HC Deb 17 January 1996 vol 269 cc737-9
16. Mr. Fabricant

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what plans he has to promote the manufacture and marketing of digital terrestrial television converters and digital audio broadcast receivers; and if he will make a statement. [7904]

Mr. Ian Taylor

We are creating the regulatory framework in which digital terrestrial services can flourish in the United Kingdom. Applicants for multiplex operating licences under the Broadcasting Bill will be judged on their proposals for promoting or assisting the acquisition of digital receiving equipment by viewers and listeners in the proposed coverage areas.

The Government have put in place a practical plan that will ensure that analogue services are switched off at the earliest achievable date. That will create a significant market opportunity for the industry, with perhaps about £8 billion in replacement televisions alone.

Mr. Fabricant

I thank my hon. Friend for his long, detailed and helpful answer. Does he agree that this country has led the world in introducing a liberalised policy for broadcasting and broadcasting technology? Does he recall that the Labour party opposed the introduction of ITV, opposed the introduction of satellite broadcasting and opposed the introduction of Channel 4 and Channel 5 television? Does he agree that the last thing we want is a Government stakeholder in companies such as British Telecom?

Mr. Taylor

There is no doubt that the policies of the Labour party would drive a stake through the competitive nature of the telecoms industry that is so vital if we are to deliver the information society at prices that the customer can afford.

In this digital age for television, I very much welcome the Broadcasting Bill. It will give Britain the opportunity to be the first country in the European Union to move to digital television. If things go well and investments improve, the Bill will give me a fairly rapid opportunity to retrieve the analogue spectrum, which I can then redeploy for further broadcasting and telecommunications activities.

Mr. Miller

Towards the end of the Minister's response, he mentioned the radio spectrum. Which Departments have provided him with information on the potential release of the parts of the spectrum that they currently control? Will he expand on his comment about the distribution of the analogue spectrum when some of the terrestrial television companies release it?

Mr. Taylor

The Radiocommunications Agency, which reports to me, is responsible for the management of all the spectrum in this country. It is doing an efficient job, including clawing back underused spectrum from Departments such as the Ministry of Defence. We are also considering the way in which the emergency services deliver their use of the spectrum.

It is clear that the new mobile services, the new fixed-link service and the results of the recent competition to use parts of the spectrum to deliver multimedia services in rural areas will all require very close and detailed management of the spectrum. I am confident that as analogue is switched off and the public move to digital—which has enormous benefits for them—I shall be able to claw back and use the analogue spectrum on what are known as television bands 4 and 5. In those areas, some of it will be used for digital, but the majority will be redeployed with great value to telecommunications and further broadcasting activities.

I want that to happen as soon as possible. We have undertaken to review it within five years or when there is 50 per cent. coverage in the United Kingdom. The details are in the Broadcasting Bill.

Mr. Ian Bruce

My hon. Friend will know that the all-party cable and satellite television group meets regularly. It has heard from some broadcasters who are concerned that the Department of Trade and Industry may be giving preferential treatment to existing terrestrial broadcasters over the distribution of digital channels, especially those via satellite. In allocating the digital spectrum, I urge him to ensure the widest possible access to the television market for as many people as possible and not to leave monopolies to the BBC and the existing terrestrial ITV companies.

Mr. Taylor

I hear what my hon. Friend says. A terrific amount of investment will be required to move into the digital age. There are not that many players in the game with the required capital, but alliances that we cannot predict at the moment may take us into this exciting new market. The Broadcasting Bill—on which the Department of Trade and Industry, as well as the Department of National Heritage, has had considerable impact—gives the maximum flexibility to incomers who wish for the first time to be involved in digital transmission and the control of multiplexes. It also gives existing terrestrial broadcasters the opportunity to do what they can to make the most of their enormous content and production facilities. ITV, BBC and Channel 4 will have to notify us within a certain period whether they wish to take that opportunity. It is absolutely right that they should be given that opportunity if we are to develop a competitive marketplace.

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