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Ofcom tailgates Google with radio usage map

Sussing out the spectrum

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Ofcom is responsible for managing radio spectrum in the UK, but it's hard to do that when you don't know who's doing what and where. So by the end of 2008 a fleet of vehicles touring the country will finish doing for radio spectrum what Google is doing for street views.

Ofcom already monitors radio usage, with around 40 analysers based in city centres, but these only monitor spectrum below 1GHz and are obviously limited in coverage. Beyond that, Ofcom is still reliant on members of the public noticing and complaining about unlicensed spectrum usage.

Complaining about pirate radio is just a matter of letting Ofcom know - if it's in the FM band the watchdog will respond with raids and prosecutions. Ofcom even has a new leaflet (pdf) out today, warning that pirate radio operators may even carry knives, when they're not dealing drugs or assaulting one other.

But once you get into the higher frequencies you'll need to complain loudly about "spectrum abuse". If you're lucky, Ofcom will send out someone to analyse the interference and may even send a letter to the person responsible.

A good example of this is the raft of problems caused by home data-over-powerline devices, which generate all sorts of interference to such an extent that a support group exists for those affected, complete with a video to help people identify the problem.

Finding out if there's a problem isn't easy - interference is more likely to be blamed on faulty transmitters or receivers. And while Ofcom knows who should be allowed to broadcast at what frequency and where, no one knows how many people are using spectrum illegally - knowingly or otherwise.

According to PolicyTracker, Ofcom was working with QinetiQ to develop a nationwide monitoring system, but spiralling costs made the project unfeasible. So now the regulator has turned to a company called Cambridge Radio Frequency Services (CRFS), which has kit that can be vehicle-mounted to build up a picture of national radio usage.

Rather than creating a fleet of vehicles Ofcom has done a deal with a company to fit the CRFS kit (picture) into roof racks on the cars driven by their sales staff (30 of them), and expects to have most of the country covered by the end of the year.

Quite what they'll find we don't know - whether unplanned interference of the kind generated by home electronics is a widespread problem, or perhaps everyone is playing nicely and spectrum is already being used to the greatest possible efficiency. But if the process works and Ofcom chooses to share the data then you might be able to see more than just blurred faces on the next generation of Street View. ®

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