Managing the spectrum squeeze

Kate Macefield, Broadcast Director, Digital UK

Managing the spectrum squeeze

by Kate Macefield, 700MHz Clearance Programme Director, Digital UK

posted on February 17th, 2017

Itís less than five years since we led the country through digital switchover, heralding the creation of a fully multichannel nation and releasing a major slice of spectrum to support the launch of 4G mobile services.

But of course demand for mobile data hasn't stood still since 2012. Its rapid growth means even more spectrum has been earmarked to provide the services most of us now expect from our smartphones and tablets…and, of course, 5G is on the horizon. Itís for this reason, we are about to start freeing up another tranche of TV airwaves to help meet this demand. This time itís the 700MHz band which will be cleared of Freeview TV signals between this summer and 2020.

Itís a complex task in terms of planning, engineering and delivery. Spectrum planners have had to squeeze the existing Freeview service into significantly less spectrum, network operator Arqiva has begun the task of installing new technology at around a thousand transmission sites across the country and plans are being developed to roll out the changes along with support for the 19 million homes which use Freeview or other terrestrial TV services. Digital UK has been appointed to co-ordinate the infrastructure programme on behalf of the operators of the national and local DTT multiplexes.

While there are similarities with switchover, notably the release of significant amounts of high quality spectrum for mobile, this is a very different project, especially for viewers, Crucially, there is no need to switch to a new TV technology, though many viewers will need to retune their Freeview TVs and set-top boxes when channels are moved to lower frequencies.

As with any major technical change of this kind, it's hard to fully forecast the impact on peopleís reception. Ofcom modelling suggests that while the vast majority of viewers will see no change in their service, up to 270,000 homes may require aerial replacement or adjustment to restore a reliable service.

Accurately predicting these effects is challenging and itís possible that the impact on peopleís reception may vary from theoretical forecasts. Weíre currently preparing for the first event of the programme in the Scottish Borders on 1 March when BBC channels will move to their new frequencies in the 600MHz band. From this week, we are broadcasting on-screen messages to homes in the area and are providing extra information through the Freeview website and advice line. We are also working with our partners, Digital Mobile Spectrum Ltd (DMSL), to provide in-home support for TV viewers who have problems picking up the channels in their new position.

Trialling our approach at this stage and gathering evidence will help inform the approach for the main programme which gets underway in the north of Scotland this summer. Through a process of continual improvement, our aim is to deliver this project on time, efficiently and with as little disruption as possible to viewers. Iíll report back on how we get on.

More information for industry about clearance of the 700MHz band is available in our dedicated section of the Digital UK website.

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