Digital Switchover in the UK : Digital Dividend or Dilemma?

BBC is the lead of Digital UK
  Every new communication technology leads to responses by states and societies: leads to policy debates and decisions which reflect various interest and values and results in settlements in which- inevitably- there are winners and losers.
  The global rush towards digital transmissions systems most involving spectrum hungry High Definition television requires governments and broadcasters to make decisions which reflect their priorities as between public and private interest; between citizen and consumer; between public service content as opposed to further commercialisation and celebrity.

  In short, we are deciding which channels are allocated which spectrum on which terms and what that says about where our nations and societies are going.

Digital UK

  In the United Kingdom, we are proceeding apace towards digital switchover with the first town- Whitehaven, about to go digital on October 14, 2007. Subsequently, analogue signals are to be replaced on a region by region basis with London converting in 2012, just in time for the Olympic Games.

  Described by Digital UK Chief Executive Ford Ennals as "the largest civil project in the UK" Switchover will cost at least 1.8 billion pounds just to re-engineer the transmitters never mind the huge costs of converting receivers.

  Within this are a number of serious policy and operational questions and what is at stake is not only substantial economic and technological investment in infrastructure, but also the increasingly fragile ecology of broadcasting structures and values which have enabled British broadcasting to be and remain successful over many decades.

  We need to ask: Why was the BBC given and did it accept 'Building Digital Britain' as a condition/goal of its renewed charter for the period 2006-2015? Who is in charge of DSO?

  Digital UK state that they are "the independent, non profit organization leading the process of digital TV switchover in the UK." Digital UK was set up at the request of the Government. We work closely with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Trade and Industry, as well as the regulator OFCOM, to prepare the UK for the biggest change in broadcasting since the introduction of colour.

  Digital UK is owned by the UK's public service broadcasters and works with OFCOM but the BBC Charter puts the BBC in the lead and the BBC owns 56 per cent of Digital UK and the help scheme is being funded through the licence fee.

  Why? Why cannot the UK government just send a cheque directly to Digital UK rather than going through the BBC?

  Moreover if or more likely when problems develop, to whom do we complain? The BBC? Department of Culture, Media and Sport? Members of Parliament at Westminster or Members of the Scottish Parliament in Scotland? The Scottish Government ? Digital UK? Department of Trade and Industry? Any or all of the above? Who is really responsible?

  What is clear is that the lines of accountability are unclear.

  The House of Commons Select Committee Culture, Media and Sport was concerned about the management and co-ordination of this project.

  There is no reason, at present, for these fears to be allayed.

  Moreover, why has the UK chosen digital terrestrial transmission (DTT) as well as satellite ?(Freesat is now likely to appear)and what might be the consequences of the arrival and adoption of High Definition Television?

  It is possible to speculate that one reason for the adoption of digital terrestrial television (DTT) is not for broadcasting but rather for reasons of national security. A satellite can always be taken out by an enemy but warning the nation to take cover in case of attack could be more securely achieved by a network of transmitters.

  So DTT on is on Freeview ?the existing system whereby viewers have been able to buy a set top box for a one off cost of around at the cheapest- thirty UK pounds- has been responsible for the fact that many homes have already converted to digital- at least in respect of the main television set in the home.

  It is not too much to claim that had it not been for the BBC launching Freeview, the UK would not have been so far down the digital road.

  Many viewers prefer to choose not to subscribe to cable or satellite with payments due on a monthly basis but would rather watch the thirty or so channels on Freeview.

  But the new system DTT will go into decline- even after Digital Switchover if it is not configured to take and enable High Definition TV (HDTV) - which is likely to be the standard for the future.

  The problem is that given its need for spectrum, the number of channels available with HD become much lower- perhaps around 5 or 6 rather than 20 plus on the available spectrum on the existing multiplexes. So viewers who have been accustomed to many more channels will find they may well get less in this digital utopia.

  Add in the fact that the UK government and the regulator OFCOM are seeking to maximise revenue from the spectrum via what they call the digital dividend ?ie the introduction of spectrum trading which could allow the highest bidders such as telecom companies to buy and secure the best bits of the spectrum and/or require the public service broadcasters to pay for their spectrum use and the scene is set for income to be diverted from what, after all is the raison deter of broadcasting, ie the production and communication of good creative content.

More Dilemma

  The process of switchover also involves part of the BBC licence fee being ring fenced- a dangerous precedent in terms of the government being able to determine and designate the uses of any part of the licence fee.

  This, of course, sets a very dangerous precedent for the licence fee being top sliced- a possibility for the future when commercial broadcasters increasingly seek financial support and subsidy for providing programmes which may meet social and cultural values and needs but are not necessarily in their full commercial interest ?as they deem this to be.

  So who decides who gets the spectrum and on what criteria and terms? Will spectrum trading be the way? The market or the public interest?

  These may not be identical.

  Also the government has decreed that the help scheme part of the licence fee will amount to 600 million UK pounds for the elderly and the severely disabled and that it is expected that the BBC will lead its delivery.The Government will retain responsibility for policy, including helping with the procurement of a contractor to deliver the scheme and determining people's eligibility for it.

  But of course, there remains a question, under the help scheme, not only regarding who is and is not eligible but also the specification for the set top boxes and whether it will address sufficiently the digital divide and the need for technology to be fully interactive and as future proof as possible?

  Given the noises from politicians and government about e-government and e-commerce, will it be configured to allow for optimum operability or more likely will it be done on the cheap and what will the consequences? Either way, minimum but poor viability for the future or good but costly, someone will have to pay somehow and one hopes that this will not affect the licence fee.

  But the really serious question is around whether or not the mantra of more channels will really deliver more choice and diversity and quality or will we have more channels but more of the same with increased competition leading to regression to the mean- in all senses of the word?

  Where and How and How well will the public interest be articulated and represented in these processes, deliberations and decisions?

  Viewers and listeners pay their licence fee for quality programmes- not to subsidise or support government policy or pay for spectrum which is a public resource which is in the process of being privatised without sufficient public debate.

  On offer more channels, certainly. But more choice? Not so certain. Choice in content and pluralism in supply are culturally and economically complex.

  More channels do not lead, of themselves to more real choice.

  This is not likely to be achieved without sensitive and firm regulation of the type which OFCOM in its decisions to now has signally failed to deliver, preferring instead to privilege the clauses of the Communications Act 2003 which serve the interests of business, light touch and (de) regulation rather than the citizen or public interest.

  The UK broadcasting ecology has, for decades- produced quality creative content because of regulation not despite media regulation and is now in danger of leading to regression to the mean: mean television, in every sense of the word: with the price of everything known but little real value therein.

  Digitalisation can bring benefits- but only if properly managed in the public interest.
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