John Whittingdale, chair of the influential Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee, has warned ministers they are rushing ahead with superfast mobile broadband without fully grasping the consequences for an estimated 2.3 million homes.
He said a lack of publicity meant “barely anyone” was aware terrestrial TV signals were at risk, and that in many cases people would have to scrap expensive Freeview boxes and buy cable or satellite dishes instead. He complained viewers who had only recently bought new equipment for the digital switchover would be “very cross” to find their signals had suddenly disappeared next year.
Talking to the Sunday Express, he said Freeview as well as ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC, are understood to be “very exercised” about the problem. The Government is expected to begin its £5 billion (€6.25bn) auction for new 4G licences within weeks, a process that is due to end by February.
Under the current timetable, the new masts, which will operate on airwaves previously used by analogue television, will roll out nationwide by June. Whittingdale wants the technology to undergo urgent trials in a small area of the country, so regulators can form a better idea of the risks. He said that might cause delays to the lucrative 4G process but it was important to put existing television viewers first.
Whittingdale said that companies such as Vodafone and O2 were applying pressure because they were concerned about EE stealing a competitive advantage with their existing services.
Ilse Howling, Freeview’s managing director, said: “We also believe it would be in consumers’ interests for the Government and Ofcom to mandate a trial of 4G services in a limited area before proceeding to national roll out.”
But Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has rejected the call. He told MPs: “There have been a number of technical trials already. “We do not believe a trial would add anything to our knowledge, and it would significantly delay much-anticipated 4G services.”