Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Weds 12/7/2006 My very favourite telecoms regulator is going sane. I had my worries about it earlier this month when it appeared to have a hissy fit over people watching high-definition TV tests, but it's back in the land of the nice now.

Weds 12/7/2006

My very favourite telecoms regulator is going sane. I had my worries about it earlier this month when it appeared to have a hissy fit over people watching high-definition TV tests, but it's back in the land of the nice now. It's just announced that it wants to make low-power FM transmitters legal to use without a licence, and that it's going to stop bothering to licence CBs as well.

CB remains the forgotten child of the communications revolution, and rightly so. Once a buzzing nest of peculiar people pretending to be American truckers, it's now mostly used by a small number of peculiar people pretending to be London gangsters. When conditions are right, you can hear stuff from thousands of miles away — including, quite bizarrely, another Ofcom experiment in Northern Ireland where it's handed out CB frequencies to parish priests wanting to broadcast services to those stuck at home — but if you choose to ignore the whole sorry business your life will be not one whit the worse.

Low-power FM is a different kettle of bakelite. The sort of devices Ofcom has in mind are gadgets such as the iTrip, a tiny transmitter that plugs into your iPod and lets you tune in on any stereo radio. These have a range of about five metres, but in the eyes of the law they're just as illegal as Radio Caroline. Ridiculous, of course: they're licence-exempt in the US where they do no harm whatsoever. In fact, people have a lot of fun with them — some pioneering types wire them into their cars and put the operating frequency on their back bumper, so the person behind them in the traffic can eavesdrop.

In practice, people have been using these devices for years in the UK without a single prosecution. From the 1970s on, there have been little transmitter kits available from the back pages of a certain class of magazine, and it's a really convenient way to pipe music all over the house. That's even more so now that we get so much of our programming over the Internet via computers; it's difficult to take your laptop into the shower, and even harder to tune the bathroom wireless into WFMU in New Jersey.

All that we need now is a decent remote control to control the audio source from anywhere in the house. Infra-red's no good and Bluetooth doesn't go through walls, so it'll have to be something like Wi-Fi. There are such things, and you can always use a PDA, but nothing that's cheap or robust. This is exactly the sort of application that the Zigbee wireless networking protocol was invented for, but nobody seems to be bothered.

Still, at least we can use our iTrips without fear of six months in the slammer. Who says the golden age of radical law reform is dead?

 

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