24 November 2005

S2M-3415 Television Licence and Digital Reception

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 24 November 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

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Television Licence and Digital Reception

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-3415, in the name of Roseanna Cunningham, on the television licence and digital reception. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises that there are still many areas in Scotland, including parts of Perthshire, where digital television reception is not possible; notes with concern the desire by the BBC to increase the television licence fee by 2.3% above inflation, and believes that, until such time as the BBC's entire broadcast output is available to all licence payers, a differential should be introduced into the licence fee to ensure that people who are not receiving a full service do not pay the same licence fee as those who do.


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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): We have not had much technical stuff tonight, so I shall fill that vacancy. I point particularly to a decision that was made three years ago by the Independent Television Commission, which allows two different standards. There are six multiplexes or channels that cover many different TV stations. Three use one standard—64 quadratic amplitude modulation—and the other three use 16 quadratic amplitude modulation. Does that matter? Actually it does, because the 64QAM is a much less effective carrier of signals to the receiver, particularly for people who are relatively distant from the transmitter.

The website that has been referred to suggests that to receive BBC 1 and BBC 2 at my home address, I should turn my aerial to the south and point it at the transmitter at Durris, which is approximately 40 miles away. If I want to watch Grampian, I have no options. If I want to get BBC 4, I must turn my aerial to the north, towards the Rumster forest transmitter, which is 65 miles away. The reality is that I get some of the multiplexes, but not others. The 64QAM multiplexes, in particular, are very difficult to get.

We must realise that, at present, there are 1,160 analogue transmitters in the United Kingdom. When the crossover to digital is complete, it is planned that there will be 80 digital transmitters. That represents a huge reduction in the number of aerials—

Mr McGrigor: Does the member know how many transmitters there are in Scotland?

Stewart Stevenson: Alas, I do not, but I am confident that, pro rata, the reduction will be even greater because of our terrain.

Some of the options that are referred to from time to time, such as satellite, are not available to everyone. In the Moray firth, for example, there are a number of communities that live to the north of a cliff, which means that they are unable to see the satellite, which is at an angle of approximately 46° to the horizon. In other communities, planning restrictions mean that residents are not permitted to put up satellite dishes. There are some quite serious problems out there.

Other members have spoken about the cost to people of updating their aerials. It is estimated that, across the UK, that will cost £400 million, so we can perhaps infer that the cost to Scots will be £35 million. Through Ofcom, the Government has said that 35,000 to 40,000 households, most of which will be in remote rural areas such as the Scottish islands, will fall outside the coverage.

Another point that is worth making is that with digital the signal strength is greatly reduced. My Rumster forest analogue signal is transmitted at 500kW, whereas the digital signal is transmitted at a mere 8kW. That is good in that it saves electricity, but it is not so good in that it makes it much more difficult for me to receive the signal.

The figure of 95 per cent coverage for Freeview sounds okay, but according to Ofcom:

"the 95 per cent Freeview coverage would resemble a 'swiss cheese', reducing faith in the service, and switchover generally".

One way or another, there are both technical and societal issues to deal with. Digital reception is a social inclusion issue for the Parliament. There is a big difference between switch-over and switch-off. Just because analogue will be switched off, that does not mean that we will be able to switch over. Curiously, the south-east of England faces the biggest problems because of interference from the continent. People who live there will be the last to switch, so the changeover might be another poll tax on air—we will go first and suffer.


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