Chaos on the cards for digital viewers

Buying a television set is never going to be the same again. For years we have been able to buy any size or shape of TV and have known exactly what channels we will get when we plug it in at home.

Digital television is about to change all this. Viewers are going to have to decide in the shops which collection of channels they want and buy accordingly. If they change their minds, or receive the wrong advice, they could be stuck – unless they buy more equipment, of course.

As Ian Clark, media director of Booth Lockett Makin, says: “If there’s confusion within the industry, what chance does the consumer have when faced with a salesman from a high street store doing a conditional sell?”

This week, the Independent Television Commission brings out its proposals on how best to achieve maximum openness and “interoperability” – the ability to receive any of the digital services – whatever the method of delivery of digital TV.

Gary Tonge, director of engineering at the ITC, says: “We want people who buy integrated digital TV sets not to be tied to a particular operator.” But what the ITC wants and what the public gets could be completely different.

There is growing concern because BSkyB and ONdigital are collaborating with TV manufacturers to put their own software or “proprietary technology” into digital TV sets. This will force viewers into buying extra equipment if they want to receive rival services.

Yesterday (Tuesday) the ITC accepted that broadcasters could do this, so long as their systems have a “common interface” enabling viewers to switch from one platform to another by buying more equipment.

With ITV refusing to transmit its digital simulcast (digital versions of its standard broadcasts) and its new digital channel ITV2 on the digital satellite platform, it raises the possibility of some integrated Sky sets being unable to receive these services – at least in the first phase of technology.

BSkyB’s priority is to convert its existing analogue subscribers to digital by subsidising the cost of a new dish and Sky set-top box, thus bringing the total cost down to 159. For new subscribers, this subsidis ed digital package will cost 199.

The very first range of Sky and ONdigital set-top boxes will not be compatible. However, adaptors will soon be available to make them interoperable, which means consumers don’t have to shell out for another set-top box if they want access to both pay-TV services.

The set-top boxes will be superseded by integrated digital TVs, where the box is inside the TV set, although these will be very expensive at first (around 1,000). Ultimately, it is likely that these integrated sets will be sophisticated enough to give viewers the means to access whichever pay-TV service they want.

But there will be a confused interim period, when some sets may only give access to certain services. If Sky builds its own integrated sets, there is concern that they will not have access to ITV in digital simulcast or ITV2.

Sony is due to launch one of the first digital TV sets in November. The manufacturer will make “open standard” TV sets that allow the viewer to watch only the free-to-air terrestrial digital channels.

To access ONdigital the viewer can buy a module that plugs in at the back of the TV. This method of receiving digital channels, called the multicrypt approach, has the support of the ITC. Tonge says: “These free-to-air open standard sets are not tied to an individual operator. If you want any proprietary add-on software to receive pay-TV services, you plug them in.”

But Sky has so far decided not to make these modules. It has told the ITC that they are a security risk, and that it is too complicated to manufacture the module. If you want to watch Sky through one of these sets, you have to buy a more expensive and cumbersome set-top box, plus a dish (which would be needed anyway).

ONdigital says its set-top box technology will be built into its own integrated TVs. If viewers also want Sky through these TVs, the viewer has to buy a Sky set-top box as well, because of Sky’s reluctance to make the modules. This week the ITC acknowledged that it could not force Sky to make these modules.

There is another way of bringing the two technologies together, called simulcrypt. This is where Sky and ONdigital build their own integrated TVs, but where the sets incorporate the technology to unscramble the other broadcaster’s signals. However, Sky’s full range of complex interactive services will not be available through an ONdigital set.

The ITC does not favour this approach for TV sets because it means each individual broadcaster controls the “gateway” to accessing its rival operator.

Tonge says: “A TV set is an item of equipment you expect to last. You shouldn’t have someone controlling the gateway to it. With a set-top box, you expect someone to control the gateway to it.”

There is concern that the first phase of Sky’s integrated TV sets will not contain a digital terrestrial receiver, and will not offer viewers ITV2 – there will still be an analogue tuner so viewers will be able to watch ITV – or the means of accessing ONdigital. Sky says this is a matter for the manufacturers, and indeed, Sky would run into trouble with the authorities if it was shown to be locking out another broadcaster.

The development path of digital technology is so fluid at the moment that it is impossible to predict what course it will take. But there is a growing risk of terrible confusion for consumers, who might buy the wrong piece of equipment unless they receive clear advice in the shops, or might be scared off into delaying their purchases – all bad news for the successful take-up of digital TV.

Torin Douglas, page 19

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