Digital ingenuity

David Elstein, the chief executive of Channel 5, tells us that the date for the release of spectrum currently dedicated to analogue television is receding and "may disappear entirely" because of difficulties with digital transmission ("Sorry, this free lunch is cancelled", 11 September). Yet the difficulties he manages to identify come nowhere near justifying such a conclusion.

Elstein depends heavily on the observation that, at present, digital terrestrial coverage is less extensive than analogue coverage. This is largely because digital terrestrial TV signals (like Elstein's own Channel 5 analogue signal, whose coverage is also incomplete) are squeezed into a very limited band of spectrum. Much ingenuity is being invested on overcoming this problem. Channel 5 owes its very existence to just such ingenuity: before its exercise, it was assumed we had room for no more than four terrestrial analogue channels.

If, however, more bandwidth turns out to be needed to provide comprehensive digital terrestrial coverage of core services, it can easily be provided out of spectrum that will be vacated by analogue television after switch-off. Elstein tries to mock this possibility, but it would not, as he seeks to imply, wipe out the spectrum savings that switch-off will bring. Digital television needs so much less spectrum than analogue that plenty would still be released for other uses.

Elstein's claim that providing free decoders might cost the government £4bn seems less than frightening when set against the kind of financial gains that spectrum release is expected to yield. In fact, however, there may be little need for the government to give away free hardware to "digital dissidents" if it takes a sufficiently forward position on this issue. At the moment, consumers have little incentive to go digital when they replace a TV or video, unless they happen to fancy the extra services on offer. If the government made it clear that it was seriously intent on early switch-off, instead of, as currently, implying the opposite, people would think harder before buying new analogue equipment.

David Cox
London SW11

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place