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Ofcom begged to protect minicab, other small-biz's radio spectrum

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The Federation of Communication Services, trade body to the UK's private radio operators, is calling for Ofcom to step away from the free market when it comes to spectrum regulation.

The Federation, representing more than 300 UK companies with interests in private radio, has published a 14-point advisory for Ofcom's consideration (pdf, don't try unless you're really interested). That advisory is intended to feed into the regulator's five-year plan and argues that the existing, market-driven, approach to spectrum licensing is costing the UK both economically and socially.

Private radios are used by all sorts of businesses, typically taxi companies but actually everyone from event coordinators to school teachers. Many conform to the "MPT1327" standard which uses digital signalling to manage analogue voice channels and operate in a licensed band around 200MHz, while others are straight analogue systems.

One might imagine that in these days of ubiquitous mobile coverage the days of Private Radio would be numbered, but the Federation members reckon overall use of Private radio will double by 2017, which means business users are going to need more radio spectrum.

That means Ofcom needs "to act in the interests of the UK rather than just consumers", and stop relying on auctions to promote spectral efficiency.

Ofcom's policy is to sell radio spectrum to the highest bidder, on the understanding that the more someone pays the greater their incentive to fill the airwaves efficiently, with income for the exchequer being a happy coincidence. Government departments can state their case for exemptions, but even when they do Ofcom will make them pay market rates.

Meanwhile the Federation reckons businesses are losing out.

An oft-touted example of the kind of action the Federation wants is the spectrum now reserved for professional wireless microphones. Such microphones contribute to the good of the country, providing entertainment on stage and screen, but they also contribute to the economy thanks to a thriving theatre business which brings in tourists, so (after some campaigning) Ofcom has maintained a reservation for such users.

Television, in the form of Freeview, similarly doesn't pay market rates for its radio spectrum. Freeview, and traditional radio, couldn't survive economically if it had to compete with the mobile operators for spectrum, so it gets a free allocation.

Which is what the Federation of Communication Services would like Ofcom to provide for Private Radio users, ideally something in the 700MHz band which Ofcom has suggested clearing by shuffling Freeview down the dial in 2018. That would be too late for the 2017 doubling of traffic the Federation predicts, but other mitigation could be applied, assuming that Ofcom agrees that Private Radio users need special protection and shouldn't fight for their radio waves like (almost) everyone else. ®

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