Government accused of “irresponsibility” in phasing out analogue radio spectrum

July 21, 2009 at 2:57 pm Leave a comment

by Peter Taberner

Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Sion Simon outlined the government’s progress on the digital radio switchover during questions on Culture Media and Sport yesterday.

“The “Digital Britain” White Paper set out the Government’s vision for the delivery of the digital radio upgrade by the end of 2015,” he told MPs.

“We have committed to a review of the progress towards that timetable in spring 2010, and we have also asked Ofcom to review and publish progress against the upgrade criteria at least once a year, starting next year.”

Conservative MP for Macclesfield Sir Nicholas Winterton was sceptical about the desire for the switchover and the whether the government has ironed out some of the problems of digital radio broadcasting.

He claimed “Digital Britain” has failed to address “the inadequacies of digital radio broadcasting coverage.”

Mr Simon replied: “I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman thinks that we are rushing ahead. We have said that we will move Britain to digital by 2015.

“That gives consumers and the industry six years to make the upgrade, which we are doing because we are committed to radio, we believe in radio and we love radio, and radio will not have a future unless it goes digital.

“We are not switching off FM, and we are putting new services on the FM spectrum that is vacated by the services which move to digital audio broadcasting, because we want to see radio prospers and grows in the digital age.”

He also assure that local and community services will be protected during the switchover after Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield voiced his concern after being lobbied by Teachers TV.

“We are ensuring with radio switchover that community organisations and small community radio stations, which might currently be able to broadcast for only two weeks a year, will inherit the FM spectrum currently taken up by big regional and national FM broadcasters,” Mr Simon said.

“Precisely such small, commercial, local community organisations will be able to flourish in the digital future in a way that they are technologically constrained from doing now.”

Mr Simon also confirmed that the government is working with industry to ensure that the cost of new digital radio will be set at £20 to add to the 9 million sets currently in circulation and stated that all consumers will have six years to decide what equipment that they would wish to pay for following the switchover in order to receive their chosen broadcasting services.

Jeremy Hunt, Shadow Culture Secretary, said according to the government says there are 65 million analogue radios in circulation and estimates digital radios will fall to £20 a set.

“That means that the cost of upgrading the nation’s analogue radio stock will surpass £1 billion. Who will pay that £1 billion? Will it be the Government, or will it be consumers?” he asked.

Mr Simon replied:

“In response to what we might call the “Tory sums” of the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr Hunt)— [Interruption.] No, Tory sums.

“We do not know how many analogue radios are in circulation; it may be 65 million.

“The first point to make is that those sets will not become redundant. The FM spectrum will be well used for new services that are currently squeezed out.

“We are working with industry to come up with sets that are consistently priced at £20 or less. That will enable consumers to add to the 9 million digital sets.”

Mr. Hunt said it was the “height of irresponsibility” to announce the phasing out of analogue spectrum without announcing any details or any funding for a help scheme, similar to the one that was in place for TV switchover.

“Will that not cause widespread concern among millions of radio listeners, who will feel that they are faced with the unenviable choice of either paying up or switching off?”

Mr. Simon said the same process would be followed for radio as with television.

“We will carry out a full cost-benefit analysis of exactly what kind of help scheme might or might not be required, and we will proceed accordingly.

“There are 9 million digital sets in use already. Consumers have six years to decide how much they want to pay, for what equipment, to receive which services.”

On a brighter note MPs from all sides congratulated the English cricket team for winning the Ashes and the Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw declared the ‘Free Theatre Initiative’ a success with 50,000 tickets being distributed during the scheme’s first quarter targeted towards the young.


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