Ofcom swipes TV airwaves to boost mobile broadband

Emma Woollacott
Closeup of a hand holding a remote control for the television.
Closeup of a hand holding a remote control for the television.

Millions of people will have to retune their TV sets and more than 100,000 will need a new aerial, following a decision to sell off part of the airwaves to mobile phone networks.

With people ever-more wedded to their smartphones, telecoms regulator Ofcom has decided to take some frequencies currently used for digital television and reallocate them to mobile broadband services.

With the demand for mobile data forecast to increase by 45 times by 2030, it says that handing the 700MHz spectrum over for fast 4G services should stop networks grinding to a halt and make mobile data services faster and cheaper.

"This is a crucial next step in the development of the UK's communications infrastructure," says Ofcm chief executive Ed Richards. "This decision ensures that we are making the raw materials available with which investors and companies can build the services which will support the digital economy of the future."

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Ofcom Boss Happy With 4G Auction
Ofcom Boss Happy With 4G Auction

Ofcom assures TV viewers that they will still be able to watch free-to-view TV services without another disruptive switchover like the one from analogue to digital. However, there will still be headaches for many. According to the consultation document, between 14 and 20 million customers will need to retune their TV sets - although Ofcom says this will take just a few minutes.

More problematically, though, one in 200 viewers will need to replace their rooftop aerial - at an average cost of £150 - if they want to carry on receiving Freeview. This is because many older aerials aren't capable of receiving the full range of frequencies currently transmitted by digital TV, and won't be able to access all the programmes once they're squeezed into a lower frequency band.

There are also concerns for the entertainment industry, as the 700MHz band is also used for wireless microphones, used in theatres and at sporting events. However, Ofcom says it's identified several slices of spectrum that they can use in future instead.

And Ofcom assures viewers that TV quality won't be affected by the change. Although there's a slight theoretical risk of interference from mobile devices, it says, this is likely to amount to no more than a few seconds a year.

The sell-off should raise billions of pounds for the Treasury - and it won't be the last. Ofcom recently announced that it was looking at selling off another chunk of spectrum for 4G, this time in the 2.3 GHz and 3.4 GHz bands currently held by the Ministry of Defence.

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