Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 19/06/2006Good old Ofcom. It has a very dynamic approach to problem solving – when appropriate, it can sit in silence for years, meditating like a Zen master, inscrutably cogitating.

Monday 19/06/2006

Good old Ofcom. It has a very dynamic approach to problem solving – when appropriate, it can sit in silence for years, meditating like a Zen master, inscrutably cogitating. But give it an immediate threat and it strikes instantly, a cobra of unstoppable force.

Or is it the other way around? Today, there are rumours seeping out that the regulator will finally decide on a 2002 complaint originally made to Oftel that BT was unfairly pricing its broadband. Ofcom says it is 'considering all the evidence' – that's some consideration for what must be a fairly limited set of facts. Still, no rush. It's only money, competition, broadband and the development of the UK's online marketplace.

Meanwhile, Ofcom has been far quicker to act against the menace of high definition television. Earlier, it granted the terrestrial TV companies an experimental broadcast licence to send out digital HD TV on an unused London TV channel. The power is very low – the channel's used in adjacent counties, so interference is a possible – and the transmission is limited to the Crystal Palace mast, but apart from that the TV companies are free to send out what they like. Oh, and there's a proviso that not more than 500 people can pick up the signals, presumably to stop naughty importers selling 'Freeview HD' boxes for what is after all a temporary, variable and very local service.

So far, so good. The BBC and its commercial buddies distributed around 400 receivers to their testers, set up their transmitters and off they went. This got mentioned in the trade press and online, and various enterprising individuals worked out that by tweaking ordinary digital TV PC cards they could pick up the signals. There was a burst of activity in the usual discussion areas, and much fun was had. You had to get the PC just right, with a decent graphics card and properly tweaked software, and it took a bit of cleverness with the aerial, but then you got to see high definition test transmissions. This made a number of geeks rather happy.

It didn't have that effect on Ofcom, oh no. Unauthorised reception! Alarum! Within days, words were had with the broadcasters: if this badness wasn't stopped, the licence could be withdrawn and the tests cancelled. I mean, if people actually picked up TV transmissions – why, where would it end? I can't answer that question, and neither can you.

One might consider that having people voluntarily taking part in a test at their own expense would be of general benefit. One might consider that encouraging awareness of HD TV would help the move towards the digital switchover. One might consider that public service broadcasting needs to keep an independent transmission network, and that in competition with cable and satellite systems it had better get its HD groove on. But no. How wrong one is.

And you, you naughty geeks, are threatening everything that by being enthusiastic. Ofcom will have your hides. Now keep quiet and do something useful like abuse a monopoly position or two. Expect a response in 2010. It is the Ofcom way.

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