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Britain takes small digital steps

Whitehaven the first town to turn off analog

LONDON — The Brits take pride in doing things a little differently from their cousins across the Atlantic — and so it is with the switch from analog to digital broadcasting.

At 2 a.m. local time Oct. 17 the Cumbrian town of Whitehaven, an isolated port located on England’s northwest coast, became the first place in Blighty to turn off the analog TV signal and embrace the digital future when BBC2 went off the air.

Digital U.K. topper Ford Ennals hailed the move as “a landmark day for British broadcasting history.”

In truth, turning off the Whitehaven BBC2 analog signal represented the first step in a complex, protracted process that sees the U.K. switch to digital finally completed in December 2012.

This rolling, region-by-region route to digital-only broadcasts is in contrast to some other leading TV markets.

The U.S. is adopting a ‘big bang’-style approach to digital TV. There, the analog signal is being switched off nationwide in February 2009. Japan will make the jump to digital in July 2011.

“We were the first to plan the switch to digital TV, but other countries have overtaken us,” acknowledges Digital U.K.’s director of corporate affairs Simon Crine. “Most of Sweden, Finland and Germany have made the switch to digital. France is in the middle of planning, but they are likely to complete the switch before us.”

Driven by the digital terrestrial platform, Freeview, and to a lesser extent British Sky Broadcasting, which launched Sky Digital in 1998, the U.K. has one of the highest rates of digital TV penetration in the world.

More than 80% of British have digital TV on their main sets, an encouraging statistic for Digital U.K., the government body created to ensure a hassle-free transition to digital.

“Whitehaven went very smoothly, but technically it was all very straightforward,” Crine says.

The first real test for the techies will come Nov. 14 when the remaining U.K. terrestrial stations — BBC1, ITV1, Channel 4 and Five — join BBC2 and have their analog signals mothballed in Whitehaven.

In the Cumbrian town, the vast majority of folk — more than 92%, according to Digital U.K. — already have the equipment needed to receive the digital signal.

Should the remaining 8% of the local population (approximately 2,000 people) fail to go digital by Nov. 14, they will find themselves unable to watch TV.

It is this scenario that Digital U.K. and local pols are dreading; but so far, so good on the slow road to digital TV, Brit-style.