700MHz Clearance: How to plan a major infrastructure project

With the TV enjoyment of 65 million people at stake, it’s crucial that any major work we carry out on our DTT infrastructure goes smoothly.

Having the industry’s most skilled and experienced engineers on board certainly helps with this, but for our teams to do their jobs effectively, we must plan everything in detail.

The 700MHz Clearance is one of the biggest undertakings Arqiva has faced in recent years, and it serves as the perfect example of a planning process that we’ve spent decades refining.  It is a great example of getting the right people, in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time with the right resources – it is a boring cliché but just get the basics right and do them well. The planning has had to rigorous and detailed as the programme end date advanced by 18 months and additional scope has added through the design stages.

The starting point

The 700MHz Clearance project was initiated by a directive from Ofcom. It laid out intentions to free up spectrum for 4G and 5G mobile services at the 2012 World Radiocommunications Conference, calling on broadcasters to make it happen. Being the main infrastructure partner of the broadcasters, we sat down with the broadcasters and Ofcom to determine exactly what would need to happen to move forward.

As was the case with our last major DTT project – the Digital Switch Over (DSO) – Ofcom developed a frequency plan to work to, with a roll-out order to show when certain tasks should be completed. This was instructed through the broadcasters, and us, to make it deliverable.

Breaking the project down

A project of this size will always be complex, especially in this industry, but we do have some control over how complex. One way of making work like this simpler is to break it down into basic components. So, while every task like this is unique in its details, we always try to answer the same list of questions when starting off.

These questions come under five simple categories - ‘why’, ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘who’ and ‘when’ and answering them honestly forces us to look at things like:

  • the project objectives and success criteria; in general, what do we need to achieve?
  • the scope of work and its deliverables; what are we providing for Broadcasters and Ofcom and the other stakeholders?
  • the project baseline; what costs are involved and how long will it take?
  • key project risks; what challenges do we need to overcome to deliver this safely and efficiently?
  • the high-level process; will we need customer or budget approvals, for example?
  • key procedures; how will we go about achieving this?
  • organisational structure; who needs to be involved, and for what are they responsible?
  • third-party involvement; who are our contractors and suppliers, and how will those relationships work?

Once all of these factors are properly addressed, we can commence with more detailed planning.

Seeking approval

There are various parties involved in the 700MHz Clearance programme, all with their own considerations. The project is Ofcom’s directive, but it involves Arqiva’s infrastructure and will directly impact our customers (broadcasters) in both the mobile and television sectors. We also have a healthy number of delivery partners to consider – around 30 main contractors and as many as 130 specialist suppliers. We might be at the centre of this sizeable ecosystem, but every decision we make has the potential to affect other parties, so we must tread carefully.

We’re essentially performing open-heart surgery on a live TV network – services owned by the likes of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, all of whom have audiences to consider. For us to touch that network, we need technical approval from these broadcasters; to get that, we need to produce design documents and proposals, so they can see what the work will involve and how that will impact them. Only when they’re happy can we go ahead.

In the case of the 700MHz Clearance, which is a government-sponsored project, we need budget approval from Ofcom too. That means submitting grant applications, and then being subject to the subsequent audits from the regulator.

Our organisational structures

It took quite a team to plan the 700MHz Clearance, as is normal of a major infrastructure project like this. The basic organisational structure was much the same as it would have been for the DSO or anything similar before it, but the team’s size is of course reflective of the project’s scale – and this was a particularly large one.

There will always be a programme management office handling the basic set-up, quality management and change management. We then have an engineering section tasked with designing what we need to do and an implementation team to deliver on that roadmap. Finance and commercial will be managed by a dedicated part of the group, and of course a safety team will ensure everything is carried out to the relevant standards.

One thing that’s been unique with the 700MHz programme is the closeness with which the network design team has worked with Ofcom and the broadcaster.

As we move through the programme and focus our efforts on different tasks, some teams’ roles will become more prominent while others take a back-seat. All in all, though, everyone has a crucial role to play.

Challenges to consider

With this kind of work, planning is just as important as implementation – and the attention we give it reflects that.

Every project we work on is unique, but many throw up similar challenges. A prime example is the need to find a balance between time, cost and quality; naturally we want to work through the project quickly, but we must also avoid overspending and disrupting services for our customers and their audiences.

To get this right, we must keep all stakeholders aligned with the project priorities, timelines and costs, so that everyone knows what to expect and when to expect it. That includes the regulator, the broadcasters and our delivery partners, as well as internal sponsors. It sometimes extends beyond borders too – the 700MHz Clearance project’s frequency plan requires us to work with our counterparts in Ireland, France, Belgium, Holland and Norway, for example.

On a more practical level, safety is a huge challenge for us. We have engineers working in all kinds of conditions and locations across the UK, with many operating at significant heights. It’s crucial that we keep these people safe while maintaining quality and productivity levels.

Planning a major infrastructure project takes time and a lot of careful attention, but it certainly pays off. We’re now moving quickly and confidently through the 700MHz Clearance programme and are looking forward to reaching that finish line in 2020.

A version of this article appeared in CSI Magazine, November 2018

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