More than 2 million Freeview customers face bills of up to £212 – more than the cost of a year’s subscription to cable television – in order to pay for interference with signals caused by the 4G mobile network.
Freeview and the BBC last night told The Independent of their anger at the Government’s apparent determination to dump the costs of installing signal filter equipment on householders rather than the mobile phone companies which will enjoy huge financial benefit from the introduction of 4G next year.
Estimates suggest that between 2.3m and 3m households – within 2km of 4G transmitters - face interference with their television pictures, with some losing their signals entirely.
“If you don’t have a filter you literally won’t be able to watch television. You will get very significant pixelation and the picture will break up and you won’t be able to carry on watching Freeview. They are stopping people watching Coronation Street,” said Ilse Howling, managing director of Freeview. “It will cause interference for a large number of Freeview homes and we are really concerned about that. We think the Government has got this wrong and this is really unfair.”
The BBC, which supports Freeview, is also unhappy. John Tate, Director of Policy & Strategy at the BBC, said the introduction of 4G would highly lucrative and that the signal interference problem should be dealt with using the “polluter pays” principle. “We all wish 4G very well but this is a hugely profitable business for the companies, it’s a hugely cash-generative business for the Government and the viewer shouldn’t be the party that loses out,” he said.
Signal problems will be experienced all across the country, with an estimated 657,000 households affected in London, 202,000 in the Midlands, 188,000 in north-west England , 157,000 in Yorkshire and 162,000 in central Scotland, for example.
The Government has allocated £180m to tackle the issue but Freeview argues that this will allow for the provision of the filters but not the more expensive cost of hiring engineers to install them. People living in flats will be the hardest hit, facing installation costs of £212, more than the £166.95 price of a year’s subscription to Virgin Media, including set up.
Ironically, research suggests that Freeview customers are disproportionately likely to be disinterested in using 4G technology. Many Freeview customers are elderly and some have only recently joined the service following the disruption of the switch off of the analogue broadcasting signal.
“People bought into Freeview in good faith and some of them may have only just gone through digital switchover and find themselves having to pay more for a [4G] service that is going to benefit the whole country,” said Ms Howling. “We are asking Government to not just fund the cost of the filter but also fund the cost of the installation.”
After digital switchover is completed in October, an allocation of digital spectrum will be made available at auction for 4G. The new phone network is expected to be introduced next year, contributing £3 billion to the UK economy.
Ofcom is currently consulting on the issue but does not have powers to increase the £180m that the Government has allocated to the problem. It is proposed that £20m of the total will be put aside to help with filter installations for the most “vulnerable” people and that a company, MitCo, will be set up to oversee the entire process.
News of the added charges for Freeview customers is a blow to Lord Sugar who will next week unveil the YouView internet television platform. He hopes to persuade Freeview customers to part with more than £200 to upgrade to the new service which is expected to launch in the autumn.