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Tuesday, 29 January, 2002, 14:02 GMT
'Gizmo' gives digital TV hope
By media correspondent Nick Higham

The launch in April of a 100 plug-in adapter for digital television could transform the prospects for analogue switch-off by 2010.

Pace Micro Technology's little gizmo is relatively unobtrusive, relatively simple and relatively cheap - and will be a lot cheaper still in a couple of years if the mass market takes it up.


My partner and I got ITV Digital just over a year ago and we both agree it's the best thing since sliced bread

James Taylor
It might be just the thing to persuade digital "refuseniks" to set aside their doubts about extra viewing choice, and their reluctance to pay more for their TV.

The market will receive a further boost if, as seems likely, other manufacturers launch similar products - and if the BBC, ITV and other broadcasters can agree on an enhanced package of around 15 free-to-view channels.

Problems

Such a package will be easier to achieve now it is clear that the broadcasters won't have to subsidise free-to-view digital adapters, since the set manufacturers themselves have decided they can make money at an "affordable" 100.

But there are still problems.

For one thing the Pace adapter, because it is designed to handle only terrestrial digital signals, may not be that good at interactivity.


Only if the government replaces my TV sets free of charge, and pays whatever connection fee is attached, will I dispense with my perfectly satisfactory apparatus for something I don't want

Jane Green
It is a common complaint that ITV Digital's interactive services aren't a patch on Sky's.

Alex Freudmann, an ITV Digital subscriber who e-mailed me after my earlier columns on digital, complains that Carlton and Granada skimped on endowing their set-top boxes with robust and responsive software.

"Now we are in the age of interactive programme-planning and interactive features, this seems to have been a false economy," he says.

Interactivity

"Changing channels, viewing programming information or seeing interactive content is painfully slow on ITV Digital. In this respect, Sky's slick and responsive platform beats ITV Digital hands down."

In addition, terrestrial digital transmissions (unlike satellite and cable) don't have the bandwidth to carry several simultaneous video streams on a single "channel" - a vital requirement for certain kinds of interactivity.

So widespread uptake of the Pace adapter may do little for the popularity of interactive services.

And one side-effect of the BBC's promotion of its own interactive services is to give Sky (and to some extent cable) an additional boost.

What's more, however cheap and unobtrusive the Pace adapters are, there will still be plenty of people who resent being forced - as they see it - to shell out for new hardware just to go on watching TV when the government switches off analogue.

Familiar complaint

One such, Jane Green in Leeds, says: "This seems just to be another issue of government control and interference in the lives of its citizens. How dare they tell me how I should spend my money on my entertainment!

Digitial satellite
Digitial satellite offers improved interactivity
"Only if the government replaces my TV sets and video recorder free of charge, and pays whatever connection fee is attached, will I, and I suspect most other people, dispense with my perfectly satisfactory apparatus for something I don't want."

The Pace box also does nothing to resolve another familiar complaint: the inability to watch one digital programme while recording another.

To judge from your e-mails, the whole business of going digital provokes widespread scepticism.

Several of you think significant government intervention may be necessary if we are ever to switch off the analogue service.

Roger Hirst suggests retailers and manufacturers are engaged in a concerted attempt to con the public by continuing to sell us analogue-only TVs, and by incorporating analogue receivers into integrated digital sets (thus making them more expensive).

Support

And he suggests all TVs should be digital-only as standard, while sets which also had analogue receivers should be sold at a premium to provide an incentive for going digital.

And finally, after the many criticisms of ITV Digital reported in an earlier column, a complaint about Sky and two e-mails in support of ITV Digital.

Darren Jackson is a Sky shareholder, but nonetheless unhappy about Sky Digital's picture quality and pricing policies - and the number of advertisements on Sky's premium pay channels.

Martin Piper claims never to have read such a biased report from anyone at the BBC; he says he finds the picture quality on ITV Digital much better than analogue.

And James Taylor writes: "Just to say - my partner and I got ITV Digital just over a year ago, pay annually, and we both agree it's the best thing since sliced bread."

A version of this column appears in the BBC magazine Ariel

See also:

17 Jan 02 | TV and Radio
Set-top boxes to sell for 100
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