at800: “The industry could do more to support viewers that rely on DTT”

Ben Roome, CEO,  at800

Ben Roome,

Exclusive interview with Ben Roome, CEO of at800, ahead of his recently announced appearance at next week’s Digital TV World Summit  (2-3rd December 2014) at Le Meridien Piccadilly.

IP&TV News: Hi Ben – can you begin by telling us about the origins of at800. Who’s involved, and how did it come about?

Ben Roome: at800’s formation was directed by the government as a pre-condition of the 800 MHz 4G mobile spectrum auction. Established at the end of 2012, we became fully operational in March 2013 following Ofcom’s announcement of which MNOs had been awarded licences following the auction.

At this point, at800’s funding and shareholders were confirmed, with at800 operating as a joint venture of the UK mobile operators that won the auction for mobile spectrum at 800 MHz: EE, Telefónica UK (O2), Three and Vodafone. Each operator is required to contribute to our funding.

The government also directed the creation of the 4G/TV Co-existence Oversight Board to oversee at800’s work. The Board reports to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Ofcom.

The Oversight Board has a balanced membership of four broadcast representatives (BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Arqiva), four representatives of the mobile operators with 800 MHz licences, an independent consumer representative, an independent business and technology representative and independent chair.

And what’s the specific issue it’s been forged to deal with?

The company was established to deal with the issue of potential Freeview TV disruption caused by 4G mobile services operating at 800 MHz. It’s our job to ensure that all UK viewers continue to receive Freeview, or are offered a suitable alternative, when 4G at 800 MHz is activated in their area.

at800’s mitigation programme is focussed specifically on resolving disruption to Freeview TV caused by mobile services operating at 800 MHz.

The 800 MHz frequencies used by some 4G services are close to the frequencies used for Freeview. Because of this, there is a small chance that TVs and set-top boxes that receive Freeview may be affected.

How widespread do you think this disruption could be? Are there many precedents of this kind of disruption?

Disruption to Freeview is less widespread than was initially predicted and at800 has updated the way it operates accordingly. Our current estimate is that fewer than 90,000 households that rely on Freeview to receive free-to-air television will be affected by interference. As a result, we have been able to reduce our response and resolution time from 15 to 10 days. If a viewer who relies on Freeview reports disruption to TV services that could be caused by 4G at 800 MHz, we arrange for an at800 engineer to visit their home. The engineer checks the cause and will fit an approved 800 MHz filter to their TV system, at no cost. Alternatively, viewers can choose to be sent an at800 approved filter to fit themselves.

The disruption that we see mainly has two causes, but they can occur for other reasons than just the presence of mobile signals at 800 MHz. These are:

  • systems where initial TV signal quality is poor due to faulty receiving equipment, whether aerials, cabling, connections of set-top boxes and TVs
  • or, where TV signal power is too high due to over-amplification.

In both these cases, the presence of 800 MHz signals can contribute enough noise or incident signal power to the TV system to cause picture break-up or loss of signal.

Do you anticipate any other ways this particular combination of elements could work together in the future?

On the whole – as with many things in life – the approach most people take with their TV system is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Our experience is that digital terrestrial television is a pretty robust platform, but that often viewers believe their reception problems are due to a ‘weak’ signal when more often than not the cause is a noisy or over-amplified signal.

With 700 MHz on the horizon there is time to be able to work with the TV industry to improve viewer awareness of how a decent TV signal can be received and prepare for any adjustments to aerials and retuning that will be required.

One of the biggest areas for improvement is in viewer knowledge of who to turn to for accurate advice on how best to receive a good TV signal.

What’s message are you bringing to operators at the Digital TV World Summit?

Our message is that the broadcast industry could do more to support viewers that rely on DTT for free-to-air television. The majority of people are happy with their television service. But for those that face issues, clearer advice and support could be provided given the many potential causes – often in a viewer’s home, but also external factors – for service disruption.

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