Freeview multiplex operators join forces as 4G interference threat looms

With two million households threatened by bad TV reception due to the planned introduction of 4G mobile broadband, the digital terrestrial multiplex operators BBC, ITV/SDN, Channel 4 (joint multiplex operator of D3&4 with ITV) and Arqiva, plus broadcaster Channel 5 have made a joint submission to media regulator Ofcom voicing their concerns.

Clearly concerned for the future viability of the digital terrestrial television platform, the broadcasters and multiplex operators have said that the current Government plan to mitigate reception issues is not good enough.

"The polluter pays"
The BBC's director of policy and strategy, John Tate, said: "4G is a great development but should not be allowed to interfere with people's TV reception. There are plans in place that aim to reduce this interference but we believe that sufficient money should be deducted from the 4G auction proceeds to prevent it altogether. This is based on the established principle that the polluter pays."

Although the Government has announced a £180 million scheme to install filters in affected households -  to be funded by the telecoms companies winning the forthcoming 4G spectrum auction - there is concern that the scheme does not take into account the complex nature of some aerial systems and does not care for the needs of those viewing on indoor or communal aerial systems. Where no solution can be found to avoid interference on terrestrial TV, households would be offered money to get satellite or cable. Where this was not possible either, £10,000 would be given to the householder to 'find another solution'.

Ilse Howling, managing director of Freeview, added: "We remain concerned that there are a number of issues to be resolved in particular that many households are likely to need professional help installing filters to protect their TVs from interference. Ofcom doesn't appear to have taken that into account and we will be raising that as a matter of urgency with government ministers."

The Daily Mail shocked its readers today telling them that households
"would have pay as much as £200 to ensure their TV reception is not ruined by a new mobile phone frequency."

In its recent submission to Ofcom on the packaging of the 800 MHz band, Arqiva noted "the importance of ensuring that DTT viewers continue to be able to receive the services that they have legitimate expectations of being able to receive after the launch of LTE [4G] services.  It is important that the final solution meets the needs of all stakeholders.  "

Currently, television in the UK uses the UHF frequency band. Each segment of the UHF band is grouped into a UHF channel. UHF channels run from channel 21 to channel 68. Channels 61-68 are in the 800 MHz frequency zone. TVs, set top boxes and recorders as well as TV aerials are designed to receive services in that frequency band. It has been so for many years.

4G mobile broadband is going to be allocated the 800 MHz band. This follows an international consensus on using those frequencies for 4G. Ofcom announced its intention to clear all of the 800 MHz band in late 2009. All countries that previously used that band for TV are having to clear it. The clearance has often co-incided with digital switchover. In the UK, UHF channels 63 - 68 were (are being) cleared at switchover*. Recent switchover events have incorporated full clearance of the 800 MHz band - that's channels 63 to 68 AND 61/62. However, many regions that underwent switchover a year or more ago still have television services on UHF channel 61 and 62. The 4G clearance retunes page on this site is a 'living document' which is updated to show when and where the clearance retunes are taking place. These retunes start in October 2012 and continue into next year. This site revealed on Monday that viewers in and around Somerset and in South East Wales would need to retune Freeview in March next year, as 2013 retune months were published by Digital UK.

Although frequencies are being cleared, there is still a big risk of interference. TVs and aerial sold today are able to receive what will be 4G frequencies. In addition there are countless numbers of TVs and aerials on rooftops and inside that are also designed to utilise the full band. Therefore, if a householder is within 2km of a 4G mast, they are most prone to get interference, unless a filter is installed. The Government's scheme only appears to give households one filter, offer no technical support and no assistance for viewers with indoor or communal aerials.

In addition, in some areas it is proposed to still have TV services on UHF channel 60 - right next to 4G services on UHF channel 61.

The multiplex operators and broadcasters that offer services on the digital terrestrial television platform are concerned: Freeview is a gateway to millions of viewers - recent figures showed that Freeview was the primary digital TV platform, with more Freeview-only primary TV sets than those with Sky or a combination of the two. In addition, interference concerns jeopardise the commercial viability of the SDN and Arqiva multiplexes, which serve around 90% of the country, whereby the multiplex operators earn money by renting out slots for TV services on the available multiplex bandwidth.

Viewers are also right to be concerned - 4G may affect the usability of equipment that some may have only recently bought in the run up to digital switchover.

As revealed on this site in March, Ofcom are now consulting on what to do with the 700 MHz part of the TV band. Just when householders have got filters installed to protect them from 4G in the 800 MHz band, they may find themselves having to make further adjustments: according to the consultation, if the 700 MHz band was also surrendered for broadband, many households would have to get new aerials, new filters - and commercial services would have to more speedily migrate to DVB-T2 than might be otherwise expected.

*South East England, Northern Ireland and the Tyne Tees TV region are yet to complete digital switchover.
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  1. Freesat and an campaign for a Virgin Media 'free' tier looking favorable.

    Only DVB-T2 and from ~2015 H2.65 plus the delayed after delayed Youview may delay the ineviable


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