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Scotland Mountain Rescue turns on Ofcom

Volunteers asked to put anger into words

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Volunteer mountain-rescue staff in Scotland are being asked to write to the UK regulator Ofcom to complain about increased spectrum prices that could drive them out of the life-saving business.

The BBC reports that the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland has asked its members to write to the regulator in response to the current consultation on Maritime and Aeronautical radio use, which is open until the end of October, complaining that the "Administered Incentive Pricing" proposed will cost the charity thousands of pounds it doesn't have.

The situation is similar for the Royal National Lifeboat Institute: which currently pays a discount rate of £38K for a licence around 156Mhz, but could end up with a bill knocking quarter of a million quid, annually. Even if they retain their 50 per cent discount, that's another £100K the charity is going to have to find if lifeboats are going to be able to talk to each other and the shore.

The problem is one of ideology: Ofcom believes that to ensure licensees value, their spectrum properly they must pay a market price for it. If they don't value it, then they have no motivation to use it efficiently. The best way to establish a market price is by auction, but for some spectrum, that's not suitable. It would be harsh to expect the Ministry of Defence to get into a bidding war with a foreign telco, so in such cases Ofcom adopts a formula known as Administered Incentive Pricing to work out what the spectrum would be worth on the open market.

In the case of the MOD that has worked well - the forces have agreed to give up great swaths of spectrum they weren’t really using and will pay market rates for the rest of it, being as the money comes from - and goes to - the treasury it's just a matter of book-keeping.

But - incredible as it seems for a small island - our lifeboats are a charity paid for by public donations. The same thing applies to Mountain Rescue in parts of Scotland and many local rescue services, so these groups are going to have to stump up a lot more money if they want to keep spectrum for the dull business of saving lives rather than delivery of multimedia Web 3.0 experiences that the highest bidder is likely to want to provide.

Any attempt to give the spectrum away for free, such as exempting life-saving services, would undermine the premise that cost makes for efficient use of resources - in case anyone's forgotten, optimal use of the electro-magnetic spectrum is the primary remit of the regulator. So the stand-off has no obvious resolution, until Scotland's mountain rescue decides to issue bagpipes instead of radios - or Ofcom changes its basic philosophy. ®

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