The BBC has released figures indicating that the Freeview digital terrestrial television service is now available in an estimated 4 million homes in the UK. However, the claimed numbers are controversial as they are only based on an estimate of the number of receivers sold.

The BBC figures suggest that 4 million UK households now have at least one Freeview box or compatible digital television and have been hailed as a further landmark towards digital swichover.

“The continued growth of digital television is very encouraging. The Freeview figures show that the free proposition has really cut through and is currently the single most important factor in driving digital take-up,” said Andy Duncan, BBC Director of Marketing.

However, according to BARB, the ratings organisation for the UK television industry, Freeview is present in only 2.9 million households.

The difficulty in measurement arises because unlike satellite and cable subscription services, Freeview receivers are sold retail and it is therefore difficult to assess how many have been sold or are in use in homes. The BBC figures are based on research of estimated sales by retailers.

In addition, an estimated 1.5 million ITV Digital boxes were thought to be in circulation when that service closed. While many of these boxes are no longer in use, it is not known exactly how many are used to receive Freeview, although the number is estimated to be in the region of half a million.

Furthermore, it is not entirely clear how many Freeview receivers have been purchased for supplemental sets in existing digital homes. The BBC figures exclude an additional 375,000 Freeview receivers on an assumption that they have been purchased for second or third sets.

The latest figures released by the BBC appear to indicate a significant increase on the numbers previously stated by the government. Ofcom, the Office of Communications, noted that at the end of the first quarter 2004 the total number of terrestrial receivers in the market was just under 4 million, of which an estimated 15% were in existing digital homes, putting the estimated total number of Freeview households at 3.46 million.

Despite any doubts over the precise numbers, digital terrestrial television or DTT has enjoyed considerable success in less than two years since its relaunch as a free to view service.

“DTT was in crisis before Freeview’s launch. These new figures are a considerable landmark, and consolidate DTT as the second digital platform in the UK,” said Carolyn Fairbairn, the director of strategy and distribution at the BBC.

The discrepancy in measurement is significant in assessing the overall conversion to digital homes in preparation for the proposed switch-off of the analogue signal. The BBC’s contribution to this process could be a key justification for renewal of its royal charter on favourable terms.

Over half the homes in the UK are now estimated to receive digital television by satellite, terrestrial or cable signals, making analogue switch-off by 2010 appear a more attainable target.

The new figures were announced as Freeview won two prizes in the Marketing Society 2004 Awards. Freeview won in both the Best Consumer Insight and Best New Brand categories.