Tell me where it Hertz

Rupert Goodwins: Everyone wants a bite of the radio spectrum, but are we making the best of what we have?

The flowering of wireless is enormously exciting. Mobile phones now, ubiquitous Net access soon and after that, knowing where everything is all the time. Nobody can deny that radio is busy changing the world even more drastically than it did the first time around. It means us nerds are losing our secrets, though. Once upon a time, only about ten people in the country knew what a gigahertz was -- and half of them lacked the social skills to tell anyone. Now you can't take a walk down a country road without finding two wireless LAN makers at fisticuffs as they argue furiously about 2.4GHz versus 5GHz. And everyone everywhere seems to want spectrum space as quickly as it becomes available.

Why is it taking so long? Ask your friendly local radio ham to take you for a spin through the airwaves one evening, and you'll find that most of it is empty. That's true even in London, where huge chunks of valuable wireless real estate sit idle -- they're allocated to the military for no good reason; dead channels to prevent interference to distant TV transmitters; services with national frequencies but sparse local use; or part of international agreements that are no longer appropriate. Or then there are the hundreds of taxis, courier services, breakdown services and so on, all handed out frequencies in the days before the mobile phone made two-way radios something of an anachronism. Yet a lot of the new developments in this country depend on analogue switch-off, where existing services are turned off to free up the spectrum -- whether or not the frequencies are actually needed. This means making hundreds of millions of radios and televisions -- some of which you own -- obsolete overnight. Don't like it? Tough. (There are even hints that amateur radio frequencies will fall, which will of course be the end of civilization as we know it. Trust me on this).

That there are plenty of frequencies already being auctioned off might seem to indicate analogue closedown isn't necessary. But talk to people who want to roll out broadband wireless Internet access, and they'll do nothing but complain: the frequencies on offer are no good, too expensive, not capable of being shared. Despite the Radiocommunications Agency offering chunk after chunk of spectrum, it's never good enough. BT, bless 'em, was offered a licence at 2GHz, but rejected it because "there wasn't enough bandwidth." So now the broad open spaces of 3.4GHz are available, is BT happy? No, of course not. It wants 2GHz back again, "because it's much cheaper" (balderdash. There are about three components different between a 2GHz and a 3.4GHz radio), but is now complaining that "people it can't talk about" won't let the band go. That these "people" are most likely BT itself in Secret Squirrel garb is neither here nor there in the schizoid world of British telecommunications. But without the right frequencies, there's no commercial sense to wireless broadband, or so they say. Hence analogue switch-off.

Things are getting better, although it remains a thankless task to come up with the compromises needed. Take DAB radio, which squeezes 20 or 30 new radio station into a sliver of an old band once used for a solitary channel of black and white telly. Originally intended to be just a few channels of "crystal clear high fidelity" music replacing FM, it's become clear that it makes more sense to use it for a greater variety of channels at a lower bit rate and thus lower quality. Most people -- who can get DAB -- are very pleased with this, although there are a few blowhards who campaign tirelessly for a return to the old ideas, but it does mean that DAB is evolving to be a complementary service to FM broadcasting, not a replacement. Great for the listeners, but a bit of an own goal to those who want to reallocate the FM frequencies. But if the services are provided, why do you need to close things down?

Digital television is proving another area where things aren't going as planned but in some ways better than expected. The Great British Public couldn't care less about digital or analogue; they'll pay monthly for hundreds of channels of choice but not for just a handful. Digital terrestrial is limited to the handful option, at least for now, because it has to squeeze into the gaps between the analogue transmissions, so it has to be given away. With the boxes below £100 people are getting keen, even if once they buy them they find that they have to invest in new aerials and cabling. I went through all that with my rustic parents at Christmas, and as a result they've now got one television capable of watching digital channels. Good progress -- but they've still got three other tellies and three video recorders that'll need converting at some point, and the analogue closedown date of 2008 still seems enormously overconfident.

Despite the various mishaps along the way, the UK is way ahead of the rest of the world in per capita take-up of digital radio and television. It seems that our peculiar mix of legislation, public service commitments and commercial interest works rather well to drive new technology. The public service stuff helps justify the initial investment, experimentation and roll-out, and also ensures that there's good content when you get there. And then you build on that base, adding new services organically as the market develops.

Where does this leave wireless broadband? The BBC has already made its radio stations available on the Internet, with a quite superb mix of Web support and interaction, streamed live content and archived options. It's world-class stuff, as people in the rest of the world are finding out. There's nothing stopping it doing the same for television -- except the lack of broadband across the country. Suitable frequencies are available, despite what BT keeps saying. If a commercial consortium with the BBC on board said that it would roll out 3.4GHz broadband wireless as a combination of Internet access and BBC digital television, archival and interactive services, we could reach the point where affordable broadband covered the country, new, exciting TV and radio stuff was on offer and nobody would have to turn anything off until the viewers were happy to let it go.

Today, the very success of the BBC is controversial: to make a success of a public service is apparently more of a crime than to fail. It would be a crying shame if this attitude slowed down or stopped the provision of one of the most important public services for the next century -- universal broadband. And us anoraks would get to keep our precious megahertz: now that's what I call painless.

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