Digital Economy Bill
2 Dec 2009 @ 1539
Second Reading, House of Lords [excerpts]
The First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Lord President of the Council (Lord Mandelson):
We have also set out our vision for the future of digital radio, which will see the country shift to digital, when transmission coverage and audience numbers are wide enough, by the end of 2015.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester:
The switchover to digital radio may produce more problems than expected. Of course there is much to welcome in the creation of platforms for new content to meet the needs of specialist audiences. I think, for example, of Premier Christian Radio’s recent acquisition of a national DAB licence. However, there may be much to be concerned about over the plan to cut off national stations and many local services as early as 2015. While the Government have indicated that that will not be finalised until digital services account for 50 per cent of all radio listening and can reach 90 per cent of the population, it is also clear that without an early deadline, sufficient pressure may not build on radio manufacturers and retailers to shift to selling DAB sets only for cars as well as homes. The radio switchover again underlines the risk of creating another two-tier system where significant swathes of the country could lose their favourite national stations from the FM dial, including the BBC stations they pay for through the licence fee. Surely that cannot be right.
What government support will there be for the switchover to digital radio, which is likely to be not only more problematic but, generally, more expensive across the population than the TV switchover has been? Will the Minister accept that over-rushing towards analogue switch-off will not allow proper time for the Government, this House and the other place to think through the unintended consequences? Is there anything that the Government can learn from the German Government’s experience and their postponements of switchover plans?
….. On voluntary supported broadcasting, do the Government intend to keep some of the analogue spectrum going, for example, for hospital radio?
This country must, of course, embrace the opportunities offered by a digital economy, but the advantages must be shared by the widest possible number of citizens. Some, if not all, of the unintended consequences that could unfairly disadvantage people might be avoided by not being trapped in too rigid a timetable. If that happens, I fear that this country will not benefit from the best rewards that a digital economy offers.
Lord Carter of Barnes:
Secondly, in the critical areas of investment, infrastructure, spectrum liberalisation and the digitalisation and deregulation of sound radio, it provides a framework for innovation, development and investment.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Barnes, introduced Digital Britain a little while ago we all recognised that things were beginning to happen and there were some very welcome realisations, for example, on the need to move forward with digital radio…….
I welcome those parts of the Bill which incorporate the Digital Britain promise to speed up delivery of a fully operational DAB digital radio platform. I spend a lot of time in cars and have had hearing difficulties since the arrival of my first child, so it is a real pleasure to enjoy the quality and clarity of digital sound, especially when listening to music-whether it is Radio 3 or Classic FM, both of which are excellent stations. The plank for Ofcom to be able either to terminate analogue licences without consent, subject to a minimum two years’ notice, or where appropriate to extend analogue licences up to and beyond switchover, on condition that digital services are also provided, will no doubt help to build in the much-needed flexibility to enable radio switchover. I very much hope and have confidence in the plans that have been outlined that it will happen by 2015. It is important that it does.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno
Today, I looked at the figures for radio listeners in Wales who have ever listened to digital audio broadcasting. I shall not go through the whole list, but in Cardiff, it was 27 per cent, while in the valleys, it was only 4 per cent. That is the difference. The most needy areas will not have the opportunity to benefit from these new high-tech developments. There is a pressing need for an extension of broadband, not least because of the commitment already made by the Government that fibre optic broadband should be prioritised in “notspots”, where other technologies have also failed.
I move on again, to independent radio services. We broadly welcome the provisions for digital switchover. Of course, full switchover will only happen on a specified date if certain criteria for uptake are met, and the only way that one will get further adoption is by setting a firm date. I hope that the Minister will confirm that we are currently working off a 2015 date, but there are concerns among smaller radio stations that the digital multiplex regions that have been defined are too large. Small, local stations will be broadcast across the whole of a large region covered by a multiplex, and may be expected to pay a rental reflecting that. That would be unfair on some of those small stations. Many of them are arguing for DAB Plus, a technology which would be, I believe, much more in tune with their requirements. I would be grateful to hear what the Minister says in that respect.
Lord Howard of Rising:
While we on these Benches support the switch from analogue to digital radio, it is a sensitive area. It would be good if the Government could give some assurances of what criteria will be used to decide when will be the appropriate time for the changeover. Will the Government be guided by the criteria set out in the Digital Britain White Paper, referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester? If so, we remain unconvinced that the 2015 target date is realistic and worry that millions of listeners and hundreds of local stations will be disadvantaged.
There are many for whom the digital switchover will cause problems: the elderly or the lonely, who may have had a wireless for many years which has become almost a companion; the blind person who will not be able to work the digital radio because the instructions are on a screen that they will not be able to see. I hope that the Secretary of State can reassure the House that proper care and attention will be paid to the needs of those who will encounter difficulties with the transition.
Lord Davies of Oldham:
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester indicated the issues that arise with the digital switchover. I emphasise that we will not make the switchover for radio until there is already 90 per cent coverage in the United Kingdom and until 50 per cent of hours of radio are listened to via digital stations. We have criteria before we actually make the move. This follows on from points about the switch from analogue to digital television. I take on board his point that it is important that any changes that are made benefit people and do not shock them with a possible loss of services and extra cost. That point has to be addressed.
[next stage: House of Lords Committee, 6 January 2010]