As London prepares to go fully digital, Matt Warman looks back on a historic TV episode that will finally complete later this year
This week, the last major hurdle for Britain’s digital switchover programme will be overcome: when London’s analogue TV signal is switched off in the small hours of Wednesday morning, 83 per cent of the UK will have made the move that Chris Smith, now Lord Smith, announced in 1999.
Although some areas, including Tyne Tees and Northern Ireland will not switch over until later in the year, the 12 million Londoners whose signal will disappear this week are the single biggest block to move.
Not everything in the process has gone totally smoothly – Smith’s first plan was that the switch should be completed between 2006 and 2010, and when on April 4 5 million viewers in London lost the BBC Two signal, “thousands” were reported to have phoned emergency helplines.
Peter Heslop has run the switchover programme for network company Arqiva. He says that it’s been unusual to have a timetable that offers no flexibility, and yet has been met. “It’s a massive construction programme that we’ve been carrying out over 1,154 sites over seven years,” says Heslop. Some individual stations alone have taken four years, and while most, including the iconic Crystal Palace, have been strengthened and extended, five others have had to be rebuilt entirely. The new services offer more stable services than their predecessors. “We’ve conteded with the three wettest summers on record,” adds Heslop, “and we’ve even had to use heavy lifting helicopters to get the work back on schedule”.
Research by Digital UK has shown that just 200,000 homes, or four per cent, had no digital TV set at all when London’s switchover began. While an estimated one million television sets lost their signal, the vast majority of those were second sets. Fewer than one in four Londoners now has a purely analogue TV set in the house at all.
Even more surprising, perhaps, is that the whole, £630million process, as finally begun in earnest in 2009, is now on time and under budget. When it is over, the government-backed scheme will result in nearly all of the country receiving more than 40 extra digital channels, including BBC Three, BBC Four and additional services from ITV and Channel 4. More people will also be able to receive high-definition channels.
And while millions have had to retune set-top boxes and digital televisions, relatively few have been forced to buy new equipment. A scheme set up to help pensioners and those on benefits has not seen the take up expected as more people upgraded as part of the natural cycle of things, rather than because they had to. John Lewis said sales of set-top boxes and TVs were up 100 per cent when the Meridian region switched, while London is currently up 80 per cent too.
John Kempner, who has been the buyer for vision at John Lewis for 18 years, says the process has coincided with huge technological improvements in television. “The first 42inch flat panel TV we sold was £12,500 and you can now get a 42 inch TV for less than £400”.
And finally, when the signal has been switched off comes the so-called ‘digital dividend’. The Government will sell off the redundant spectrum, netting up to £5billion, as mobile operators bid to provide the UK with the next generation of networks that will provide phones with internet speeds as fast as broadband. It will stimulate the more widespread adoption of new technologies, such as ‘connected TV’ offering the BBC iPlayer on demand and tablets that use such new data services to provide a companion screen for big sporting and TV events. O2, Everything Everywhere, owners of T-Mobile and Orange, and BT are already conducting trials that have allowed broadband to get to rural areas that previously had to make do without.
Huge as the project has been, however, no date has yet been set for the far bigger task of switching radio signals from analogue to digital. Despite previous government ambitions to finish the process by 2015, it will be a brave minister who demands that nearly every UK driver changes their car radio.