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Views sought on Freeview-4G interference

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Ofcom is consulting on the best way to avoid 4G telephony knocking out Freeview, but the regulator seems to be having a hard time putting government plans into words.

Yesterday the Ministry of Fun announced that bidders for digital dividend spectrum would have to shell out £180m for mitigation to avoid LTE services knocking out Freeview transmissions, now Ofcom is trying to work out how to put that into action despite the continuing gaps in government's plan.

The Ministry wants a new organisation – temporarily monikered MitCo – to get £180m from the mega-auction bidders to be spent ensuring that LTE operations don't interfere with television viewing. £20m gets ringfenced to help out "vulnerable" groups such as the elderly and disabled, and there's a cap of £10,000 on the amount which can be spent on any specific property, no matter how difficult it is to get TV to it.

That's the headline-grabbing stuff – now Ofcom is consulting on the best way to make it all happen.

Freeview is at risk 'cos the mega-action includes a band just above the digital transmissions, known as the "800MHz band". But as Ofcom's analysis points out, it is neighbouring frequencies which can interfere with television transmission; the nature of the signals mean that anyone using LTE in the 800MHz band can contribute to the interference experienced by up to quarter of a million UK households.

Ofcom had suggested imposing some limits on broadcast power, particularly at frequencies immediately adjacent to Freeview, but has now decided against that. Instead the network operators will be bribed with the promise of half the unspent money, assuming the £180m isn't entirely consumed, which is supposed to motivate them to introduce mitigation techniques into their base stations.

When the 800MHz band is auctioned off, hopefully later this year, everyone who ends up with a slice will have to chip into the £180m, proportionate to the amount of the band they have. Should the £180m prove insufficient to the task then the government will top it up, by as much as is needed to make sure we can all get The Jeremy Kyle Show, and any cash still in the bank come 2017 gets split between the government and network operators.

Ofcom's doorstep challenge

Ofcom wants 90 per cent of the affected houses to get cheapo filters in the post before LTE gets switched on. The regulator has been knocking on doors and reckons that 97 per cent of us will be able to plug in a filter on our own. Note the singular: Ofcom is only planning one filter per house, so anyone with more than one TV will have to buy more filters themselves.

If you've not had a filter though the post, and find Freeview playing up, then MitCo will stick one in the post (as long as you've not got Sky, Freesat or Virgin Cable, and you aren't relying on a set-top aerial). If the filter doesn't make the problem go away, then MitCo will send someone round to take a look, and perhaps fit a Freesat dish for you if filtering isn't going to work.

One thing MitCo won't be doing is re-aiming our TV aerials; apparently it would be too expensive – which isn't surprising when one considers the inherent danger of roof navigation.

But it is amplifiers which most worry the regulator, which estimates there are nine million of the things lurking in UK homes. Particularly troubling are those used to provide signal to multiple homes (such as a single aerial on the top of a block of flats), as the users may well not be aware it exists. It's not the weakness of the Freeview signal which is the issue, but rather that when combined with the interfering LTE transmission the signals can't be deciphered by the Freeview box, so fitting a filter within the home will be ineffective once the combination has been amplified at the rooftop.

MitCo will, hopefully, deal with all such instances, under the watchful oversight of the Supervisory Board. That board will be comprised of industry reps, and will itself will cost £1.2m annually to run, but will be responsible for ensuring MitCo does its job properly.

MitCo itself will probably be run as a limited company owned by those contributing to the running costs, though the government hasn't decided if it will retain a shareholding too. Also unknown is whether MitCo will be set up before the auction or afterwards – and those matters aren't for Ofcom to decide, as the consultation makes plain.

Anyone who wants to comment on the matters within Ofcom's control is welcome to do so – until 19 April – but they'll be expected to crawl through a lengthy proposal [PDF] first. ®

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