According to the old adage, possession is nine tenths of the law. Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, certainly seems to use it as its mantra, because it has decided -- and it's backed by MPs -- that the analogue TV spectrum will be sold off when the UK completely moves over to digital in a few years time.
Although the radio spectrum in the UK belongs to the citizens, both the government and Ofcom is determined to mine it for every last penny, even if that means you and I won't be able to get high-definition TV over the air. This is annoying, because there is an ever-increasing number of people who want hi-def TV via Freeview. This demand isn't going to decrease either, as people buying HD Ready televisions realise how abysmal Freeview looks on their shiny new sets.
Now, the auction for the 3G spectrum made the government a lot of money, which was spent on dinner ladies and traffic bumps and military-grade robots and all the other great things our taxes pay for. This could potentially do the same -- I'm not suggesting the government is going to blow it all on strippers. But when analogue TV is switched off in a few years, broadcasters and high-definition enthusiasts hoped we would finally get a long-overdue quality increase. At the moment, channels are squeezed into tiny amounts of space, and on LCDs and plasmas it really shows. Essentially, we're getting a worse service than we did on our old CRT tellies.
Spectrum-auctioning is good for people who want better mobile services. Indeed, perhaps mobiles are the future. When 4G or even 5G telecoms services arrive, perhaps we'll all just watch TV in high definition via a dedicated data feed. The problem with this is, I very much doubt it will be free. This leaves us with a dilemma. There are ways to get HD via satellite and cable, but not everyone can have a satellite dish, and not everyone lives in a cable area, and not everyone wants to pay more than the license fee. What happens to the rest of us? Why are we not entitled to see the content that broadcasters are increasingly making in high definition?
It's probably worth pointing out at this point that Ofcom is also preventing the use of Ultra Wideband in the UK, a technology which allows very high speed wireless data transfer. In the US, these applications are allowed because they operate at very low power, and shouldn't interfere with anything. Sadly, no such common-sense approach exists in the UK.
You can write to Ofcom via its Web site, so I suggest you do, and politely remind it that the spectrum isn't theirs, or the government's, to flog off to the highest bidder as they see fit. It belongs to us, and we would be delighted if some of it was given over to HD broadcasts. -Ian Morris