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Ofcom denies lifeboat spectrum squeeze

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UK regulator Ofcom has published an update to its consultation on spectrum management for the maritime and aeronautical sectors, explaining that it has no intention to charge lifeboats a quarter of a million quid to use radios.

The clarification follows a deluge of bad publicity and vitriolic feedback received when various mountain rescue organisations and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute calculated that the proposed change in spectrum licensing would lead to a huge jump in costs - up to £260,000 for the RNLI.

The feedback was requested - this is a consultation and remains open until the end of October. But Ofcom has reiterated that no decisions have been made, and that the calculations made by the RNLI aren't accurate anyway. The regulator reckons that under the new scheme the RNLI should be paying less, not more, and that mountain-rescue organisations don't pay for their spectrum and so shouldn't be so worked up about it anyway.

Ofcom explains that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency pays for search-and-rescue spectrum and is already paying something akin to market prices. The RNLI, on the other hand, does pay for its own licences, but Ofcom reckons that by taking advantage of a bulk-discount for a national licence the lifeboat service could reduce its costs to around £20k per annum. The RNLI currently spends £38k on regional licences at the moment - both figures including the 50 per cent discount Ofcom gives to safety groups.

Ofcom would like to see regional licences cost less in sparsely-populated areas, which should sort out mountain rescue, but in urban environments where there's greater pressure on spectrum use Ofcom would like to see users paying more. The regulator reckons the best way to achieve that is through the Administered Incentive Pricing it wants to introduce, which is the subject of the consultation.

We contacted the RNLI, which is still looking at the figures to see how - and if - Ofcom's clarification changes their position.

Individual cases aside, there is an ideological point too: if one imagines that the RNLI or similar is given its spectrum for free, and someone comes along with an improved radio that provides the same quality of service but using half the spectrum, there is no incentive to switch to the new system. Ofcom's argument that those who pay for spectrum are more likely to use it wisely has some basis in fact, and has been effective in getting the Ministry of Defence to give up great swathes of spectrum after finding out how much it was worth.

People who argue that life-saving services shouldn't be bounded by cost aren't being realistic. One has to establish the value of a saved life. Whether that's in terms of ambulances, boats or radio spectrum we have to decide, as a society, how much we're prepared to spend. ®

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