Nearly two million homes face disruption to their digital TV signal because of interference from new mobile services, with fears that a government help scheme to combat the problem will prove inadequate.
About 1.9 million households – all with digital terrestrial TV service Freeview – will suffer interference from the next generation of mobile services (4G) which could come online by the end of this year.
Of these, about 900,000 homes rely solely on Freeview to receive digital TV – the rest also have satellite from Freesat or Sky, or cable from Virgin Media. Satellite and cable TV services will be unaffected by 4G signals.
Up to 10,000 homes will no longer be able to receive Freeview at all and will have to get cable or satellite TV if they do not already have it.
TV signals will be affected because the spectrum being used by the new 4G services (800 MHz) is next to spectrum used for TV services provided by Freeview. Households within 2km of a 4G mast are expected to be disrupted.
Broadcasters are urging the government to use money from the auctioning of 4G spectrum to telecoms companies to pay for solving the problem, arguing that a proposed £180m help scheme will not be enough.
The auction of the high-speed 4G spectrum is expected to raise between £2bn and £3bn for the government.
John Tate, the BBC’s director of policy and strategy said: “4G is a great development but should not be allowed to interfere with people’s TV reception.
“There are plans in place that aim to reduce this interference but we believe that sufficient money should be deducted from the 4G auction proceeds to prevent it altogether. This is based on the established principle that the polluter pays.”
The government has announced details of a £180m help scheme to fit digital TV sets with a filter to cut out the interference, with extra support for the over-75s and disabled.
But critics of the scheme said it failed to take into account the complexity of filter installation in many homes and the number of people watching with indoor and shared aerials.
A joint submission to media regulator Ofcom by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Arqiva and SDN, the ITV-owned digital TV multiplex owner, said there was a “significant gap” in the government’s policy decisions “with the potential for many households, particularly in communal dwellings, to be left behind”.
“Consumers will incur significant costs as a result of the government’s decisions – with our estimates … suggesting that consumers could face additional costs in excess of £100m to solve interference issues on primary sets only, with potential additional costs incurred in relation to secondary sets,” the submission added.
Ilse Howling, managing director of Freeview, said: “We remain concerned that there are a number of issues to be resolved in particular that many households are likely to need professional help installing filters to protect their TVs from interference.
“Ofcom doesn’t appear to have taken that into account and we will be raising that as a matter of urgency with government ministers.”
A separate submission to Ofcom by TV transmitter mast operator Arqiva, a shareholder in Freeview, said it was “clear that the proposed protection regime and funding are inadequate” and estimated the costs to the consumer to be even higher.
Arqiva added that the shortcomings of the government’s proposals represented an “unacceptable outcome in terms of their likely negative impact on the future prospects” of Freeview.
Arqiva said viewers might have to bear “potential additional costs in excess of £161m when the total installation costs of filters for non standard aerial installations and the purchase of filters for non-primary sets are combined”.
It added: “We remain very concerned that disruptions to secondary set users and households that depend on set-top or loft mounted aerials for their reception have been completely ignored”.
The help scheme will be overseen by a company which will be managed by mobile network operators that buy the spectrum. The mobile operators will also foot the cost of the scheme.
Of the 2.3 million homes forecast to be affected, around 900,000 watch their main TV via Freeview, with the rest having the DTT service on sets elsewhere around the house.
The help scheme will focus on the 900,000 Freeview-only homes, with free installation support given only to the over-75s and disabled people.
Digital UK, the body that is overseeing digital TV switchover in the UK, told Ofcom the concentration on “main sets” would give rise to “unnecessary inequalities and difficulties in implementation”.
It said “ignoring interference to set top aerials will also give rise to substantial difficulties in implementation” and warned that the government “appeared to ignore” the special attention required by people living in flats and other communal dwellings.
A small number of homes will not be able to receive any TV, via free to air, cable or satellite, as a result of the changes. In these cases up to £10,000 will be made available to each home to find a solution.
Sylvia Harvey, visiting professor of communications studies at the University of Leeds, said the disruption to TV services of people who had switched to digital was “almost analogous to a kind of mis-selling”.
“They transferred from analogue to digital in good faith and they will find that their digital signal won’t work,” she told the Voice of the Listener and Viewer conference in central London on Monday.
Labour’s shadow media minister, Helen Goodman, told the conference: “What is needed is some certainty who is going to be responsible for helping and supporting these people. What is needed is clarity.”
• To contact the MediaGuardian news desk email [email protected] or phone 020 3353 3857. For all other inquiries please call the main Guardian switchboard on 020 3353 2000. If you are writing a comment for publication, please mark clearly “for publication”.
[Teenagers hanging out via Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock]