Ofcom colleagues have been working hard across Northern Ireland to help keep Irish TV channels on air, as part of the 700 MHz retune.
The retune began in 2017 and is happening across the UK. It needs to be done because we’re clearing Freeview TV channels out of the 700 MHz band so it can be used for 5G. There is limited spectrum available for the wide range of services that use it, so it needs to be carefully managed.
You can’t see or feel radio spectrum. But any device that communicates wirelessly needs spectrum – such as televisions, car key fobs, baby monitors, wireless microphones and satellites. Mobile phones use spectrum to connect to a local mast so people can make calls and access the internet.
Only a limited amount of spectrum is available, so it needs to be managed carefully. Certain bands of spectrum are also used for different purposes. For example, mobile companies use different parts of the spectrum to TV companies. So, it needs to be managed to prevent services interfering and causing disruption to people and businesses.
However, relocating the Freeview channels means TV transmitters across the UK have to change the frequencies they use to broadcast terrestrial TV. This means Freeview viewers have to retune their TVs to pick up the new frequencies - usually this involves just pressing a few buttons on your TV’s remote control.
We’ve been overseeing the clearance work and have set out the new frequencies for the TV transmitters. This is a complex job, making sure all the new frequencies can co-exist and that there isn’t any interference between neighbouring transmitters.
TV is more complicated in Northern Ireland, where lots of people watch Irish TV channels, either via the Republic of Ireland’s version of Freeview – Saorview – or through Freeview itself.
Irish TV channels are very popular with audiences in Northern Ireland – particularly when it comes to watching Gaelic sports – and their widespread availability is protected by agreements between the UK and Irish governments. At the time of digital switchover in 2012 we introduced a new TV broadcast system in Northern Ireland specifically to allow Irish channels RTÉ and TG4 to be broadcast on Freeview.
The challenge was to try to preserve the balance of Saorview availability and domestic coverage, which served around 94% of Northern Ireland households. The Republic of Ireland was doing the same 700 MHz clearance, so we worked with regulators to co-ordinate our retune plans.
Once frequencies are changed it affects a TV transmitter’s coverage. But careful planning of the frequency bands meant we could see where gaps in coverage would appear, and five more transmitters were added at various locations across Northern Ireland to plug predicted coverage gaps.
We picked the date carefully to avoid major sporting events with big TV audiences, like the finals of the Gaelic Games championships and the Rugby World Cup. As with the rest of the retune programme around the UK, there’s been plenty of support for viewers. This has included an information campaign in local newspapers and social media, and on-screen pop-up messages on TVs in the weeks before the retune. There’s also been a free advice line and even home visits to help people restore their channels after the retune. The support is being co-ordinated by Digital UK, supported by Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited (DMSL).
We spent a day on the road with a team who were replacing rooftop aerials for viewers whenever that was the only way to restore any missing TV channels. This support is offered to homes that rely on either Freeview or Saorview for their TV service.
You get a real sense of just how important good old-fashioned TV still is to people, particularly if they’re elderly or vulnerable. In the first house we went to, the chap literally hugged the team when they’d finished fitting a new aerial and restored all his TV channels. And they even took the time to fix another couple’s iPad!