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Cost of digital switchover support set to hit £600m

LONDON - The cost of ensuring the most vulnerable in society receive the necessary support for digital switchover in the UK is expected to be around £600m, with money coming from the television licence fee, according to the government.

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Details of the switchover support scheme, which will aim to stop the elderly and poor from being left behind when digital switchover gets under way in 2008, were outlined by culture secretary Tessa Jowell in the Commons yesterday.

She said: "The money will be ring-fenced to ensure that it cannot be used for purposes other than digital switchover and we will ensure the costs do not have an impact on the BBC's programme budget.

"Each eligible household will be helped to convert one TV set. Provision will be free for the poorest eligible households -- those on income support, income-related job seekers' allowance or pension credit. Other eligible households will be expected to pay a modest fee -- which we propose should be set at £40.

"In the interest of basic fairness and choice, it is important that we ensure access to free-to-air digital TV as near universally as can possibly be."

It is understood to be the first time the government has outlined the cost of a switchover support scheme, with the entire process expected to be completed by 2012.

The Ofcom consumer panel warned Tessa Jowell in July to address concerns that the socially isolated risk being left behind once the switchover process begins. It also said that it did not think Digital UK, the company assigned to coordinate the process, was adequately funded to handle the size of the task.

The digital switchover process, which is being managed by two government departments, has been criticised by some commentators for the confusion over who has ultimate responsibility.

Ofcom had previously said that awareness of digital switchover had doubled since 2005, but 60% of low income households were still uninformed of the government's intentions.

In her Commons statement, Jowell added that a BBC licence fee deal would be confirmed in the New Year and that the proposed relocation of the corporation's sport and children's programming departments to Salford was still expected to go ahead.

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