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Ofcom prepares to open up on emissions

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Ofcom is preparing to open up its radio licence database, so anyone who wants to keep their transmissions secret needs to let the regulator know before 12 November.

The change comes because radio waves are now considered "emissions", and "emissions" come under the remit of the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR). Ofcom consulted on the matter, and has now concluded (pdf) that it is obliged to share the transmitter details and will start doing do next year.

BT, and the Federation of Communications Services, argued that the data shouldn't fall under the EIR as the "emissions" concerned have no environmental impact. That argument was undermined by a ruling from the Information Tribunal regarding the SiteFinder database (run by Ofcom to track cellular mast installations) which clearly states that the emissions are environmental, and even if they aren't then the steel towers from which they come certainly are.

But it was T-Mobile who fought every step of the way, arguing that the UK is at higher risk of terrorist attack than the countries that currently share such data, and that pirate radio stations would nick stuff and endanger the public – pirates presumably being unable to stand in the middle of their intended coverage and look for a big tower nearby.

Ofcom was having none of it, so the roll-out starts February next year and the public will eventually have access to details on the UK's 40,000 fixed microwave links (mostly mobile backhaul) as well as maritime radar and satellite earth stations, unless the owners seek an exemption.

Those exemptions come in three types: National Security, Public Safety and Defence, each of which has its own detailed criteria (pdf, pdf & pdf, respectively).

Those seeking exception on the grounds of National Security will need to provide evidence that their installation is "vulnerable to compromise (i.e. jamming and interference)", and that such a loss would "have a critical impact on public safety". Whole networks "will not be considered", so applications have to be made on a site-by-site basis.

Anyone pleading public safety will have to demonstrate that the information isn't available anywhere else, and that "disclosure of information... would lead directly to casualties/fatalities".

Defence users get the most leeway, but even the MoD can't exempt an entire network and has to demonstrate that the information about specific sites would "prejudice... the defence of the British Islands".

What won't be available is a national dataset - just as with SiteFinder the public will be able to search for transmitters within a local area, but not to download every transmitter of a particular type or owned by a particular company:

"Currently, we have no plans to publicly provide a copy of our national dataset. But we hope to look at this again once the ongoing legal issues surrounding the Sitefinder litigation have been resolved."

That SiteFinder litigation has been dragging on for years, with operators occasionally withholding data and fighting every step of the way to avoid the public getting hold of a national dataset – presumably out of habit now as any other motivation seems obscure to the point of irreverence.

Even local searches won't reveal everything - where a licensee has a national licence then the locations of the transmitters won't be listed as Ofcom doesn't have that information. But even discounting those examples, and the inevitable exemptions, there's still going to be a lot of data entering the public arena which should prove interesting. ®

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