Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Thursday 8/4/2004Hot news from the Wireless LAN show in Olympia, from whence Graeme Wearden is radioing back the latest UK developments in this most exciting of fields. It's hard to remember the old days, when the British radio spectrum was overseen by an ex-Army guy at the Home Office who regarded every Hz as the sovereign property of the Queen.

Thursday 8/4/2004
Hot news from the Wireless LAN show in Olympia, from whence Graeme Wearden is radioing back the latest UK developments in this most exciting of fields. It's hard to remember the old days, when the British radio spectrum was overseen by an ex-Army guy at the Home Office who regarded every Hz as the sovereign property of the Queen. If you weren't a ham or a remote control model freak, getting a licence for any form of personal radio transmitter was verbotem -- and unlicensed gear was right out. Now, we can happily buy any number of walkie-talkies, mobile and cordless phones, and indeed wireless LANs, and nobody turns a hair.

As Graeme finds out, this isn't quite accurate. If you go out and buy an 802.11a network, it runs on 5GHz, a newly available band that hasn't quite been sorted out. In the US, you can use it as much as you like -- here, your network has to be able to do things like limit its frequencies and power, so it can't interfere with existing users. In some areas, notably those near military radar installations, you can't use it at all.

Guess how many people know this. Now guess how many people know how to check that their 802.11a equipment conforms. Alternatively, guess how many people just buy their kit from shops and on the Net and wouldn't know 802.11a from a tap-dancing frog in stilettos.

The result, according to Wearden's contacts, is that radio piracy is rife across the land, with illegal transmitters sprouting like mushrooms from schools, offices and homes.

Fortunately, Ofcom has a semi-secret network of automated monitoring stations scattered around the place, as well as a few in vans. Our every transmission is detected and stored by eternally vigilant machines, and miscreants stand out like a Bakelite wireless in Dixons. Surely these illegal stations will soon be closed down, before the very fabric of our island's defences is shattered?

Er, no. 5GHz is an awfully high frequency, more than double anything that's been used by ordinary types before. Ofcom's magic boxes can't actually pick it up, by all accounts, especially since 5GHz doesn't go very far. Doubtless some of the orbiting spy satellites with antenna the size of football pitches can pick up Giggleswick Technical College's illicit installation, but it's not clear how good Ofcom's connections are with Menwith Hill.

I can foresee a return to the days of funkspiel, the radio games so many enjoyed in the 60s and 70s when a variety of pirate broadcast and CB operators and the Post Office's detector vans (known to all as Busbies) kept each other mutually entertained. That all ended up with CB legal through sheer force of numbers -- and you can tell how successful the pirates were at avoiding capture by tuning around your FM dial.

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