France could ruin television viewing for thousands of people in southern England by beaming high-powered digital signals across the Channel, a public spending watchdog has warned.
Once the French have achieved digital switchover, scheduled for November 2011, there will be a risk of interference with the digital terrestrial signal in parts of southern England, the National Audit Office (NAO) said.
The programme to replace the UK’s existing analogue television network with a fully digital network is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2012.
‘On current timetables there is a risk that once France has achieved digital switchover, at present scheduled for November 2011, there may be interference with the current digital terrestrial signal in parts of southern England as a consequence of high-powered digital transmissions from France,’ the report prepared for the BBC Trust said.
Extra cost to BBC
The NAO said Ofcom, the independent regulator, is leading negotiations with the French to coordinate programmes and minimise the risk.
But any decision to bring forward the digital switchover timetable, for example to avoid such interference, would result in some additional costs for the BBC, the study said.
The BBC considers that such changes to the timetable are ‘unlikely’ but in this event would seek compensation for its additional costs from the government, it said.
Cumbria switches off
The switchover ‘flagship’ area in the UK is Copeland in Cumbria, where 25,000 households in the town of Whitehaven and the surrounding borough of Copeland had all analogue channels switched off at 3.27am yesterday.
Switchover will now be implemented across the UK television region by television region, from 2008 to 2012.
When the southern regions convert to the stronger digital signal they should be unaffected by the French transmissions.
According to the Digital UK website, the organisation leading the process of digital TV switchover in the UK, switchover starts in the London TV region in 2012. The Meridian television region is scheduled for switchover from 2011 to 2012.
In its report, the NAO recommended the BBC should ‘act to protect its position’ in certain areas including further strengthening its oversight of switchover work with independent representation on the project governance board.
It also recommended that lessons from the Copeland scheme were incorporated in the procurement of the National Digital Switchover Help Scheme.
The scheme provides help with the transition to people aged 75 and over and people with a significant disability.
Jeremy Peat, BBC trustee, said: ‘The trust accepts the report’s conclusions and has discussed the NAO’s findings and recommendations with the BBC Executive.
‘The trust is content that the BBC management team’s proposed actions are an appropriate response and endorses them.
‘Furthermore, the trust will continue to scrutinise the BBC’s preparations for digital switchover and will commission a review of the Digital Switchover Help Scheme around 2009 to monitor the operational value for money of the scheme.’
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