Ofcom scuppered 61 pirate broadcasters in 2007
Plus one Rubber Duck and half a dozen dodgy radios
Updated: Sixty-one people were prosecuted for illegally broadcasting in the UK during the 2006/7 financial year, according to Ofcom's latest figures.
One of those got off the charges, with the rest copping fines of about £7,000 between them plus £21,000 in costs. Six convictions for dodgy CE marking brought in another £11,500 in fines, and one CB user got hit for £50.
Part of Ofcom's remit is to prevent unauthorised use of the spectrum it licenses, generally in response to complaints from legitimate licence holders. Ofcom said last year it received 1,300 cases of interference, of which more than 80 "were impacting upon key safety of life services".
The UK regulator last week announced a it had shut the door on 22 illegal broadcasters in London.
Fining pirate stations and confiscating their equipment clearly isn't working, and no matter how much Ofcom claims they are interfering with life-saving services people continue to listen to them - so targeting the advertisers might seem worth a try.
In the latest crackdown Ofcom wrote to 20 nightclubs to let them know they were breaking the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006. When pushed, however, they admitted they've never actually prosecuted anyone for it (though they have asked for specific events to be pulled with some success).
Talking to the pirates, it seems that such an action would be of limited value anyway - they make their money from charging DJs for the air-time, though none of the pirates we spoke to were making a living out of it.
When it comes to interference it seems the quality of the equipment is what matters. One ex-regulator told us that most of the kit is pretty idiot-proof these days: "Transmitter modules are readily available from suppliers such as Veronica and Broadcast Warehouse.* They are easily assembled and connected and the audio side is quite straightforward; however antennas are not plug 'n play and this is where knowledge is required and problems arise."
Obviously, badly set up kit could be transmitting on any frequency, or a whole range of frequencies - though several readers pointed out that such circumstances are not in the interests of the pirate, who will be quickly tracked and shut down.
Such tracking will only find the transmitter, housed on top of a tall building or (as is increasingly the case) strapped to the side of a mobile-phone cell tower where the power supply is more standard and the security lower. Much of the illegal activity of the pirates consists of the way in which they gain access to, and steal power from, these installations.
Investigators will then try to track down the studio, which will have line of sight to the transmitter for a microwave connection. If the studio is found, people can be arrested and equipment seized. Some of those arrested will get an official caution or conditional discharge (41 of the 61 prosecuted last year), though many will never get charged. We asked Ofcom for the number of arrests last year, for comparison, but it's been unable to provide us with an answer.
As for the stories of booby-trapping equipment to prevent its removal, the pirates tell us that such activity is generally designed to prevent other pirate stations from nicking their transmitters. Such looting is, apparently, endemic in London, and hardly something they can report to the police.
In fact, competition between the illegal broadcasters seems to be the root of much of the violence associated with pirate radio, as evidenced by the seizure of knives and even firearms from pirate-radio studios - not something the Radio Caroline crowd would have endorsed.
Interference from pirate radio stations could be eliminated through better education, or equipment, but the competition issue isn't going to go away. Handing out fines and cautions isn't having much of an impact either, but technology could make the problem simply disappear. All of the pirate radio stations we spoke to are also streamed over the internet, and with mobile data moving towards more sensible pricing the need for FM infrastructure is rapidly disappearing.
Should a significant proportion of the population move to DAB radio the pirates could well find themselves priced out of the market, forced onto the mobile internet. It will be interesting to see how many continue with their vocation when it ceases to have the kudos of being illegal.
* A Broadcast Warehouse spokesman got in touch and said: "Broadcast Warehouse does not knowingly sell equipment to pirate radio stations."®
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