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Ofcom flicks switch on iPod FM

Micro power FM transmitters legal from Dec.

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Ofcom today announced that "micro power" FM transmitters such a the Griffin Technologies iTrip or Belkin TuneCast can legally be used from 8 December.

Ofcom changed the regulations in line with the European Commission Decision (2006/771/EC) establishing a framework for the harmonisation of radio spectrum for use by short-range devices in the community, which means micropower FM transmitters should be legal in every EU member state.

Any transmitter will have to comply with the relevent ETSI standard, but this has been available for a while and any device with a CE mark will be compliant.

However, buyers should beware of buying US or Far East equipment as that may not have gone through the approvals process and is therefore still illegal to use.

Though low power transmitters may not seem very significant, to legalise them has meant a change to the Wireless Telegraphy Act (WTA), the law concerning radio reception and transmission. Though the changes have been authorised and signed, they don't come into force until 8 December.

It's been an odd situation as transmitters have been around for quite a while. Ofcom used to have the power to prosecute people selling such equipment as they could not be used legally in Europe, but since they incorporated the standards into the CE mark approvals, Ofcom has had to allow their sale, just not their use in the UK. Now everything is hunky dory and anyone using this type of transmitter stops being a pirate radio station (though with a very limited audience).

Other changes

CB (citizen's band) users will no longer need to obtain a licence in order to use CB equipment - there are currently around 20,000 licensed users in the UK.

It will no longer be necessary to obtain a license to use:

  • Inmarsat BGAN and High Density Fixed Satellite Service (HDFSS) satellite terminals.
  • Narrow band use of 24GHz for short range radar (including automotive applications).
  • Radar level gauges.
  • Digital PMR 446 ("walkie talkies").

Most of the above has little interest for the general public as the radar applications are really relevent to industrial areas such as car manufacturers who can now incorporate radar into car designs, used for features such as collision avoidance systems.

Walkie talkies have been available for some time, most being analogue systems. Digital walkie talkies using 446MHz have also been around, but they used to include a a piece of paper in the box, which was the relevent license and the manufacturer sorted out the any payments. Now, the license requirement has been scrapped altogether. Again, systems will require a CE mark to ensure they meet the relevent European standards.

The WTA spies are us

The WTA is one of the most draconian pieces of legislation in the statute books. It covers the transmission or reception of radio and in the past has required licenses for the transmission and/or reception of ANY radio signals and the penalities for not complying with the laws are extremely heavy handed.

This is where the TV license stems from - you're paying for a license to decode and receive TV broadcast signals. The £100 a year pales into insignificance if you consider the fees the TV stations have to pay to get a transmission license.

It's also why pirate radio stations can be prosecuted, as they don't have a license to transmit (let alone in the commercial FM space). Ofcom has powers to enter a building and confiscate anything it feels has been involved in an illegal radio transmission (which can mean it can completely clear out a flat, and only when it goes to court will the Judge rule that your sofa was nothing to do with the illegal activity. Meanwhile, you have to sit on the floor for six months). Ofcom doesn't even need a search warrant.

It all stems from wartime activity when spies used to have illegal transmitters to send information out of the UK (or receivers to get instructions etc). It's much easier to prosecute someone for illegal use of a transmitter than being a spy.

There have been some "gotchas" in the past, speed radar detectors used to be illegal as you couldn't get a license to receive the frequencies used by radars (unless you were the Police). Someone took it to court and it was ruled that a radar detector only detected a radar, it didn't decode the signal and it was the reception and decoding that was illegal according to the WTA.

Welcome change

It's been a long time in coming, but Ofcom seems to be making the right moves and making spectrum available to the masses, rather than tightly controlling it as has been policy in the past. Some of this is due to European regulatory change, but Ofcom is being proactive rather than just reactive - as was the bent of its predecessor Oftel.

So go out an buy your iTrip, you'll be able to use it in time for Christmas. ®

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