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Last Updated: Friday, 28 February, 2003, 10:39 GMT
UK 'to lose' digital TV race
Screen grab from Sky Digital
Sky has pioneered digital interactive TV
The UK will not be the first country in Europe to switch its citizens entirely to digital TV, according to research.

The UK Government has always prided itself on leading the field in digital TV services and is keen to switch off the analogue signal between 2006 and 2010.

This is unlikely to happen according to research firm Datamonitor. Instead the UK is likely to see its crown stolen by the Nordic nations or even Portugal.

"It will be very challenging to switch off analogue in the UK by 2010," said Datamonitor analyst Chris Tant.

Freeview vs Sky

Nearly 40% of the UK has switched to digital
By 2007 Freeview catching up with Sky
UK Government confident it will hit 2010 deadline
6.3 million UK homes have Sky
1.3 million have Freeview
2.1 million have cable
Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Portugal all have a better balance between the three competing digital technologies - satellite, cable and digital terrestrial - and are more likely to offer their citizens subsidised set-top boxes, according to Mr Tant.

In the UK, on the other hand, Sky dominates digital TV services with 6.3 million households compared to 2.1 million for cable and 1.3 million for digital terrestrial (Freeview).

Pay-for TV services, as offered by Sky, will never appeal to a certain number of the population and are reaching its natural limit, said Mr Tant.

Datamonitor expects 18 million UK households to have made the switch to digital by 2007, with Freeview rapidly catching up with Sky.

The collapse of ITV Digital has set back the UK's digital TV progress by a year, said Mr Tant.

Despite the popularity and rapid take-up of Freeview, there are still fewer digital terrestrial viewers than a year ago.

Politically dangerous

The government was keen to sell off the analogue spectrum - the radio waves on which the analogue TV signal was transmitted.

But since the dotcom crash, it is unlikely to make the billions of pounds it made from the equivalent sell-off of third generation mobile spectrum.

Although it is a challenging timeframe, we believe the UK will meet the criteria for switchover
Spokeswoman for Department of Trade and Industry
The spectrum could be used to increase the number of digital channels available or be used by mobile operators for more mobile data services.

The government is in a difficult position if it hopes to persuade people to make the digital switch by 2010, said Mr Tant.

"It would be politically dangerous to tell people they have to go out and buy set-top boxes by a certain time."

Promoting Freeview will remain a key priority but this too will be something of a double-edge sword.

Government on track

"If the government drives Freeview too heavily there will be cries of foul play from the cable and satellite operators," he added.

Despite losing the lead to switch off the analogue signal, the UK will remain the largest digital market in Europe and will stay at the cutting edge in terms of innovative interactive services the report found.

"Switching off analogue terrestrial transmission could start as early as 2006 and be completed by 2010," said a spokeswoman for the Department of Trade and Industry.

"Although it is a challenging timeframe, we believe that through the Digital Television Action Plan and a successful partnership between government and stakeholders the UK will meet the criteria for switchover," she added.

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