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Ofcom proposes squeezing £4m out of airlines

Not about the money, of course

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UK regulator Ofcom is again consulting on charging airports for the frequencies they use, even if the spectrum can't be used for anything else.

Ofcom's proposal (pdf) sets fees ranging from £75 to £19,000 which will be charged to airports operating radios in the 118.975-147MHz band, with discounts for those operating in the boondocks, and will be phased in over the next five years to cushion the blow.

The document is a follow-up to July's consultation which provoked heated debate - mostly from individuals concerned with protection of life-saving services, but also from airlines and airports who object to paying for something they've hitherto had for free. This time Ofcom has numbers and details, and is focusing on the airports in the hope of getting an easier ride, but the industry is unlikely to take even that lying down.

The rates are calculated using AIP (Administrated Incentive Pricing - Ofcom guesses the commercial value and charges that), and depend on details of channels and broadcast power, and where the airport is - Northern Scotland gets half price licences, while Wales gets 20 per cent off.

As usual, Ofcom is citing greater efficiency rather than revenue generation. A good example of inefficiency, and one cited by Ofcom, is the use of 25kHz-wide channels - the UK is committed to using channels of 8.33kHz, which would increase the number by factor of three, but there's little incentive for the industry to move to 8.33kHz channels except where airports demand it because of overcrowding.

Ofcom's prime directive is efficient spectrum use, so the regulator reckons that airports will be pleased to switch to 8.33kHz channels to cut two thirds off their licence, thus pushing aircraft owners into upgrading their kit.

Respondents to the first consultation argued that international agreements mandate the spectrum for aeronautical use, so it has no commercial value and that makes it inappropriate to bill for it. Ofcom responds that it is charged with efficient use of spectrum, and just because it can't be sold doesn't mean it can't be valued.

There were also arguments, notably from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), that the fees would push small aerodromes to shut down their radio service, which could compromise safety. Ofcom retorts that if the CAA is concerned about safety, then perhaps the CAA should impose some legal requirements on the aerodromes: that's not Ofcom's job.

Ofcom is dead set on applying AIP to aeronautical radios. The regulator is willing to negotiate on the amount of the fees, and the phasing-in process, but the underlying model of airports paying for their radio spectrum now seems irresistible. ®

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