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Ofcom: Broadcasters need to urgently improve their disaster recovery plans

Regulator has found Channel 4 in breach of its licence conditions following the fire at Red Bee Media's broadcast centre last year

The UK’s media regulator Ofcom has told broadcasters there is an urgent need to improve and audit their disaster recovery plans following last autumn’s fire at Red Bee Media’s broadcast centre.

The fire, which took place on a Saturday evening last September, led to an extended outage of Channel 4’s subtitling, signing and audio description services.

Following an investigation into the incident, Ofcom has now found the broadcaster in breach of the statutory requirement to subtitle 90 per cent of its programme hours over 2021 on the Freesat service.

Ofcom said Channel 4 breached another condition of its licence by failing to effectively communicate with affected audiences about the availability of access services in the weeks following the incident.

In a statement, Channel 4 said it is “very disappointed” with Ofcom’s decision and will review its findings carefully. “We would like to apologise once again to our audiences for the disruption to our access services following the catastrophic incident last September and since then we have implemented a number of new systems and processes to avoid a serious incident in the future,” it added.

The broadcaster must now report to Ofcom its plans to ensure greater resilience of its access services, as well as how it is continuing to improve the accessibility of its broadcast and on-demand programmes by the end of 2022.

In its broader review of the incident, Ofcom said Channel 4’s ability to respond to the technology failure at Red Bee was not sufficiently resilient, given its back-up subtitling system failed. It took four weeks for subtitles to be restored on Sky, Freeview, Youview and Virgin Media, and a further four weeks before subtitles were restored on Freesat.

The regulator said broadcasters should regularly test their disaster recovery systems simulated emergency conditions, with technical infrastructure also being regularly audited to identify any potential vulnerabilities. Staff at all points in the transmission chain must be properly trained to correctly follow the disaster recovery procedures, added Ofcom.

“There are a number of lessons for broadcasters to learn from this incident,” said Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s group director for broadcasting. “We’ve told them they must improve and test their back-up plans and infrastructure to minimise the risk of such a disruptive outage happening again.”