Crave Talk: iTrip and the fall of the Empire

Congratulations! Your iTrip is no longer a threat to Her Britannic Majesty's dreadnoughts, and you will shortly be able to operate it as a wireless telegraphy station without fear of two years hard labour at said monarch's pleasure

Cast your mind back to the British Empire at the turn of the 20th century. It is at the very height of its pomp. A quarter of the map is red -- from Cape Town to Cairo, Auchtermurchty to Adelaide, the Union Jack flies proudly. The whole bizarre apparatus of the Empire is held together by the world's mightiest navy, which despite its iron-clad magnificence is still communicating by flashing lights, flags and paper.

Then an aristocratic Italian tinkerer called Marconi shows up with a marvellous invention called the wireless. It wasn't strictly speaking his invention, but he had the patents and the lawyers, and thus was morally right. After a lot of huffing, Her Majesty's Government got the idea that this might be more useful than flags in keeping order on the high seas.

Back then, "and it harm no-one, do what you will" was not a major concern of the government. A total monopoly was quickly established under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1904 with the needs of the military in with a bullet at number one. And from that day to this, every new use of radio in the UK has been resisted by the government on the grounds -- sometimes thinly disguised -- that it might block an order to shell some uppity village that has too much sunshine. Even broadcasting itself was forbidden at first, then given as a monopoly to the trusty BBC (which until quite recently had a man from the military on its premises, just in case).

Yet not an inch of radio space has been yielded without a fight. Pop music and commercial radio? Unthinkable -- until Radio Caroline and the pirates forced the issue. Walkie-talkies for ordinary people? Impossible -- until hundreds of thousands of illegal CBers proved otherwise. Mobile phones for the masses? You've got to be kidding -- well, everyone else is doing it, but we'll put them out of the way on some forgotten band that's hideously expensive to use.

And now, gentle iPod owners, you too are part of the democratic revolution. By buying and using iTrips in enormous numbers, you have helped bring down one of the last echoes of the Empire through the best tool in the resistance's box. You've made the Wireless Telegraphy Act look ridiculous.

There's a lot we can do with our new freedom to radiate, even if we'll have to wait until later this year to get it. This is 2006, after all, so the King's divine writ has been replaced by Ofcom's consultation documents. But when the law is amended, there'll be lots of fun with FM stereo distribution systems at home.

At last, you'll be able to listen to weird streaming audio during your morning ablutions -- and we'll be right there with you, just behind the soapdish, showing you what to do. Just be careful not to sink that model battleship when you're bopping in the bath. Her Majesty would not be amused. -Rupert Goodwins

 

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