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Minister of Fun bends Ofcom's ear on Freeview-4G knockout

Open letter backs watchdog on operator bribes

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Culture minister Ed Vaizey has published an open letter to Ofcom broadly supporting the regulator's efforts to mitigate disruption to Freeview by next-gen mobile broadband.

When LTE (4G telephony) kicks in there's likely to be some interference in the neighbouring TV channels, so £180m of the money raised from selling the spectrum will go into stopping telly screens from going blank.

Ofcom has been consulting on the best way to go about that, and now the Minister of Fun (sorry, "Culture, Communications and Creative Industries") has stepped back into the debate [PDF as fun and exciting as you'd expect a ministerial letter to be].

Most viewers won't have a problem, but those in areas receiving channels adjacent to LTE, who are also using signal boosters, could see their TVs going dark. The real problem is that no one knows how many people fall into that category, so deciding what to do about it is tough.

Ofcom estimates 2.3 million houses could be affected, and had proposed mailing out filters to those homes with easy-to-follow instructions which should work in the majority of cases. That won't work where the booster is fitted in the loft, so the Minister of Fun has decided that such homes will then get a £60 voucher (inc VAT) to redeem with a "Registered Digital Installer" who'll pop up to the loft and plug in the filter.

If that fails, then up to £10,000 per house will be spent providing an alternative way to watch Jeremy Kyle, such as a Freesat dish or cable extension, which is exactly what Ofcom had proposed.

Ofcom had also proposed that any cash left over would be split between the government and the network operators who paid for the licences, which would encourage them to do some mitigation in their network design. Everything Everywhere argued that only getting half the money wouldn't be enough encouragement, and Ed Vaizey agrees, so the operators will get all the left-over cash.

That still leaves the network operators in something of a prisoner's dilemma. If one network operator does nothing to mitigate the problem, they still get a cut of the cash – but if none of them do anything then no one gets any cash. The best strategy would be to make lots of noise about doing mitigation (to convince the other operators you're serious about it) but spend no money on it at all – but we're sure the operators wouldn't be so duplicitous.

Whether that matters we still don't know, as the scale of the problem won't be evident until it's too late. There are certainly a lot of people using Freeview on second sets, or using set-top aerials, who won't receive any help at all, though the minister does suggest a campaign to inform people where they might be able to buy an additional filter or two.

The problem won't manifest until after the UK's 4G mega-Auction, which is still scheduled for early next year, but that's assuming the auction methodology escapes legal challenges when it's published in the autumn – which remains far from certain. ®

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