Ofcom up for freeing more frequencies

Licencelessness spreading

Ofcom has proposed removing licence requirements from a range of radio frequencies, permitting some innovative spectrum use and perhaps saving a few lives too.

Personal Locator Beacons will be permitted for land use, enabling satellite reporting of an emergency as well as radio location, all without needing a licence. Intelligent roads will get licence-free spectrum too, as Ofcom admits that preventing road deaths is extremely cost-effective, and we get a new frequency for Short Range Devices which will now be able to operate with impunity at 138MHz.

In the UK all radio transmitters have to be licensed, unless specifically exempt or operating only in licence-exempt frequencies. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth operate in licence-exempt spectrum, while mobile telephones are specifically exempt (otherwise we'd all need a licence to use one). Ofcom's latest proposals extend both categories into previously-licensed spaces.

So a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) will be able to contact a satellite, at 406MHz, and then send out a locator signal at 121.5MHz (and/or 243MHz) to enable rescuers to find someone in trouble. PLBs won't need a licence, on land - they'll continue to need one to operate at sea, but they will need to be registered (so the emergency services know who they're rescuing) and Ofcom recommends sticking GPS in them too.

Intelligent Transport gets 20MHz of spectrum (5875 to 5905 MHz) for infrastructure (roadside transmitters and such). Ofcom had previously been concerned that removing the licensing would lead to interference, but those fears have been allayed by industry standards promoting coexistence.

Satellite phones will get the same exemption applied to GSM handsets, but Ofcom notes that it still plans to charge anyone planning to build a Ground Component to supplement their satellite signal (there'll be no LightSquared on this side of the pond), and that neither of the satellite operators seem interested in paying.

Also exempted are handsets to be used for the Olympic network, Apollo. That network was switched on last month, based on the Tetra standard and run by Airwave at 385MHz.

Apollo will operate until December next year, and as the UK government promised to provide Olympic radio spectrum for free Airwave doesn't pay for the licence, and under the proposals handsets won't need a licence.

Fixed wireless internet access points at 3.4-3.6GHz get to operate without a licence too, but only when connected to a licensed base station, so that's really just saving some paperwork.

Most interesting is the 250KHz of spectrum at 138.2MHz that become open to Short Range Devices. SRDs don't have a specific definition, but they're the kind of things that make life a little easier - wireless doorbells, fire alarms, door locks etc. So another 15KHz is always welcomed.

Ofcom plans to have these proposals into law by November (pdf, readable if a bit legalistic), so is looking for responses by 16 June. ®

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