Boss Hogg's guide to radio networking

Rupert Goodwins: A forgotten frequency is revived for data, but with both hands tied behind its back.

It was the last gasp of the seventies. Punk was just beginning to crust up, Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher, had got her sensible shoes under the desk at Downing Street and the first theocracy of the atomic age was getting its groove on in Iran. But even as Tony Blackburn and Gary Numan made odd bedfellows on Wonderful Radio One, a different kind of broadcast was fascinating hundreds of thousands of otherwise sane people across the UK. In its grip, Fred Smith from Acacia Avenue became Night Warrior of The Double A, Julie Green of Plymouth became Fancy Pants from The Port City. Foreshadowing all the fuss about Internet chat rooms -- and attracting almost identical media vitriol -- Citizens Band was here.

Forgotten now, CB was huge then. Thanks to the Wireless Telegraphy Act and an almost Victorian sense of paternalism by the Home Office, the average UK citizen was no more allowed to transmit without a licence than he was to fly a jumbo jet, and the consequences of either seemed identical in the eyes of the law. Most of the time, that didn't matter: an odd smattering of dodgy geezers with army surplus transmitters occasionally made enough trouble to get noticed, but the usual rules applied: don't frighten the horses or interfere with anyone more important than you, and you won't get into too much trouble.

Other countries didn't see things that way. In particular, the USA had more of an "if you want to do it, then gee, why not" attitude and legalised two-way radios for non-hams. These soon got small and cheap enough to be brought back into the UK by visitors, who found the airwaves delightfully empty -- apart from a couple of weather balloons, some hospital bleepers and radio-controlled aircraft, the channels lay fallow. Then CB took off in the States on the back of the oil crisis as drivers used it to find which garages had petrol in stock. Suddenly it was a genuine cultural phenomenon.

That trickled over here, and before you could say give us a ten nine good buddy there were people marching on Parliament with placards demanding free speech on CB. As model aircraft around the country plummeted into doctors wondering what sort of medical emergency a "Bear In The Air" was, and a mere three years after it had effectively lost control of the airwaves, the government acted. It legalised CB -- on different frequencies and with different standards to the US model, to be sure, but you could go out and buy one and not fear the Grim Busbies.

And then: nothing. Give the people what they want, and they go away. These days, the airwaves are once again empty. Apart from some foul-mouthed kids in the cities, some tractor drivers in the country and Russian taxi firms (don't ask) there are 80 channels of radio silence. Everyone's got mobile phones if they know to whom they want to talk, and Internet chat rooms if they don't.

Cue the Radiocommunications Agency. For absolutely no detectable reason -- and with no detectable result -- it quietly announced at Christmas that people would be allowed to send data over their CBs. As far as I know, nobody asked for this. They do it on the continent a bit but nobody cares. On the face of it, it's a good idea: it's not 802.11g and nobody'll be ripping off MP3s over it, but you can see what it might be good for.

CB has a range of around two to five miles. You can get second hand rigs for around £20, and your average sound card can act as a perfectly good modem. It's not ideal, but there are loads of good things you can do with text-based Net access (as the mobile phone companies tried to tell us for years). And using digipeating, where a radio receives a packet of information and forwards it, you can set up nationwide networks of bulletin boards and net access with remarkably little effort. Radio hams (who have since gone onto better things) spent large chunks of the 90s doing that; they also developed location-based services where your car sends GPS data back over the network to anyone who's interested.

So why has the RA set the rules so that you can't go faster than 1200bps, you can't access a bulletin board or the Net, you can't forward packets, you can only use three channels, and you can't even leave your radio going unattended? What, exactly, are people supposed to do with this? Why dangle the prospect of something that a good smattering of people might be able to use, and then turn it into a pointless exercise in pseudo-deregulation? It's enough to make me want to jump into my 18-wheeler, push the pedal to the metal and motor down the superslab until I got me a convoy. And that's a BIG ten four.


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