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Broadband: 4G Mobile

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 21 June 2012

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they propose to take to safeguard digital terrestrial television services when 4G mobile broadband is introduced.

My Lords, Ofcom is examining this issue in partnership with the Government and the mobile and broadcast industries, and it consulted on proposals last year. The Government announced in February that up to £180 million would be available to address interference problems, and that that would be administered by a body called Mitco, with the money coming from the winning auction bidders. Ofcom published its second consultation on this matter in February and is currently considering responses.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with Ofcom’s estimate that over 2 million households are liable to be adversely affected through interference with their television when 4G masts come into operation? Will she further indicate whether the money that the Government are making available will include both the installation costs and the cost of the filters necessary to avoid interference, given that for the majority of households this will not be a do-it-yourself job but will require a fully qualified fitter to do it?

My Lords, the number of households affected is something of a flexible feast. In many households the interference will be negligible and easily remedied, and in those cases the filters will be provided free. People will be expected to install the filters themselves, but Ofcom ran a test; 95% of those trying to fit them had absolutely no problem in doing so, and that included people of all ranges of ability. The actual fitting should not prove as much of a problem, but contingency funds will be available if it is.

My Lords, does the Minister realise that fitting the filters is not easy? I am not a complete idiot, but I had to pay £130 to get my filter fitted by a BT engineer. The reality is that there are lots of people around, and I think I am usually quite reasonable about these things, who are not going to be able to do it. I truly believe that 2 million is a gross underestimate of the number of people who are going to have problems with this.

My Lords, there is general agreement that rolling out this broadband is in the interests of the economy and of the country as a whole. This development affects mainly those who are on Freeview rather than on satellite and cable. Detailed work has gone into checking which people will be the most affected, and the final figures are very much lower than the 2 million being suggested. From the Ofcom test it appeared that most people had no problem with the filters, but for those who do there will be additional resources to help them.

How has this situation come about? I confess that I had always thought that, as with most things, we tended to gold-plate our spectrum separation. I was a member of a Select Committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, which only two years ago took evidence on the switchover of digital radio and television, and no one involved reported any problems.

All these developments can happen quite quickly with the rollout. With this one, it was not previously appreciated quite how much interference there might be when the 800-megahertz spectrum was rolled out for other reasons. The properties most affected by this will be those that are very close to the masts. Most of the others will have minimal interference, which can be dealt with relatively straightforwardly. A lot of contingency planning has gone into ensuring that people are not disadvantaged.

My Lords, Ofcom, which one has to assume knows what it is talking about, has estimated that there is a £200 million shortfall between the money being made available by the Government and what it will cost viewers to adjust their sets. Why, when the mobile phone companies will make a lot of money from 4G spectrum, should consumers end up having to foot the bill?

The costs for this will be borne predominantly by the licensees of the 800-megahertz spectrum; that will be part of the auction bid that they will have to sign up to. It is certainly not expected that the Government will have to pay substantial sums of money to support what is basically a commercial transaction, albeit one with, of course, very significant impacts for the economy and for people generally.

Will the Minister give an absolute assurance right now that, whatever problems might arise from this, there will be no further delay in the implementation of the 4G rollout? We in this country are already too far behind other countries in rolling it out.

Yes, indeed, my Lords. This is one of the counterarguments: that we really want this to roll out as rapidly as possible. In many other countries this has already happened. Our advantage is that we have been taking lessons particularly from Sweden, which was in the forefront of the rollout, in where the difficulties occurred and where we might be able to fast-track our system.

How close is close? It will depend. If your house is right next to a mast, you might be very severely affected. Obviously, it will become less of a problem the further away from the mast the property is.

The noble Baroness has said that no extra costs would fall on the Government—that is, the taxpayer. She has not spoken about the extra cost to the consumer, which is what the House is concerned about. How much of the costs will fall on the consumers?

I am not sure that there will be significant costs to the consumers for this. It will obviously be an additional service when it is rolled out. The filters for the adaptation will be free, and in most cases the installation will be free, so the actual cost to consumers should not be significant when the rollout is completed.

There should be a cost only if an additional service is being provided that is of benefit to the consumers. People are normally prepared to pay for services that give them benefit. If any additional cost arises, that should be where it is.

My Lords, is the problem of living close to a mast permanent, or will it be sorted in due course? How will this affect long-term property prices?

You probably need Mystic Meg to answer that one. All these things advance as technology advances, so the solutions to any problems advance as well. I cannot see why it should affect property prices. In extreme cases where people simply cannot continue to get Freeview reception, there will be provision for moving them to a different platform so that they continue to receive their television and broadband services. As to property prices, that probably needs to come under a different Question.