The 2008 switch-off deadline for analogue television will almost certainly be extended because of the snail’s pace take-up of digital TV in the community. Comments made on Monday night in the Senate Estimates Committee hearing by Communications Minister Helen Coonan and some of her officials show the digital uptake in Australia has been very slow.

Senator Coonan told the committee that the 2008 deadline was “an unrealistic date.” And she said she wanted to hear from various parties suggesting “what might be an appropriate date for analogue switch-off and perhaps as part of that review to consider what more might be done to further drive digital take-up.”

She disclosed her department is currently running reviews of the digital broadcasting situation in Australia. From evidence before the committee, around 770,000 digital TVs or set top boxes had been sold, but much of that has been driven by the digitisation of the Foxtel network.

If Foxtel has one million subscribers (it reached that figure in April) then there’s a big shortfall in its subscriber base, and the take-up in non-Foxtel homes would have been negligible (remember Kerry Packer had 58 separate Foxtel installations and there are freebies set top boxes and services scattered through influential people among the Foxtel family of owners and other media, as well as others in business).

Department officials told the Estimates hearing that the uptake of digital TVs and set top boxes was running at about 40,000 a month, and that the number sold so far would be under 10% given the number of two television homes.

Senator Coonan pointed out that in the UK the switch off date for analogue was now 2012. “So, realistically speaking, I think we need to have a good look at what would be a date for Australia, that has a lot less penetration and which probably needs some more to actually drive digital.”

Asked what the attitude of TV broadcasters was, Senator Coonan said ” without putting too fine a point on it, it (the switch over to digital) is not considered to be achievable by 2008.”