4G has been the talk of the communications and technology sector for months now, and its launch has been hugely anticipated. Ofcom had previously suggested that the launch of the next generation 4G would probably not be rolled out until somewhere around the end of 2013 and summer 2014, following the planned auction of 800MHz and 2.6GHz frequencies. These included parts of the spectrum historically used by analogue TV, which is being switched off as part of the switch to digital services. However, the head of Freeview, IIse Howling, has now warned that 4G will come as soon as the end of 2012 and it will come with a price: next generation mobile services have the potential to cause interference issues for up to two million UK households. Ms Howling has called upon the government to make sure there are sufficient funds to deal with any potential problems.
Spectrum freed up by the switch over to digital TV is highly sought after by mobile operators, principally because it offers in-building coverage and promises to speed up services significantly. However, because the 4G spectrum will sit next to that used by the free-to-air digital platform Freeview, there could be a problem. Currently 24 million households in the UK watch TV via Freeview. Of these around half use Freeview as their sole TV platform, according to the firm. According to Ofcom up to 3% of viewers, approximately 760,000 people, watching digital terrestrial television via a Freeview box might see interference if no action is taken, it warned. Homes within two kilometres (1.24 miles) of a 4G base station are likely to experience interference and, for some, there will also be a loss of channels.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has announced contingency plans for those affected by interference. Filters will be fitted to some houses, while those worst affected will need to be transferred to other platforms, such as satellite and cable. The costs for this will be paid by the mobile operators who take over the spectrum. However, Ms Howling maintains that the government has seriously underestimated the amount of money needed to fix the problem: “it has set aside £180million – but we think it will actually cost £400m,” she said. What’s more, Ms Howling believes that the solution will not be sufficient in many cases. For some houses, fitting the filter will be relatively easy and can be done by the householder, but for the majority – 83% – an aerial installer will need to complete the installation, and no funding has been set aside for this.
Ofcom is so concerned about the potential problem that it is starting a research programme to find out how to help people affected when the future mobile technology is switched on. In a bid to limit how many people suffer from poor picture quality, Ofcom has proposed running an education campaign to alert viewers about the possibility of interference. Companies who buy a licence for part of the 800MHz spectrum will be expected to contribute to the costs of the education programme.
For the vast majority of affected viewers, filters will strip out the interfering signals. However, said Ofcom, in 0.1% of cases, filters will not help and it is considering how best to handle those instances. Some viewers may have to find alternative ways to watch digital TV.
A consultation exercise which will consider ways to tackle the interference issue is being started at Ofcom and will run until 11 August.