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It is also now clearer how better coverage of over 90 per cent, up from the current 85 per cent, will be achieved by the installation of new transmitters. As for DAB+, it is also much clearer that DAB will remain the standard. We heard about the necessity of multistandard chips from the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. Crucially-this was an important issue when we debated the Digital Economy Act-there is also a much clearer future for FM radio and a much better understanding of its role. For the foreseeable future, FM will remain as a delivery channel of choice for local and community radio. The Minister could not have been clearer when he launched the action plan and said,
I am very glad that UTV-which lobbied very heavily on the issues covered in the Digital Economy Act, and was sceptical about the whole principle of digital switchover-is now essentially on board with the digital switchover strategy. I believe that the commercial radio industry is very much on board with it as set out in the action plan. It is also clear that progress is being made on the single receiver and platform-neutral tuning, as the committee wanted. In summary, I am strongly supportive of the new-or perhaps I should say restated-strategy.
However, some questions remain, and they derive mainly from the consumer expert group report published in September. I very much hope the Minister can give a response to some of the ideas in that report, which suggested that a firm digital switchover date should be set only when 70 per cent of listening is done on digital. That is quite a high hurdle and I will be interested to hear what the Minister says about it. Is an independent body required as the key information provider on digital radio, as it states? Then, there was the issue that my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter raised. There must be accessibility in the development of usability features on equipment for the disadvantaged. Then, crucially, and many noble Lords have mentioned this in the course of the debate, there is the need for consumer support through a help scheme for vulnerable listeners, not an optional extra but a vital element of the whole process. Will the Government go ahead with a help scheme? Will they then commit to funding it to fairly modest levels-I think that the quotes for this have been £5 million or £6 million-and will it be provided through general taxation? Those are key issues.
Lastly, will we build on the positive experience with the voluntary sector on digital outreach, with the help scheme for digital television switchover which has proved such a great success? I very much hope that digital radio will build on the success of that. We have
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Lord Donoughue: My Lords, in welcoming this excellent report on a highly complex subject, I wish to focus briefly on the aspect of digital radio, which has exercised others today, and on which the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, spoke so well. I also thank him for the fine work that he did as the chairman of the committee.
Here I should declare a passionate interest-a lifetime of listening to music of all kinds. As with millions of other music lovers, I listen often on the radio, and the quality of the sound matters enormously. The Proms are best heard on a good-quality FM tuner radio like my lovely old Revox tuner. Sadly, the plans of the previous Government, which I generally supported but not in this area, were hostile to the interests of myself and many others who listen to music on the radio-hostile because they proposed to abolish rapidly the existing analogue FM system, which provides excellent music reproduction, and replace it with the technologically redundant DAB system, already abandoned in most of the rest of Europe, except, I think, by Norway and Ireland. I will be corrected if noble Lords can find another country-maybe Estonia. DAB has poor music sound, and almost all music lovers and listeners will confirm that.
The plans were hostile because the Government steamrollered ahead with this perhaps ill thought-out scheme without consulting sufficiently the consumer interest of the listening public. There was, and still is, little evidence of consumer demand for digital radio broadcasting. Television is a wholly different issue; the digital switchover works, and I am very pleased about that.
This question of radio broadcasting matters, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, stated. Some 90 per cent of the population over five years old listen to the radio for an average of, as the report said, 22 hours per week. That was in 2009. Despite the massive advertising campaign for DAB, still only 21 per cent or 22 per cent of listening was on digital in 2009, and only 16 per cent is on DAB even today. I cannot understand why noble Lords say that the consumer is supporting it; the figures are contrary.
As has been said, more than 30 million cars are currently driving without DAB. Despite the well advertised threat of scrapping FM in 2015, only roughly a quarter of new radio sales were digital in 2009. Virtually all car listening is currently on FM. I often go to hi-fi shops, and the staff there say that the majority of customers are still not interested in digital; instead, they are willing to invest their money in FM tuner radio equipment, despite the threat of rapid abolition.
So, why has the propaganda campaign to impose DAB on the British listening public failed? And it has. Most of the British public do not like DAB sound and most are content with analogue FM. That is the reason. It is not a failure of communication. That is what Stalin said whenever people complained that they were starving in the Russian countryside: "It must be a failure of communication and propaganda".
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There is not the faintest prospect of reaching the target of 50 per cent coverage by digital-in 2013, remember-which is the prelude to the 2015 switchover. Yet still some in Whitehall, the BBC and the radio industry-from which we have heard distinguished representatives this evening, not that they wish to do this-wish to impose digital sound broadcasting on British listeners, effectively by abolishing the superior FM competition. This is how the East German communist regime boosted sales of its notorious Trabant car; it excluded superior competition. DAB, though not DAB+, is in my view the Trabbie of broadcast sound. The propaganda campaign for DAB often referred to the proposed digital radio switchover as "upgrading". I noticed that my noble friend Lord Gordon used that word, though I know he was referring to television and not radio. Perhaps in the propaganda this was a misspelling of "degrading" as far as broadcast sound is concerned. I congratulate the Communications Committee on explicitly refusing to accept that spin.
There are of course advantages to digital broadcasting that were widely canvassed and have been mentioned tonight. The main benefits are extra functions, the possibility of interaction, wider station choice and ease of tuning. Those are true, yet as the Ofcom research has shown, there is no evidence that radio listeners want these facilities. All the evidence is that radio-especially music-listeners are content with the present FM. Ofcom's published research shows 91 per cent public satisfaction with FM. Only 3 per cent want access to the extra radio stations that DAB gives them.
Digital campaigners also argue that the existing FM infrastructure needs costly renewal, while the report says it will cost £10 million per annum for 20 years. That is peanuts compared to the cost of switching to digital. There is the cost of expensively extending the digital multiplexes and of wantonly forcing listeners to dispose of some 100 million analogue radios, costing consumers an estimated £6 billion. I say to my noble friend that these sets would resent being called useless. My Revox does not think it is useless; it is excellent but threatened with redundancy and resents that. There is the cost of abandoning the excellent FM transmission equipment, including that at Wrotham, which serves London; of spending all the money on hundreds of new digital transmitters, many in dense urban locations; and of abandoning the FM spectrum, which cannot be sold. In sum, this venture offers more stations, which the public do not want, with poor audio quality, at huge cost to the consumer, who was never consulted. Better communications and advertising for DAB will not change that.
This venture for DAB radio was launched partly at the wish of the radio industry, which saw benefits in switching off bigger FM stations. To the radio industry it offers probable savings of around £30 million. To the BBC it offers a possible way of coping with the advance of internet radio, which has been so well spoken of, though I doubt whether it will succeed. I greatly sympathise with what my noble friend said about that. To the previous Labour Government it no
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This good report and the government response seek commendably-though late in the day-to address that consumer factor, but nowhere is the mediocre quality of DAB sound addressed. The committee rightly rebukes the previous Government for not having done-or certainly not published-any cost-benefit analysis on this project. We can understand why they did not produce any analysis of the balance of costs and benefits as the costs are high and the benefits are few, at least to the public radio consumer. Certainly, there will be few benefits for some decades to come.
So what do we do now, finding ourselves in this mess on digital radio but not TV? The report is impressively coy on this basic problem. It hints correctly that, like the Irishman at the crossroads-he may have been a relative of mine-it would not start from here. But we are here and the committee gives some excellent pointers to the Government on how to clarify the future. However, to me it seems too defeatist in accepting that FM radio has no future and in accepting the unrealistic dates of 2013 and 2015 for switchover.
I believe that the new coalition Government, and their promising Minister, Ed Vaizey, should be more radical and brave. For a start, they should read and accept the recent report of their own advisory body, the Consumer Expert Group, entitled Digital Radio Switchover: What is in it for Consumers?. As I said, there is a short answer to that. It contains an attack on the digital plans and accuses the radio industry of attempting to "bully" the public into adopting DAB. It states that the only consumer benefit in the switchover would be the ultra-small stations, to which few would listen.
For the future, in addition to studying carefully what my noble friend Lord Maxton said, I suggest three conclusions which might have been in the report. First, the Government should maintain indefinitely the national-not just local-FM radio platform, which a large proportion of the public enjoy and prefer. The Consumer Expert Group states categorically that,
Secondly, since we are down the digital radio path, the UK should switch to using the superior DAB+ technology in radio receivers as soon as possible. Finally, the switchover date for transmissions should be delayed until, say, at least three-quarters of all radio listening is by DAB+. I see no virtue in meeting a bad target date. I am encouraged by what the Government have already said in that area. Such a delay would allow a steady and measured transition to a more realistic date without steamrolling the poor consumer into rapidly throwing away his excellent FM equipment. We should allow him or her to enjoy their existing superior sound for much longer.
Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, it was a great privilege and pleasure to be part of this extremely topical inquiry by the Communications Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. Coming in as
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However, I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, because while there is a very compelling case for digital television switchover which has progressed on time and on budget-in fact under budget, according to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood-with minimal teething problems, I have struggled to comprehend the urgency for digital radio switchover and particularly the need for it to be implemented by 2015. I want briefly in my remarks to comment on the SWOT analysis of the implementation of the plan by 2015.
Clearly, with radio playing such an important part in many households throughout the United Kingdom, it is vital that the needs and concerns of radio listeners are fully addressed. For consumers voluntarily to adopt digital radio there needs to be an independent report as well as a cost-benefit analysis giving a balanced view on the advantages and disadvantages of the switchover.
It is difficult to find a single authoritative source that explains what to look for when buying a digital radio and how to compare different products. I agree with the recommendation of Consumer Focus that there should be an easy-to-read checklist that would prompt consumers about what digital products can deliver, explain the different features and help them to make more informed decisions. However, I also believe that there should be better staff training at retail outlets and that there should be more consistent training whereby retail staff are encouraged to become "accredited digital advisers", as have I heard them referred to.
As the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, mentioned, the commercial radio industry is clearly under considerable pressure. Advertising revenues in 2000 were in excess of £750 million and have reduced to currently around £560 million. Broadcasters which have invested in digital services have had to pay dual transmission costs. I was surprised to hear that more than two-thirds of commercial radio stations are loss-making or making less than £100,000 per annum. I appreciate that the FM spectrum is almost full at the moment and, therefore, the release of digital spectrum would give the industry more opportunity to grow and offer more services to listeners, but I would argue that consumers are more interested in the quality of content and signal, rather than an additional choice of programmes. As the chief executive of RadioCentre, Andrew Harrison, pointed out,
While Digital UK has managed the communications campaign for TV switchover in an exemplary and efficient manner, I question the effectiveness of the communications campaign for radio switchover. This is the responsibility not just of Digital Radio UK, but also of manufacturers and retail outlets.
In preparation for a digital radio switchover, I strongly support specific measures being put in place to protect vulnerable listeners such as blind and partially sighted people, who rely on their radios even more than do other listeners. The recent excellent DCMS Consumer Expert Group Report, published in mid-September, stated:
"Research shows that vulnerable listeners are the slowest to convert to new technology and as such are unlikely to be among those who voluntarily adopt digital radio before a switchover is announced".
One of our key recommendations was that all digital radios contain a multistandard chip, giving us the option of a subsequent move to a different standard. I understand that some but not all DAB radios can be upgraded to work with DAB+. With technology advancing at such a rapid rate, it is inevitable that we will have a future of DAB+. I was tempted to speak about internet radio, but I will resist. My concern is that some cheaper DAB radios may not be upgradeable and may become obsolete. It is important that there should be an industry standard label indicating if a DAB radio is upgradeable to work with other digital radio formats.
One major concern about the digital radio switchover raised by the inquiry related to the use of in-car radios. This was the hobby-horse of the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, and I will not repeat the concerns that he and others raised. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, is correct in saying that all vehicle manufacturers will install digital radios by 2013, and that there will be a reliable solution to in-vehicle conversions.
We have heard a plethora of statistics. The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, mentioned that there are at least 120 million analogue radios in circulation, and I understand that at least 90 million are in regular use. It is important that clear guidelines are given to consumers and retailers to ensure that regulations on the disposal of obsolete devices are appropriately applied and followed.
In conclusion, while I am a firm supporter of the digital age and all its benefits of choice and quality, there is not yet a compelling argument that the target date of 2015 for digital radio switchover is realistic or practical. Any target date set should be looked upon as secondary to the important consumer issues.
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I declare my interest as an adviser to Macquarie Group, whose infrastructure funds have investments in the transmission business Arqiva and in the security communications service Airwave.
Like other colleagues on the Select Committee on Communications, I compliment the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on his foresight and his leadership, which produced such a timely and well received report on digital switchover. The government response in June was the most positive response to any
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Those Labour Ministers were far-sighted in setting up a shadow Digital UK group in 2002, and wise to ensure that when Digital UK formally came into existence in 2005, it was not a quango but an industry group made up of major players in the broadcasting and communications sector. The funding model was also generous and has underpinned the success to date of digital television switchover for 7 million homes. Although the remaining 75 per cent of UK homes are still to be switched over in 2011 and 2012, I think that there is among us tonight a growing confidence that the digital television switchover programme will continue to come in on time and, even better, well under budget.
As anticipated, there have been problems: with retuning, with regional overlaps in transmission, and with a small proportion-about 1 per cent-of elderly Freeview set-top boxes. The fact that we hear so little about all this in the newspapers, which are usually keen on stories about television, suggests that these problems are being sorted-in many cases, very effectively with the help of the voluntary sector, particularly charities looking after the elderly and those with various disabilities. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, I am impressed by the outreach programme. As she said, it was good to hear the Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, pay tribute to those charities when he launched Digital UK's annual report in July, and it was certainly politically astute of him to praise it as a model for other community initiatives which would at last bring to life the Prime Minister's vision of the big society.
The growing confidence in the successful completion of the ambitious programme for digital switchover is all the more remarkable when we recall some of the dire predictions that it would be a major political catastrophe for the Labour Government. Consumer rebellion was predicted at the prospect of scrapping all those tens of millions of redundant analogue TVs. In fact, consumers' enthusiasm for digital sets and flat screens ran far ahead of all our expectations. However, our thanks should also go to Digital UK, to its chairman since 2002, Barry Cox, and his chief executive, David Scott, who is now overseeing this huge transition. I trust that we will still be praising their professionalism on completion of the television switchover programme at the end of 2012.
Your Lordships may also be reassured to know that the CEO of Digital UK in its formative years, Ford Ennals, is now the chief executive of DRUK-Digital Radio UK. Mr Ennals's experience is particularly to be welcomed, as our Select Committee discovered, somewhat to its surprise I think, that the previously low-profile switchover of radio from analogue to digital ran a far higher risk of consumer discontent than did television.
Our report highlighted very real concerns about public confusion and industry uncertainty over radio switchover, which the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, described
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The two criteria to be met before a date can be set for the switchover to digital radio are that 50 per cent of listening must be on digital and that for national radio stations digital coverage should be equivalent to existing FM coverage. On that basis, the earliest anticipated switchover date is 2015. It is a timescale that should certainly calm the nerves, and it may well allow all these issues to be properly addressed.
Like its television twin Digital UK, the radio body DRUK is an industry body, made up of broadcasters, retailers and, of course, motor manufacturers, the latter being particularly important. I share the robust view of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, that the cost of conversion in cars might not be quite as daunting as people assume. Obviously there is enthusiasm for in-car listening, with 20 per cent of radio listening being done while driving, and it is essential that digital kit is built in quickly to new models and that cheap and convenient converters can be fitted to older cars.
There are other issues, as noble Lords have outlined, but I think that the Government's digital radio action plan, published in July, answers most of the major concerns raised by our Communications Committee. I hope that coalition Ministers can now persuade the Treasury to release the £6 million of funding required for a two-year public information campaign. The Minister has been asked to comment on that.
The previous Government got the message over for television and the challenge for the coalition Government is to ensure that radio switchover goes just as smoothly. I underline the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester. The challenge for broadcasters is to talk up the attractions of digital radio, to get them over to the public and to accelerate consumer uptake. We are promised many more stations, catering for many more interests.
As ever, the BBC must lead the way. It already broadcasts services of which the wider audience is barely aware-witness the rapid rise in listeners to BBC 6 Music's edgy programming only after a public row over its proposed closure. Tuning in to digital stations will also be easier and there will be clever features, allowing us to rewind and to record programmes. However, echoing my noble friend Lord Donoughue, for me the unique selling point would surely be better quality sound. In big, built-up markets like London, we need stronger signals and better coverage to ensure that there are no infuriating weak spots. As my noble friend argued, the sound quality must at least match that of analogue radio. You do not have to be an audiophile to expect even better quality from digital signals.
Last month, Ministers received the report of the Consumer Expert Group on digital radio switchover and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, I
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Broadcasting engineers are often dismissive of such criticisms as audiophile crankery. However, I recall that after many years as a programme executive in ITV, I would repeatedly ask about viewer complaints that sound levels rose when the adverts came on and I would be told, in baffling technical detail by the staff, that it was all in the mind. Belatedly, a senior engineer admitted that although the decibel level might not go up for the adverts, the dynamic of the sound might be tweaked to make it more intense. I did not understand the technicalities, but I concluded that the viewers were right and that I had been misled. I suspect that listeners are right too on sound quality. To ensure that listeners are not misled again I support the call by consumer groups for more research into the impact of low bit-rate levels in digital signals.
If high-definition television has been a driver in the success of digital television, it seems a bit cloth-eared of broadcasters not to take seriously what some consumers are saying about better sound quality. As I recall, it was digital radio's initial USP-unique selling proposition, as the marketers say. So I hope that the radio industry goes back to basics and gives us better digital quality. I also hope that the encouraging progress being made with the switchover to digital television can be replicated with radio and that the report of the Select Committee on Communications has made that success more likely.
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I take this opportunity to congratulate the committee on, and thank it for, its sterling work under the chair of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. In the few short years since its inception, the committee has chosen strong and important issues to investigate and to report on. Its work has been widely reported in the media and it has helped to raise the profile of this House and its scrutinising role.
I have listened to this debate with a great sense of personal regret. I spent my life in the media and I never had an opportunity or the privilege of joining the committee, which, from everyone's description, has been brilliantly run in every way by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. Given that we are talking about content, clearly the content of this committee has been absolutely brilliant.
The report looks at the process of digital switchover as it affects both television and radio in the UK. TV switchover from analogue to digital began in 2008, and is planned to be completed in 2012. Proposals for the delivery of digital radio upgrade were outlined by our party when in government in the White Paper, Digital Britain, published by my noble friend Lord Carter. A range of the proposals in that report form the basis of the Digital Economy Act 2009.
I will not say too much about the digital television switchover because, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and a number of other Peers have said, it is working well. Of course, there are problems. One of the major problems, as identified by the noble Lords, Lord Fowler and Lord Maxton, is in the help scheme, which is intended for those aged over 75, registered blind or partially sighted, and those who are entitled to disability living allowances. The take-up has been lower than expected and, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, there has been a £250 million underspend. I understand that the current Government are consulting the BBC Trust on how the underspend can be redeployed. Will the Government take up the committee's recommendation that any help scheme associated with radio switchover be funded from general taxation and be better publicised?
I turn to the thornier issue of digital radio, which rightly takes up the bulk of the committee report and has been widely discussed in our debate tonight. Labour, in government, made the case in the report, Digital Britain, that if radio is to compete with other media, it must have greater flexibility to grow, innovate and engage with its audience. In addition, the report stated that it needed to show advantage over analogue radio through the delivery of new content and functionality. While the FM spectrum was essentially full, it was our view that radio would gradually use its relevance in the digital age as people turned to other digital services that had more local content or interactivity. We have all seen how successful TV programmes-whether you like them or not-such as "The X Factor" have been in their use of interactivity, with millions of votes being cast every week. Already, there are about 10 million DAB radios in use in the UK, but the rate of take-up needs to be accelerated if we are to succeed in fulfilling digital radio's promise for a medium that the Digital Britain report described as "portable, intimate and ambient", and to ensure that radio competes with other formats. In our approach, we had the support of the vast majority of the radio sector.
What is the Government's approach to digital radio upgrade-a point made by several noble Lords-particularly given that the mechanisms and powers for digital radio upgrade are now in place? Do they plan to scrap it altogether, leaving those who paid good money for radios to throw them on the scrapheap? There is growing disquiet in some parts of the radio industry, with concern that switchover will result in a two-tier system-again, a worry that has been articulated tonight. Will the Government leave DAB in limbo, so that broadcasters will be left with the additional costs of broadcasting on both digital and analogue platforms?
The committee recognises that if digital radio is to be a success soon, a number of actions need to be taken by the Government, and we on these Benches are very keen to know where the new Government intend to take us. While in government, our plans had two criteria that had to be met before the next stage could be preceded with. These were, first, when 50 per cent of radio listening was to digital sources-Ofcom are monitoring that-and, secondly, when national DAB coverage was comparable to FM coverage and local DAB coverage reached 90 per cent of the population and all major roads. Is it the Government's intention
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When in government, our intention was that these criteria would be met by the end of 2013, paving the way for the delivery of digital radio upgrade by the end of 2015. Upgrade was not intended to mean a complete switch-off of an analogue radio service. Instead, all national and large local services were to be carried on DAB only and would no longer be broadcast on analogue, leaving ultra-local radio services to be broadcast on FM. Do the Government intend to stick with the original timetable or will they allow it to slip?
The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and many other noble Lords talked about the problem of radios in cars. As we have heard, the number of DAB radios in new cars remains very small. What plans do the Government have to try to ensure that DAB radio take-up by the public is greater? Are they talking to manufacturers about fitting DAB-compatible radios as standard? What discussions are they having about retrofitting DAB radios in cars?
I shall briefly pick up some of the most important questions in the committee's report. The committee argued that, given the importance for the plans for digital switchover of universal reception of the BBC's national stations, it is essential that a firm and unambiguous plan and funding for the completion of the BBC's national multiplex be put in place as soon as possible. In their response, the Government revealed that they asked Ofcom to form a coverage and spectrum planning group to cover these concerns. It will report in the spring of 2011. Can the Minister tell us whether the planned timetable for Ofcom's report to the Government is still on track? Do the Government expect to receive any interim conclusions? The committee highlights a cost-benefit analysis of digital radio migration carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2009 that suggested that the balance of benefit would be achieved only after 2026. The committee recommended that a full impact assessment and fresh cost-benefit analysis be carried out. In their response to the committee's report, the Government agreed and said that work would begin shortly. Can the Minister tell us whether the work on this cost-benefit analysis has begun? When do the Government expect the report?
The Committee recommended that the Government should encourage the industry to devise a sensible scrappage scheme for the disposal of analogue radios. Can the Minister outline the Government's plan in this area? How do the Government intend to ensure that scrappage is completed in a way that does not negatively impact on the environment? How will they ensure that those on the lowest income-particularly the elderly, who depend most of all on radio-are able to get subsidised radios? Will the Government look at using some of the unspent surplus from digital TV switchover to support digital radio switchover?
Finally, can the Minister say anything about how compatible our system of digital radio will be? As one of the earliest adopters of digital radio technology and the world leader in terms of take-up, our DAB standard is now relatively out of date-a point made
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Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I thank and pay tribute to all members of the Communications Select Committee for their time and work in producing this report on the digital switchover of radio and television. In particular, I acknowledge the contribution of my noble friend Lord Fowler, who during his time as chairman expertly steered the committee through a period of significant change in the communications industry and has kept the subject in debate. He was obviously an inspired chairman, as we have heard from the eight members of his committee. I am pleased to say that the Government, building on the detailed work of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and the previous Government, have already sought to address many of the recommendations made in the committee's report through the digital radio action plan.
Digital TV switchover has made huge progress so far. By the end of August this year more than 25 per cent-around 6.7 million-of UK homes had completed the digital TV switchover. A further 10.5 million homes will switch in 2011. We recognise that it is too early to be complacent as we are only a quarter of the way through the programme. There are many challenges to come. Next year there will be 21 regional switchovers and in 2012 the major conurbations of London and the north-east of England will switch. The TV switchover programme is, however, on track for near completion in 2012, is well under budget and will be in time for Her Majesty the Queen's Jubilee and the Olympics.
So far, relatively few problems have been identified. They are mainly to do with difficulties over retuning and issues of regional overlap. However, the numbers reported are small. So far more than 360,000 people have been helped by the digital help scheme, while local community engagement through regional Digital UK teams, Digital Outreach Ltd and the voluntary sector has helped to provide information to an estimated 350,000 people.
On digital TV underspend, Ministers have made it clear that the ring-fenced money not needed for digital switchover should be made a priority to support broadband in the UK. In answer to my noble friend Lord Fowler, the help scheme underspend will be used for purposes consistent with the BBC's public purposes. This money has not been diverted from programme-making. It was additional funding which was ring-fenced for this purpose.
There are lessons to be learnt from the TV switchover when considering the case for radio. However, as the Communications Committee noted, it is essential to communicate clearly the differences between the two issues. Let me clarify the Government's position on digital radio switchover. They have not yet set a date
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Radio listeners are often passionate about the radio and the stations they listen to. The radio is a lifeline for many, especially the elderly and the blind. I personally feel that it would be a grave error if those who rely most heavily on the radio are left behind in any future switchover. We and the radio industry do not underestimate the scale of the task ahead of us. However, the complexity of the issue should not in itself be a barrier to change, nor does it undermine the necessity for it. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Evans, that the Government have set out their commitment to the listening and coverage criteria to be met before a date is set for radio switchover.
Digital radio offers a greater choice of programmes for listeners as well as business opportunities for broadcasters. It is already well established and over 11 million DAB sets have been sold. It offers listeners a wide range of content and possibilities, and has proved itself to have found a passionate although at times vocal audience. On the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, I doubt whether anything I say is going to address his concerns. However, if he is right, which I do not believe he is, then the listening criteria will never be met. All listeners, not the vocal few, will drive the market's direction.
I turn now to the specific recommendations made in the committee's report. One is on energy and waste. In July, we published independent research into the energy efficiency of digital radio which disproves the argument that digital radios consume vastly more energy than their analogue equivalents. The research shows that the difference in energy consumption between digital and analogue sets is now minimal and continues to improve. We are all aware of the need to reduce energy consumption, and I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord St John, that we are also considering the environmental factors, specifically on the sensitive issue of the disposal and recycling of analogue radios through the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive. In answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Evans, on the scrappage scheme, we have no such plans but will look closely at the recent scheme run by the BBC and Digital Radio UK.
Turning specifically to the committee report, I welcome the recommendation that a full impact assessment, including a cost-benefit analysis, should be commissioned
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In respect of in-car conversion, we welcome the agreement of car manufacturers to fit DAB radios as standard in new cars by 2013 and note that in many cases this has already begun. But that is only half the story. Many people to whom I have spoken are worried rightly about their older cars with analogue radios. Devices already exist on the market which can convert these radios. We expect there will be a growing market for affordable and easy to fit converters.
I welcome, too, the importance that the committee has given to DAB coverage; it is a linchpin in this process. The Government have been clear in their view that broadcasters-particularly the BBC-need to do more to improve coverage over the next two years. To this end, we welcome the BBC's recent commitment to increased coverage of its digital services. In answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Evans, we believe Ofcom expects to produce its report on coverage and planning early next year. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, negotiations with the BBC and commercial radio sectors on DAB coverage funding are ongoing. Unfortunately, it is too early to predict when an agreement will be reached, although we understand the urgency of the issue. As to who will pay, it will be a mixed ecology of commercial and BBC funding.
I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester that it is important that FM should continue until a decision on switchover is made. Even after switchover, FM will continue for small local services, community, hospital and student radio.
One theme that came through strongly in the committee's report was the need for a public information campaign. We agree. The digital radio action plan sets out the process for this. In answer to the noble Lords, Lord Evans and Lord Gordon, the action plan sets out plans for minimum receiver specifications. We expect the multi-standard chip to be part of this.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, about the importance of internet radio. He has demonstrated, yet again, that he is truly one of the true technological pioneers in the House. However, internet radio will not meet the needs of all listeners. Online network coverage is not universal, nor can it easily support large volumes of simultaneous radio. In addition, it is not free at the point of access and it is a very costly delivery platform for broadcasters.
In drawing the debate to a conclusion, I repeat my thanks to the committee and to those noble Lords who have spoken today, and especially to the driving force of my noble friend Lord Fowler. The debate has been built on the importance of the report and I hope that I have answered the majority of the questions raised. At this late hour, I apologise that I have not been able to answer all noble Lords' questions; I shall write to them. Finally, we will of course give due consideration to all the points raised today as we continue with both the digital TV and digital radio switchover programmes.
Lord Fowler: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her helpful response to the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, is purring with content after the unaccustomed praise he has received. It has been a serious and thoughtful debate which has raised a series of important questions, such as the one raised by my noble friend-I am pleased to call her my noble friend-Lady Bonham-Carter about the dilemma of the 2015 date and whether it is a commitment or a target. The importance of making the case for switchover
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I again thank all the members of the old committee, the Clerks and their staff. I am delighted that the Select Committee is to continue. There are important questions in communications for any democracy. Present events demonstrate some of the clashes that there can be. These issues deserve careful and objective analysis, which is what the Select Committee on Communications is all about.
I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, who did so much to get the committee formed, is satisfied with the developments that have taken place, and happy that it is continuing. Above all, therefore, I wish the new committee all good fortune in its work.
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