Once upon a time, running a rural pirate radio transmitter was jolly good fun. You cobbled together the kit, frequently made up from various bits of hacked-about government surplus gear costing three shillings and thruppence, took it out to some featureless field just outside your target town, ran the aerial into the trees, plugged in an ancient Philips cassette recorder with your half-hour programme on it, pressed the buttons and retired to a safe distance.
After you'd done this for three or four Sundays in a row, the GPO sent out a bloke in a Bedford van with twiddly aerials on the top. You'd see him coming a mile off, stopping now and again to triangulate your position, and judge the precise moment at which to run back into the field, grab your bits, throw them into the back of your mate's Mini, and pootle off to the Plume of Feathers for a refresher. If you got the timing wrong one way, both your listeners would be deprived of their afternoon entertainment; the other, and your kit got nabbed. Only if you were spectacularly dozy or unlucky would you risk being brought into direct contact with the Buzbies — let alone the fuzz.
A sense of fair play pervaded the enterprise. You didn't say or do anything too outrageous, while matey in the van got paid overtime in exchange for getting out from under his missus' feet for the afternoon. It was far from unknown for the teams on both sides to meet in mutually neutral territory and gently rib each other.
Skip forward to today, and Ofcom — which has inherited the gig of looking after the airwaves — is intent on taking all the fun out of it. It's just published a report on its proposed automatic monitoring system. Ofcom's dream is of a country dotted with hundreds of robot listeners, all talking to each other while they scan the airwaves for hints of naughtiness. If something crops up, the nearest Robo-Marconis log everything about it while comparing notes to pinpoint the exact position of the offender.
The test boxes they cobbled together are reasonably smart. A GPS receiver provides accurate timing and the physical location of the box, while computerised radios march up and down the bands keeping an ear out for things. The whole lot connects to the Internet and thus to central control, which correlates what's picked up.
The report on how the trial went has some sad little asides. For example: the original plan was to connect the system together with 3G. However, "The limitations of the 3G data cards, particularly in the Malvern area due to poor network coverage and failures with the network, meant that an alternative solution had to be investigated and trialled." Aw. 3G not living up to its promise? If I were Ofcom, I'd have a word with whatever government agency set the rules for that service and farmed out the frequencies.
The rest of the report — more than 200 pages — makes fascinating reading if you're of a radio bent. And the conclusion? The network as envisioned would be very expensive, but worth it — and I'm sure that has nothing to do with the main companies behind the test system being the ones that'll benefit most from such copious spending.
Meanwhile, as anyone in London can attest, the pirate beat goes on. And on. Even I can find the transmitters — it's not a lack of technological capacity that's stopping them being nabbed, it's lack of political will. As a denizen of a muddy field far away in time, may I hope that such faffery may long continue.