12 November 2003

S2M-544 Terrestrial TV Channels (Rural Areas)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-544, in the name of John Farquhar Munro, on access to terrestrial TV channels in rural areas. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that residents in parts of the Highlands and Islands do not receive independent terrestrial TV channels unless they purchase an encryption card from BSkyB on a regular basis; further notes with concern that access to terrestrial channels in those communities with analogue relay systems will be removed when the analogue signal is switched off in 2010; believes that TV licence payers should not have to pay more because of their geographical location, and considers that Her Majesty's Government should take action to ensure that all UK TV licence payers have unrestricted access to terrestrial TV channels.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It strikes me as ironic that David Torrance's excellent programme, which we see on Grampian Television on Thursday night and which will undoubtedly cover this debate, is least likely to be seen in rural areas of Scotland, particularly in the Highlands and Islands, where coverage is extremely patchy, unless people are prepared to pay Sky Television for the privilege of seeing it.

As parliamentarians, we are privy to, and indulge in, certain privileges, sad people that we sometimes are. Last night—down here, of course—I watched on digital television the adjournment debate in another place 400 miles south of here, on the subject of fishing, which David Mundell's colleague Ann Winterton initiated. On the other hand, I suppose that my constituents and others were spared watching the incompetent response of Ben Bradshaw, who masquerades as a fisheries minister in that other place.

The issue is not only about paying for satellite coverage, because there are certain places in Scotland where satellite coverage is not possible. In the village of Pennan in my constituency, which is a conservation village, satellite dishes are not permitted. In Gamrie, as in Pennan, there is an additional technical problem: the cliff to the south rises too steeply to allow for the 43° declination. I say that to add further confusion for Maureen Macmillan. What the problem boils down to is that they cannae see the satellite because of the cliff.

Maureen Macmillan: Will the member also explain the term "spectrum" to me?

Stewart Stevenson: Twenty years ago, it was a computer, but nowadays it is where the signal comes through the ether. Just as we have the different colours in the spectrum of the rainbow, we have different notches in the radio spectrum.

In the north, we are further away from the satellites because they are over the equator, which means that our reception is diminished. The signal is also affected by the weather. Wet weather, which is not uncommon in the north, means that our signal quality declines. The technology used for digital television transmission and Freeview was designed for metropolitan transmission, which is one reason why ITV's ONdigital service was a flop. The content was pretty poor, but there were also technological problems. As David Mundell said, broadband could solve the problem, but it ain't going to.

Jeremy Purvis rose—

Stewart Stevenson: I am sorry. Unless the Presiding Officer says otherwise, I am running out of time.

We would need up to eight times the speed of the ADSL technology before broadband could deliver broadcast quality television. Although that speed is being rolled out in some cities and towns, rural areas are least likely to get it.

My constituency is remote—it covers eight communities with schools that fall within the Scottish Executive's definition of remote rural communities, which is a town with a population of fewer than 10,000 people that is more than 30 minutes' drive from a town with a population of more than 10,000 people. The issue covers the whole of Scotland.

One little ironic ray of hope is that Freeview digital television does not actually work very well in the south-east of England. That will energise people elsewhere to consider the issues of technology and of equity. Let us hope that the technology continues to exercise the minds of people in the south and that that gives the minister the opportunity to persuade the south that the north should be treated equitably. As technical solutions are developed to solve problems in the south, let us have investment to solve our problems. Equity is the name of the game. We subsidise health in Glasgow; let us be prepared to subsidise television in rural areas.


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