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Ofcom sets out airport fees

No discount for the Scots, but plane owners get reprieve

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Airports are going to have to pay more more for their radio frequencies, with some rates jumping by almost 10 times as the cost of a safe landing goes up.

The increase in the cost of frequencies was proposed a year ago, and has now been finalised in a proposal that removes the regional differences in price – which were intended to reflect the fact that there are a lot more aircraft in the south of England than the rest of the UK – but confirms that some airports will face much higher fees, despite protests from smaller airfields that they'll be putting lives at risk by giving up on radio entirely.

Ofcom's plan (pdf) is to phase in the bigger fees over the next five years, but during that period the cost of a VHF Data Link will rise from the current £250 a year to just under £20,000: which should encourage airports to make efficient use of it. And that is, according to Ofcom, the whole point. Last year's consultation invited swift condemnation from the industry, which cynically saw the rise in fees as another tax. The industry complained that making them pay more for spectrum was putting lives at risk. At the time, Ofcom pointed out that air safety isn't really its problem, and that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approved the measures – so everyone else should shut up about it.

"Nearly half of all responses expressed the view that fees are just a means of raising revenue. A few responses from the General Aviation sector implied a belief that Ofcom is increasing fees for its own benefit," complains the exasperated regulator, explaining that "Ofcom’s statutory duties do not permit us to consider the revenue raising potential of AIP fees".

But it does feel that AIP (Administrated Incentive Pricing) is the right way to encourage efficient use of spectrum. The premise of AIP is that spectrum that can't be traded on the open market, such as that internationally reserved for aeronautical use, should be valued on the open market with the user being charged that amount. AIP is being brought in for the Ministry of Defence, and other government users, as well as satellite operators. Charging them AIP is supposed to make the users think about the asset, and make more efficient use of it, which is Ofcom's primary mandate.

Several of the respondents to Ofcom's consultation reckoned that as the frequencies are reserved for aeronautical use, they have no value to anyone else, but the regulator says there are a variety of aeronautical users, and the only way to squeeze more use out of the bands is to make people pay for them.

A good example is the switch to narrower radio channels. The UK is committed to moving to 8.33kHz-wide channels, as opposed to the 25kHz channels currently in use. That that would increase the utilisation by a factor of three, which is just what Ofcom is supposed to encourage. UK airports have no direct control over the radios fitted in aircraft, but Ofcom reckons that once they're paying three times as much for a 25kHz-wide channel they'll find a way to encourage airplane owners to make the switch.

Ofcom won't be charging those airplane owners anything, though they'll likely end up paying one way or another. A dozen or so airfields reckon the additional cost will force them to give up hosting radio, but Ofcom looked into it and discovered most of those complaining don't run a continuous service anyway (generally limited to weekends). Ofcom also took exception to some claims of poverty, pointing out that to most aerodromes it is an incremental increase.

For some it's even a decrease: Fire and Distress frequencies will become free (they currently cost £25 a year), and sports clubs will have to pay £75 a year for gliders and microlights, but that will cover a block of sporting frequencies and be paid by the gliding club to cover all its members.

The only concession Ofcom has made to the smaller aerodromes is a discounted fee for those wishing to communicate less than 10 miles with aircraft lower then 3,000 feet. Such users will only rise to £650 a year, compared to the £2,600 everyone else will be paying, but still more than the £100 or so they're paying today.

The proposals still aren't law, and Ofcom says it is open to debate on creating other tiers of coverage, but is seeking to draw a line under the other arguments. It remains firm on airports having to pay what it considers a market rate for the spectrum they use.

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