700MHz Clearance: Time to retune

With a planned completion date of 2020, the 700MHz clearance programme is now in full swing. As experienced as we are in this kind of work, though, there are some unavoidable complexities that we must overcome.

Some of the obstacles we face, like protected events – of which 2018 has plenty – are predictable, while others are more difficult to manage. Even with our close ties to the Met Office, for example, we can never be completely sure what weather conditions we’ll face.

If we’re to stay on schedule and carry out the necessary work without negatively impacting our customers, and their audiences, it’s crucial that we give issues like these the right level of attention.

Navigating protected events

Arqiva operates behind the scenes, and it’s always been that way. We have a huge role to play in keeping the UK entertained and informed through television and radio, but very few people are aware of the work we do, and that’s how we need to keep it – especially during a project like this.

It’s important that our 700MHz clearance work doesn’t affect the viewing pleasure of the masses. There’s always a minor risk of disruption while we’re adjusting the country’s TV infrastructure, but we’re extremely careful to ensure nothing happens during major televised events. This year alone, we’ve paused work during the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, May’s royal wedding, Wimbledon and the 2018 FIFA World Cup - and plans are in place to do the same for similar events in the next couple of years. It’s the best way of ensuring our customers’ high-profile content continues to reach its intended audience, even when it’s not quite ‘business as usual’ for us.

Working hard, whatever the weather

We – and we’re talking about our engineers more than anyone here – spend a lot of time identifying potential issues and developing contingency plans when we’re working on something this big. Unlike resources and scheduling, the weather is something we can’t ever control. We’re experiencing more extremes at both ends of the seasonal scale; summer’s heatwaves are often followed by months of rain, wind and even snow. The latter undoubtedly gets in the way, with lower temperatures impacting equipment and power-generation, while also making field work difficult - but we do everything in our power to counter it.

Even when we’re not working on a project of this scale, we must be mindful of the weather. Our field teams carry out winter preparedness training to make sure they can work safely and effectively in less comfortable conditions, for example. We also have a fleet of 150 four-wheel-drive vehicles that help our engineers navigate difficult terrain in the winter. Measures like these are undoubtedly paying off as we work to clear the 700MHz band for 2020.

Managing our resources

It’s rarely quiet at Arqiva. In terms of scale, our last comparable project was the digital switch over which took place between 2008 and 2013. Some of the engineers, technicians and project managers that made all of that go so smoothly are the same people working on the 700MHz clearance programme now, and with good reason: they’re the experts.

In between these two major undertakings, we also extended the DAB radio networks, so there’s been a lot happening. As an organisation, we’ve had to manage our resources extremely carefully. We’ve been careful to take the right people from one project to the next at the most effective times, while also bringing in additional staff where necessary.

Our relationships with suppliers, contractors and our industry peers are also vital to the 700MHz clearance programme’s success – if there’s something we can’t do or sort ourselves, we’re able to confidently rely on others, and vice-versa. It’s crucial that we work effectively as part of the broadcast eco-system during this project, just as we always have.

Playing our part

We’re more experienced and better positioned than anyone at helping Ofcom and the Government achieve their 700Mhz clearance objectives, but it was never going to be a walk in the park.

The challenges we face – working around protected events, overcoming poor weather and managing resources being just three of the biggest – are constant considerations for everyone here, and they force us to operate intelligently and efficiently. Preparation is a huge part of getting jobs like this right as our customers and partners have come to expect; our forethought has kept us on schedule to this point, and it will no doubt help to ensure the project is seen through to the end with minimal disruption.