Page last updated at 09:47 GMT, Thursday, 7 February 2008

Switchover lessons to be learned

Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

Digital UK's  switchover logo
Whitehaven completed digital switchover in October last year

The government doesn't have too many good news stories when it comes to technology but in Whitehaven, the town that shot to fame for being the first to complete digital switchover in the UK, it seems to have found one.

Most of those involved in switchover, from Digital UK, the body set up to oversee the process, to the local people and the charities roped in to help, there is consensus that the process was generally smooth and successful.

As well as providing a model for how to manage switchover in the rest of the UK, the citizens of Whitehaven - or more accurately the whole region of Copeland - have provided a microcosm of how a community copes with new technology.

Some interesting lessons have emerged - not least that those groups that were expected to struggle with switchover, in fact, coped admirably.

Age Concern is so pleased with the way older people coped with switchover, that is is considering using the model it employed in Whitehaven to a range of other technologies.

Questions have been raised about whether the help fund - set up by the government and funded by the BBC licence fee to the tune of 600m - might have been a little over-generous given that take-up of the scheme in Whitehaven was only 30% of those eligible.

There are concerns that there will be a substantial pot of money left over and questions are already being asked about how this money should be spent.

Ofcom's consumer panel, have called for more help for the most vulnerable in society who may be confused by switchover, although they have recommended that it is practical advice rather than money that people want.

Improved signal

Ford Ennals, ex-head of Digital UK
It is possible to effect [switchover] in two years
Ford Ennals, ex-Digital UK chief executive
The smoothness of switchover in Whitehaven - which happened in October last year - has led others to question whether the current timetable - due to complete in 2012 - is in fact rather slow.

The outgoing chief executive of Digital UK, Ford Ennals, admitted that switchover could be speeded up in the UK.

At a recent conference looking at the implications of switchover in Whitehaven, he told delegates: "It is possible to effect it in two years but the timetable is fixed so there is no opportunity for change."

The UK's laid-back five year timetable is in stark contrast to the US which plans to complete its digital switchover in just two days.

Months of preparation in Whitehaven seems to have paid dividends. According to Digital UK, there was a 94% satisfaction rate among citizens, with 71% reporting that their TV signal had improved.

"There were no queues at shops, no cowboys taking advantage of people and no blank screens," said Mr Ennals.

However some members of the public were unhappy that, because of the strength of their transmitter, they received just 20 channels, while residents in neighbouring Workington could receive 40.

"We have had 650 signatures asking for the extra channels and I imagine that sort of feeling will increase as switchover continues," said Alan Cleaver, deputy editor of local paper The Whitehaven News.

There was also concern among some residents that Teletext lost some of its pages, most notably the cheap holidays section.

But generally people were very happy with the scheme.

Grassroot involvement

"Initially they thought they were guinea-pigs but they quickly realised that in fact they were pioneers," said Mr Cleaver.

Jamie Reed, local MP and chair of the all-party group on digital TV switchover, praised the process for switchover, although he was less than impressed with Sky's advertising campaign.

"They came in with a very aggressive advertising campaign saying that to get digital you had to have Sky. The ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) had to get involved and Sky retracted it," he said.

A spokesman for Sky said Mr Reed had commended the broadcaster for its work with digital switchover.

He said the advert was used before switch over and was not used again following complaints.

He was also concerned that the help scheme was undersubscribed. Of the 9,000 elegible for the scheme only 3,000 took it up.

"A lot of people felt patronised by the scheme. The morning after switchover a 95-year-old man walked in to the help centre to offer advice," he said.

The Help Scheme's was set up to give practical help and support to people who might otherwise be left behind at switchover.

"We had responses from about 6,000 of the eligible people in Copeland - two thirds of the total, and many who didn't take up the help let us know that they already had digital television or felt able to get it for themselve" said a spokeswoman for the Help Scheme.

"We're still looking closely to learn the lessons of Copeland for the Help Scheme. No-one can tell whether the area will turn out to be typical of the UK as a whole." Most of the older people in Copeland who needed help received it from their family or local community and it was this community spirit that most impressed those involved in the switchover process.

"The stakeholder group brought together a range of people and it was this strong local dimension to the process that was so valuable," said Terry Chilcott, chairman of the Digital Stakeholder Group at Copeland Borough Council.

Digital UK's focus moves next to the Scottish Borders, which is due to switch during 2008.

It is hoping that it can replicate the success it enjoyed in Whitehaven in Scotland and the more problematic urban areas.

It is convinced that the way to drive the process smoothly is by grassroot involvement and is looking to the next stage for digital switchover - the auction of the spectrum freed up by switchover.

"We think that the digital dividend review is inexplicably linked to switchover. The public should reap the benefits in the form of additional services. They see it as a by-product of the investment they have made in switchover," said Mr Ennals.

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