind of services in which they will be able to take part. If we have one particular problem, it is this. We begin the process in 2008 and end it in 2012, but the technology going into people’s homes in 2008 will be different by 2012. That is not the Government’s fault. None the less, it would be foolish for them not to recognise the changes and the speed with which the technology is changing.

I say to both my hon. Friends that it is significant that, in Wales, take-up has been high. I recognise what part of the reason for that is. None the less, 80 per cent. of Wales has already made the switch. It is worth recognising that that is probably to do with more than the problem of access to some television stations.

The high take-up in Wales is very good news, but it leaves us with the important issue of the 20 per cent. who will need to convert before Wales switches over in 2009. Although many people are now converting their second and third sets too, many have yet to convert at all. We the Government, the broadcasters, Digital UK, Ofcom—all the organisations involved in providing help—have a great deal to do between now and 2009, and I do not underestimate that. We must encourage people to take up digital TV and understand the barriers to which I have alluded.

As a Government, we remain platform-neutral. How people make the switch is up to them, although I recognise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda: for some people, satellite may be the only option because of where they live.

It is vital that we put out as much information as we can to try to help people. I welcome the national information campaign that Digital UK, the broadcasters’ organisation for switchover, has launched. Between now and switchover, Digital UK will be communicating with every single TV viewing household in the country to help them to prepare for that change.

We must also ensure that nobody is left behind. That is why we are putting together a special assistance scheme, from all the work that we have done, specifically focused on those for whom conversion may be a problem. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham that we do not for one second underestimate issues around low-income households in the UK. However, from the evidence that we have seen, being in that bracket tends not to be the barrier to conversion. Age and disability tend to be—not exclusively, but by and large. For that reason, to make sure that the assistance scheme is appropriately targeted, we have decided to aim it at those groups.

I turn to the specific points raised by my hon. Friend. Extending digital terrestrial television in Wales is particularly challenging. The hills and valleys in much of Wales make that difficult to achieve with ground-based transmitters. There are more than 200 transmitters in Wales—a far greater concentration than anywhere else in the UK. At present, only nine carry digital signals, covering about 57 per cent. of the population.

That will all change at switchover, and I should like to make some specific points that I hope will reassure my hon. Friend. First, after switchover, the coverage of freeview services across the UK will greatly increase, reaching the same proportion of the population as analogue signals do today. In Wales, we expect digital terrestrial coverage to go from its present level of about 57 per cent. to about 96.7 per cent. of Welsh homes, a larger percentage increase than in any other part of the UK. Coverage will increase substantially in Wrexham because the Wrexham-Rhos transmitter, to which my hon. Friend alluded and which is currently analogue-only, will be converted to digital. Secondly, people who receive their signals from one of the Welsh transmitters will be able to receive all the public service broadcasting channels in their Welsh versions. Those include S4C, the relevant BBC channels, ITV Wales, Channel 4 and Five.

Thirdly, people who currently have a choice of English or Welsh transmitter should continue to have that choice after switchover, although the Wrekin transmitter, in the ITV Central region, will not convert until 2011. I should make clear that there is no plan to change the boundaries of ITV regions. I recognise that that means that some of my hon. Friend’s constituents, who currently do not have a choice of region even with adjustments to their aerial, will not have it after switchover either. However, all the regional services are available on satellite.

All our experience shows that even viewers who were sceptical about digital TV liked it when they got it. This month marks the fifth anniversary of the BBC’s first interactive TV service, which covered the 2001 Wimbledon championships. Last Saturday, digital viewers of England’s match against Paraguay had a variety of interactive options as they watched the game. That is the point about digital TV—it is about creating choice and ensuring that consumers across the UK are able to enjoy the services that broadcasting companies, and many others now entering the ambit of television, will provide them. Analogue television is about viewers being given what they are served by the broadcasters. With digital, the viewer is in control. For example, HomeChoice video on demand, which gives access to vast libraries of material, is already with us. It will grow with initiatives such as Sky’s link-up with Easynet and the BT-freeview hybrid.

Whatever platform we are talking about—digital terrestrial television, cable or satellite—digital will offer a greater choice of channels and services for people at home. FilmFour will soon come to the freeview platform, and will be joined by two new channels from Five. That choice makes freeview by far the strongest digital terrestrial platform in the world, joining Sky, which is already one of the strongest satellite services in the world.

Cable will also make changes. Sky and Telewest currently lead the way with high-definition television, presenting the viewer with another opportunity to enrich their experience. All in all, digital is an exciting venture and a great opportunity for consumers. The Government’s job is to ensure that no one is left behind, that there is no digital divide, that the elderly and disabled are not alienated from the technology and that everyone in the United Kingdom is able to enjoy the digital revolution.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.