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Watchdog plays nice

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Ofcom is asking the public what information it would like to know, and how it should go about sharing it.

But the UK regulator won't be sharing anything that upsets the mobile network operators, so no change there.

When it comes to wireless communications Ofcom has all the data: locations and frequencies of transmitters, how much everyone paid for their spectrum and even who is exploiting the radio waves illegally. Ofcom has a legal responsibility to share at least some of this information: so is asking you what it is you would like to know.

Part of this now-found openness (pdf) is down to a ruling that radio waves constitute "emissions" from an environmental standpoint - this was much debated, but puts radio transmitters within the remit of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 which state the public has a right to know about such things.

That could mean the location of every radio transmitter in the country, but don't expect a Google Earth mash-up any day soon.

Mobile-phone masts are already recorded in the Sitefinder database, which is supposed to enable concerned locals to check out what the nearby masts are kicking out, and for whom.

But a Freedom of Information request for the whole database has thrown the industry into a tizzy, and led to T-Mobile withholding its site information since August 2005 against claims that sharing the database as a single file would lead to the collapse of civilisation as we know it.

That case is still on-going, and Ofcom is very careful to state that this consultation won't result in a downloadable database of transmitter locations and power, which is a shame as that's exactly what (almost) everyone wants to see.

But the regulator does entertain adding fixed-link microwave and other broadcast transmitters to the Sitefinder database, excepting the few used for national defence, so locals will be able to see what's affecting local people.

Sharing the amount that companies pay for those transmitters, and fixed links, is also up for comment though likely to be even more contentious. When companies licence radio spectrum from the government then we all know how much they pay: it's our government after all, but when they start licensing spectrum off each other there's no obligation to let the public know how much was spent.

Tradable spectrum is in vogue at the moment and Ofcom expects the number of such trades to grow hugely over the next few years, so wants to hear from stakeholders (that's network operators and their ilk, not you) whether they'd be prepared to share the amount they've paid in return for hearing what everyone is paying.

But not all the information Ofcom has knocking about is handed to the regulator on a plate, some is the result of genuine research.

Ofcom's recent pilot to sample radio usage from roof-rack-mounted scanners showed an intriguing insight into spectrum utilisation, but Ofcom want's to know if you think it should pay £2.11m a year to maintain a national map. The regulator also collects information from static monitoring points around the country, which is not currently shared with the public, and the regulator would like to know if you'd be interested in seeing that too.

It certainly looks as though more information will be coming out of Ofcom, though the one thing that most people would want and expect, a database of every licensed transmitter in the UK, is firmly off the agenda.

This also could all be moot as Ofcom signed its own death warrant by taking on News International, a move that left the Conservative party falling over itself to announce it would be kneecapping the regulator just as soon as Murdoch's newspapers put it into power at the next general election.

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