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Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde moved Amendment No. 8:

Page 7, line 38, leave out ("and (f)" and insert (",(f) and (ff)").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 10, 16 and 23. These amendments refer to a single set-top box. I am aware that we strayed into that area when we talked about conditional access and we also did so in Committee.

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If these amendments are accepted, they will ensure that there is a single standard set-top box providing availability of access for all digital terrestrial services. As presently drafted, the Bill makes no such provision. In fact, without the amendments the reverse could happen.

In Committee the noble Viscount, Lord Chelmsford, said that it is too early to look at technical standards for a single set-top box. I know that the noble Viscount, Lord Chelmsford, has some expertise in this field and is president of the European Informatics Market, of which I am a member. The noble Viscount was referring to the fact that the main European suppliers have agreed a voluntary common standard for set-top box equipment--a DVB agreement, which has been referred to today. The view of EURIM is that there is still a potential problem in that the agreed standard allows two options: the first providing a single set-top box with several slots so that several channels can be received with access by use of a smart card which is paid for; or one box with one slot for a proprietary conditional access system.

The amendments do not seek to state which technical standards should apply. I suggest that the Bill provides the only opportunity for discussion on that single standard. We must not have a monopoly dominance, as we do at present, which prevents people having access unless they pay for a different box. I believe that we all have the same aim; namely, one box for which an entrance fee is paid which provides access to whichever services or channels one wishes to access. But the technical requirement should be a single standard. We must bear in mind also that although we are discussing this Bill now, it will not reach the statute book until much later this year and I understand that talks are taking place at present about that very issue.

When we discussed this on the first day of Committee, the Minister accepted that there were concerns about the whole area. He said that he was prepared to look at the criteria to be applied by the ITC. As yet, we have had no response, but I do not criticise the Minister because I see how many amendments there are on the Marshalled List and in view of the number of changes that have been made, it may be that there has not been an opportunity to deal with this matter.

In Committee, the Minister referred to the DTI consultation document on conditional access, a copy of which we received on the day of that debate. The Minister went on to say that many of our anxieties were dealt with outside the Bill; and therein lies the problem. Those anxieties are real. They refer to broadcasting. I presume that the Minister is referring to the DTI consultation document.

The fact is that the DTI document gives no assurances that the viewer will see the emergence of a single standard through which access can be gained to digital services. The ITC has said that an integrated digital receiver, which is capable of receiving all digital terrestrial programme services, is in the best interests of the viewer. It is not surprising that he said that because I believe that that is generally accepted as the commonsense view. The amendment does not mean that

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there will be one identical receiver--in other words, a monopoly supply. We are talking about a single technical standard.

The difference between us is not whether a single set-top box is desirable, because I have heard no opposition to that proposition. We all agree that it is desirable. The difference is whether we accept that there is a need to make provision on the face of the Bill for the ITC to take into account proposals for set-top box compatibility when assessing applications for multiplex service licences. We believe that there is a need to have that on the face of the Bill.

In Committee it was mentioned that the German companies had concluded agreements on a standard decoder and that is referred to in the paper by the European Informatics Market and the review that it has carried out. The noble Viscount, Lord Chelmsford, is right in thinking that there may be some drawbacks to that. I gather that talks are taking place in the UK but I have heard only rumours and I do not have much detail about them. The Minister referred to that earlier today.

If there is nothing on the face of the Bill to ensure that we have a single decoder system and if no industry-wide agreement is concluded, where do we go? It means that we reach a position in which there is no fair competition. If it is not on the face of the Bill, it will be too late to take measures which may be needed to deal with the problem. I suggest that it will be too late not only for the viewer but also for the many services which we all hope will take off.

We cannot leave this matter to chance or even to common sense. Unfortunately, all too often there is too little of that about when one is dealing with money and competition. Since we discussed this matter in Committee, I have received two interesting briefing notes. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, referred to one of them from EUTELSAT, the European Telecommunications Satellite Organisation. That organisation also refers to the need for a single decoder. It notes the amendments put forward in Committee and that they were subsequently withdrawn. It urges us to put forward those amendments again at this stage. EUTELSAT is not a consumer organisation but it rightly says that market forces will determine an acceptable level of charge for the services, which is our intention. We want the customer to pay what he is prepared to pay. But to have a system which means more than one decoder box will not allow that competition to develop.

The other letter which I received is from the British Radio and Electronic Equipment Manufacturers' Association whose members last year manufactured 5.6 million colour television sets and 3 million video recorders in the UK. The association makes it quite clear that there are shortcomings in the Bill on set-top boxes. It does not want the issue to be left open--and it represents the manufacturers of televisions and video recorders here in the UK--to a voluntary agreement being reached. The association supports the ITC; as we do on these Benches. It wants the ITC to have the authority in the Bill to take into account how proposals from applicants for multiplex licences will ensure viewer access to the whole range of the new digital terrestrial services.

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As BREMA says in its briefing note, the general principle which motivates its anxieties--and ours--that there should be a single standard is that there should also be a free market which would encourage consumers to purchase equipment in the knowledge that it will be cost effective and will give them access to the variety of services available. It will be convenient to use; it will be flexible; and it will not tie people to any one particular programme or service provider. How right BREMA is! That is what the amendments are intended to achieve. Those are the principles lying behind them.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, I strongly support the noble Baroness in what she said. She put the case most carefully and thoroughly. I believe her argument that such a provision ought to be on the face of the Bill at this time is a strong one. I shall not say more beyond that because, as the noble Baroness said, I strayed into the matter during the course of debate on her earlier amendments. Therefore, having committed the sin of trespass, I think that the best price I can pay is to say that I am content to stand on the arguments that I put to the Minister earlier.

Viscount Chelmsford: My Lords, I certainly support the noble Baroness on the desirability of having a single set-top box for digital terrestrial transmission, although it would be nice if we could have one that was wider. I also support the noble Baroness that it is right for the ITC to put pressure on all the parties concerned to try to move towards that position. However, I am neutral on whether there is a need for such a provision in the Bill. Indeed, I am not sure. I do not remember the ITC's latest briefing paper requesting further powers in that respect, and it has not been backward in asking for powers when it felt that it did not have sufficient. Finally, I thank the noble Baroness for promoting me, but I am only a director of EURIM.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, said, the noble Baroness very comprehensively explained the amendments which relate to the matter of a single set-top box for digital terrestrial television. The amendments would make co-ordination between multiplex providers on a single set-top box a criterion for the award of a multiplex, and would allow the ITC to set minimum requirements to be met by all applicants seeking those licences. The implementation of the measures proposed for co-operation would then, in turn, become conditions in the licence.

As I said when we debated the amendments in Committee, the industry is well seized of the importance of co-operation to the success of digital terrestrial television. Fragmentation would be in no one's interests. The existence of the Digital Television Group is proof of that. I am pleased to inform your Lordships that, since we last discussed the issues, membership of that group has continued to expand so that now some 24 companies are involved.

Noble Lords will also be aware that I am moving an amendment to Clause 9 which fulfils the commitment that I made in Committee to look again at the criteria

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for the award of multiplex licences. I referred to that amendment earlier when responding to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, which was indeed the beginning of the trespass in which we all seem to have become involved. In particular, I said in Committee that we would consider whether we might do more to take into account the extent to which an individual multiplex applicant's proposals would contribute to the overall development of digital terrestrial television. It is clear that a multiplex provider's commitment to co-operation on the provision of a single box could be a significant element in the contribution his proposals might make to that end.

Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will not seek to press the amendments. I also hope that she will support my amendment, the purpose of which both she and the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, welcomed in Committee. It will pull together the future development of set-top boxes without prescribing the form that any particular box might take--which might well in fact be illegal under the rules of the single market--in a form within the general parameters imposed by the licensing conditions and competition policy. I hope that my response will reassure the noble Baroness.

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