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Digital Broadcasting (Forest of Dean)

Volume 467: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2007

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr. Chope. Just to be clear about the scope of this debate, it is primarily focused on digital radio broadcasting services, although I shall touch at the end on digital television and ask the Minister one or two questions about it.

On 19 July, Ofcom announced a licence to provide a multiplex digital local radio broadcasting service in Gloucestershire. Having studied the advertisement and discussed it with colleagues who are more technically knowledgeable than me about such matters, I had several concerns about how well the digital multiplex would serve my constituents.

I wrote to Ofcom’s chief executive on 13 September to express my concerns about the tender advertisement. The advertisement implied that there would be a big focus on a transmitter at Churchdown, which would leave my constituents disadvantaged, due to the geography of our county. I also expressed concern that the tenders would inevitably focus on the urban and more densely populated parts of the county, which has Cheltenham and Gloucester at the centre geographically, and that they would tend to leave the more outlying rural areas, including my constituency in the Forest of Dean, somewhat at a disadvantage. I had a response from Ofcom on 5 October which I thought was rather dismissive of the concerns that I had raised on behalf of my constituents. I did not think that it dealt adequately with my concerns.

On 24 October, applications closed for the licence for Gloucestershire. There were two applicants: MuxCo Gloucestershire Ltd and Now Digital. Having taken some time to study their bids, I believe that neither would provide decent or acceptable coverage for my constituents in the Forest of Dean. The bid from MuxCo is much the worse of the two, from my constituents’ point of view. Looking at the mapping that has been provided, it seems that the whole western part of my constituency and three of the four towns—Cinderford, Coleford and Lydney—would be almost completely excluded from being able to receive the digital radio signal. My rough estimate is that well over half of my constituents would be excluded from the company’s broadcasts.

Is my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour aware that whereas the MuxCo proposal is disadvantageous to his constituency, it does include most of the Cotswolds, but the proposal from Now Digital, which gives his constituency a little bit of coverage, gives the Cotswolds virtually none? Does he agree that it is unacceptable for Ofcom to put out a tender that does not include the maximum number of people in both our constituencies?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Indeed, I was about to discuss the Now Digital proposal. As he may have guessed from my comments on the MuxCo proposal, the Now Digital one is marginally better for my constituents, but, as far as one is able to tell, it still excludes Cinderford and Coleford and a large chunk of the population in the west of my constituency, and, as he said, it almost completely excludes his constituency.

The extraordinary thing about both bids is that they exclude large chunks of Gloucestershire, which is actually the area covered by the broadcasting licence, but they broadcast to significant parts of Wiltshire, south Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. Many people who are not covered by the local radio stations will be able to get the signal, but many of the people who ought to be able to get it will not.

I have written to both companies, first, to try to get more accurate information. The number of people who will or will not be covered under their bids cannot be ascertained from the map—it is not very clear. I am realistic and could understand, given the geography of my constituency, if less than 100 or even 99 per cent. of my constituents were covered. Indeed, under the current analogue broadcasting arrangements, some parts of the constituency that are large geographically but relatively small in population numbers do not get very good coverage. However, a bid that excludes significant parts—three of the four major towns, and approaching more than half of my constituents—is simply not acceptable and cannot really be considered a bid for a Gloucestershire local broadcasting system.

Therefore, I wrote to both organisations and to Ofcom to ask for more information but also to ask them, particularly Ofcom, to take into account my concerns after seeing the bids and to consider whether the situation could be improved. My constituents are very concerned about it. I have had people write to me in the past about digital television broadcasting and the problems that they experience with it, and I know that many of them are concerned about problems with radio broadcasting.

The Government very much promote the move to digital broadcasting across platforms, as do I in general—it has several advantages—but it is important that as many constituents as possible are included in the digital world and that we do not set up a digital divide, with my constituents being on the wrong side of it. I would be very pleased if the Minister would address that concern.

As a result of my securing this debate, Ofcom has been in touch with my office and provided me with a helpful briefing note—at least, it is helpful in respect of the facts; it is not particularly helpful in respect of the process that it will follow. It states that it does not require that any specific areas within the outline boundary—in this case, Gloucestershire—be served, and that it does not have a preference about the transmitters that the companies use, which, of course, does not cheer me at all.

Ofcom also stated that its assessment will consider the population coverage achieved within the county as a whole, but that it is prevented from requiring that all or any part of the area be served. Clearly, that has left me with a great concern that one or either of the bids will be approved unchanged, and that my constituents will be locked out of being able to enjoy local digital broadcasting in the future. That is not acceptable.

I would be grateful if the Minister could explain what guidance her Department gives Ofcom and licensees about balancing the geographic coverage of their broadcasting footprint and the number of people that they reach, and how they balance the different areas. Clearly, they are looking at Gloucestershire as a whole. My view is that even if they were to reach a certain level of population and geographic coverage in Gloucestershire, it would be unacceptable if some parts of the county were wholly or partially excluded, particularly if they contain a large number of people. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain whether there is any way of taking that into account and ensuring that areas are not completely excluded.

I would also be grateful if the Minister would provide information about the number of people in my constituency who would be excluded from receiving digital radio broadcasting under each of the bids, and whether she thinks that it is right, as we move to a digital world, that significant parts of the population are excluded.

Finally, just to finish on the radio piece, are there any plans in the future, as there are with the analogue television signal, to switch off analogue radio signals? Clearly, it would be a serious matter if significant parts of the population were unable to receive them. For many people, particularly those who are isolated or unable to get out, radio and television as a means of communication with the outside world are incredibly important, and it would not be acceptable to cut them off.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and promise not to intervene on him again. The position is even worse than he has outlined. I understand that the multiplex platforms will serve as platforms for a variety of programmes, so that not only the BBC but commercial radio will be affected. For example, if his constituents were cut off, they would be cut off from Radio Gloucestershire and also from commercial programmes such as Classic FM, so there would be a huge void.

My hon. Friend is right. A multiplex broadcasts a range of radio stations, so if someone cannot receive a signal they miss out not just on one station, but on all of them, which is serious.

The issue highlights a number of concerns about digital television in my constituency. Digital or analogue switchover in the Forest of Dean will take place in 2010 or 2011—different parts of my constituency receive signals from different transmitters because of the geography and topology of the area. A number of people receive poor digital television reception at the moment and many have no choice but to use a satellite platform because they cannot receive a digital terrestrial signal. I have pressed the Department about that, but the only answer that I have been able to get is that when digital switchover takes place the

“'vast majority of people in the Forest of Dean will be able to get a signal”.

“Vast majority” can mean many things to many people, and given the big gaps on the radio broadcasting map it would be helpful if the Minister would clarify what “vast majority” means. Clearly, it will be not be acceptable if significant parts of my constituency cannot receive an adequate digital television signal after switchover. The Government have made plans to ensure that most people in the country can receive a digital television signal, and I had been content with previous answers until I looked at digital radio coverage and saw how patchy it was. That has elevated my level of concern about television coverage. The Minister knows that the television switchover from analogue to digital worries people throughout the country.

In the Forest of Dean, digital TV coverage is patchy, and digital radio coverage on the local multiplex is proposed to be “very poor” in one bid and “poor” in the other bid. Mobile phone coverage is also patchy in my constituency. My constituents have a right to be included in the digital future, and not to be trapped on the wrong side of a digital divide. That is the nub of the issue, and I shall be grateful if the Minister will turn her attention to it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing this debate, and giving the Chamber the benefit of the attention that he has given to digital broadcasting and television in his constituency. I will deal with the specific issues that he raised, but it is important to look at the context, particularly the rapid transition to digital broadcasting that is under way.

This is an exciting time in our transition to digital broadcasting. As he and other hon. Members know, switchover began in Whitehaven at 2 o’clock in the morning last Wednesday. The analogue television signal was switched off and replaced with digital signals. That means that everyone there now has a choice of how to receive digital services. For the first time, all Whitehaven residents can receive digital television terrestrially via an aerial. That gives viewers in the area access to the wider choice of channels that is a feature of digital TV. Everyone can now receive the BBC’s digital channels, which they have been paying for through their licence fee but, until now, could not receive via an aerial. I will return to the hon. Gentleman’s point, but Whitehaven and his constituency are probably not dissimilar. It is not possible to deliver digital terrestrial TV without switching off the analogue signal.

Early evidence from Whitehaven shows that the switchover went well. There are bound to be a few hitches and glitches along the way but, on the whole, people have been able to use the equipment, and the process seems to have gone smoothly. Most people seem to be genuinely pleased with the increased choice of channels now open to them, and are getting used to using the new equipment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman takes some comfort from that for when the analogue signal in his area is switched off and a digital is introduced. The hon. Member knows that switchover for most of his constituents, who receive their signal from ITV West, will start in 2010.

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that Digital UK and Ofcom track awareness of switchover, and awareness in the ITV West region is better than the national average at 91 per cent., which is 8 per cent. above the national average; 85 per cent. of households have already converted their primary TV, but not all their sets, to receive digital signals, which is also well above the national average. That suggests that his constituents are well prepared for switchover.

It would be worth while for the hon. Gentleman to remind his constituents why digital is better. First, it can be received by more homes. At present, only around 75 per cent. of homes receive the digital terrestrial signal, and only by switching off the analogue signal can digital terrestrial coverage be increased. We want to increase it to 98.5 per cent. Unless my officials give it to me, I do not have the figure for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. They have passed me a note stating what I knew—around 98.5 per cent. of his constituents should have access. I will write to Digital UK and Ofcom on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf to find out whether they have more accurate figures for coverage. Given the dispersal of the population in his constituency, his constituents are clearly more vulnerable, and I accept the proposition that underpins what he is saying.

Access to digital TV provides better sound and picture quality. Many people can access digital TV by other means, such as satellite, cable or broadband, but many others will wish to continue receiving TV through their aerial after switchover. One reason for switchover is to release spectrum for new and different uses, and Ofcom is consulting on that. There is a range of exciting possibilities, including high-definition TV, mobile TV, and wireless broadband, and new services are emerging daily in this fast-changing communications environment. We hope that Ofcom will shortly publish the conclusions of its consultations on how to allocate that spectrum.

The main content of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution was on digital radio. The switch to digital TV provides new opportunities for people to receive digital radio services, because all the main digital TV platforms also carry a range of digital radio channels. There are some 26 digital radio stations on Freeview, and satellite and cable services offer even more.

Interestingly, radio is one area where convergence can be seen in action. It has been possible for some time to listen to digital radio not only via digital TV and digital audio broadcasting but over the internet, which offers thousands of stations that can be received through portable wi-fi radios without the need for a DAB radio to access the services. We reckon that around 15 per cent. of total radio listening is across digital platforms, so the hon. Gentleman should remember that DAB is only one way in which his constituents can access digital radio.

The Minister is right in saying that a wide range of radio stations is available on digital television and the internet. Local radio stations are available on the internet, and some constituents use that, but clearly not everyone will want or be able to do so. Will local radio stations—for example, Radio Gloucestershire and Severn Sound—be available on the digital television platform, or will it provide only national stations? That is important.

I am being told from behind that it will probably just be the national stations, but I should have thought that those other stations will be available on the net. That might be one of the solutions that is particularly appropriate to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, given the dispersed nature of its population.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has done this yet, but I was going to suggest that he engage in discussions with others in addition to the broadcasters, given the commercial way in which licences are settled. Discussions with the regional development agency and others might yield a new way of supporting funding and access to the new communication platforms. The regional development agencies certainly played a key role in rolling out broadband in areas where it was uneconomic to do so on a commercial basis, although I do not know whether that is relevant to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. If he engages in such discussions, they may well be fruitful, and he may want to come back to me after he has had an opportunity to discuss the issue.

To date, about 5.5 million DAB sets have been sold in the UK, but we should remember that there are 100 million analogue sets. DAB sets are therefore still quite a small part of the total market, but we expect them to be one of the things that people spend their money on when buying presents over the Christmas period. In addition, one in five adults now lives in a DAB household, and we expect that figure to double to 40 per cent. by the end of 2009. We therefore expect quite rapid growth.

Recently, the second national DAB multiplex was awarded to the 4Group, which is led by Channel 4, and we hope that that will lead to the delivery of an even greater range of services. Although we are seeing such growth, I must acknowledge that the coverage of national DAB signals is a barrier to growth, as both hon. Gentlemen have experienced. Broadcasters and Ofcom have recognised that and are working to improve coverage. The BBC has already committed itself to extending the coverage of its national DAB stations to 90 per cent. during the current charter, and I hope that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean welcomes that. The commercial national stations—on the Digital One multiplex—already achieve nearly 90 per cent. national coverage. That means that those who are covered listen to stations such as Classic FM, which the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) mentioned.

It is all very well the Minister quoting national figures, which say that 90 per cent. of people have coverage, but under one of the proposals, 90 per cent. of my constituents will not have coverage. Does the Minister not agree that the tendering process for the two bids is very unsatisfactory when there is such inequality of coverage in a county such as Gloucestershire?

I would agree if the decision had gone one way or the other, but we do not yet know what decision Ofcom will reach on the two applications. I cannot prejudge the view that it will take, but we do know that coverage matters, although I should make it clear—this will probably not be of enormous comfort to the two hon. Gentlemen—that coverage means population coverage. Population coverage is the key, not geographic coverage. I completely understand that that creates difficulties for those who live in particularly isolated areas, but it is population that we want to reach with these new licences—the 13 extra licences for local digital radio that Ofcom is in the process of offering in the market and which the hon. Gentlemen are concerned about.

I hope that both hon. Gentlemen welcome the fact that Ofcom is also involved in the “Future of Radio” consultation, which is looking at whether Ofcom should have greater powers to increase the licensed areas of local multiplexes and enable local stations to increase their coverage. That consultation has just taken place, and Ofcom is due to publish its conclusions shortly. The Government will be considering its recommendations on this and other issues, and I am sure that both hon. Gentlemen will want to let us have their views on Ofcom’s document when it emerges.

The hon. Gentlemen are clearly primarily concerned about the licence for the Gloucester multiplex. Those were advertised in July, and a decision is expected in January 2008, but it is clearly inappropriate for me to comment on any decisions. As I have told the hon. Gentlemen, Ofcom is bound to put a greater emphasis on population than on geography.

The Minister has been very clear about that, as has Ofcom, but one of the things that I asked her was whether she thinks that that is appropriate. It is appropriate for a national broadcasting system and national data, but is it appropriate for a local radio station completely to exclude big chunks of whole counties? Might the Minister’s Department not wish to look at that when it discusses with Ofcom the framework that it uses to allocate licences?

Let us look at what comes out of Ofcom’s review. At the end of the day, however, licences are allocated on commercial grounds, and it is for those making submissions for licences to decide how many separate stations they will have to give them the coverage that they need. If we believe that the issue is best driven by the market, it is extremely difficult for us to lay down criteria, which would intervene very negatively in the market and probably prevent the development of the sort of local radio stations that we are looking to have throughout the country. We therefore have a tension between public benefit and commercial viability, which is why I suggested that one way for the hon. Member for Forest of Dean to take the debate forward following the allocation of the licences might be to enter into discussions with the regional and local authorities to see whether they feel that they have any role to play where there has been a market failure of the kind that he alleges has occurred in the allocations. We must wait and see what happens following the allocations.

In correspondence with Ofcom, the hon. Gentleman asked why its advertisement gave Churchdown hill as an example of a transmitter that those applying for a licence might want to use. There is no determination on the part of Ofcom to ensure that that is the transmitter that is used by whoever is awarded the licence—it is simply given as an example. Again, there are clearly huge technical challenges, given the terrain of the Forest of Dean, and both of those who have applied for the licence will no doubt have put their minds to the issue. It is in their interests to increase the audience, but they must do so in a way that remains commercially viable for them.

The other issue to which Ofcom will have regard—I hope that the hon. Gentleman approves of this—is how fast the applicants will roll out transmission of the service across the area. As he will know—I am sure that Ofcom will have told him this—there is a series of other criteria to which it will have regard, and I can write to him about those if he does not have them.

The Government have no plans to set a timetable for radio switchover. The issues for consumers and the industries are far less clear-cut than they were for TV. As I said, digital coverage so far is much lower, but we are considering calls to set up a working group to consider the future of digital radio in the UK. One issue that any such group would need to consider is how to ensure that as many people as possible can have access to the great range of services offered by digital radio.

In conclusion, digital broadcasting can bring benefits for consumers, including better quality and better choice, but Ofcom must work with industries to consider the barriers to the growth of such services.