The switch to digital

Digi-geeks and stubborn luddites

 

Today, BBC Two is switched off in transmissions in the London area, thus marking the beginning of the end for analogue television in the UK. The switchover has been a long time coming – it was originally planned to be complete in 2010, but was delayed by two years to enable discussions to take place about what to do with the spectrum after it is freed-up. But now, it is finally upon us. By September this year, all anologue transmissions in Great Britain will have been ended. A month later, Northern Ireland will follow suit.

The point of the switchover isn't just to ensure that stubborn luddites upgrade their TVs and freeview tuners, nor is it a devious plan to deprive the rural parts of the country of their basic human right to four quality TV channels and Richard Desmond's Five (although it will have both of those effects). It's also crucial to keeping Britain vaguely near the cutting edge of communications technology – and to letting early adopters use their new iPads.

A minor science lesson: Pretty much everything that communicates without wires does so using the radio spectrum. That includes radios, of course, but also TVs, mobile phones, computers using wi-fi or bluetooth, controllers for your Wii, and certain hi-tech pacemakers. The only real exceptions are remote controls, which largely use infra-red (still an electromagnetic wave, mind you). Each of these devices uses a different part of the radio spectrum. Some, like wi-fi, use one that doesn't travel very far, but can carry a lot of information; others, like radio, especially longwave radio, can't carry much at all, but can picked up hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the transmitter.

In a sweet spot in the middle of this is the part of the spectrum used to carry analogue TV signal. It's clear enough to carry video signals, even using 1960s technology, but it is still long range enough that all of London can be served from one aerial in Crystal Palace. Which is why its a bit of a waste that it's being used to deliver Jeremy Kyle and Doctors to the few houses that haven't yet upgraded.

When the signal is switched off nationwide, Ofcom will get to the business of auctioning off that space on the spectrum to interested parties. They will be hoping to hit payola; the last time there was a major auction for bandwidth was the tail-end of the dot-com boom, when the 3G spectrum was sold for £22.5bn by Gordon Brown.

For a number of reasons, the new auction is unlikely to raise that much. The telecommunications companies have learned their lesson, for one, and now have a more realistic appraisal of the importance of the technological cutting edge when it comes to generating revenue. In addition, the way that auction was run (it was held as a limited licence sealed bid auction, which means that the bidders don't know what the others are bidding, and there are fewer slots than bidders) was specifically designed to raise as much revenue as possible, and is seen as partially responsible for the loss of up to 30,000 jobs as the buyers struggled to recoup the money they had spent.

Even so, the phone networks are still eager to get hold of some of the bandwidth – specifically, the 800Mhz spectrum, which is earmarked for LTE networking, also known as 4G. This was one of the headline features of the new iPad, but due to the sloth with which Britain has freed up the space, we won't be able to turn it on until mid to late 2013, after such digital luminaries as Armenia and Uzbekistan.

Forget pensions, tuition fees and EMA. The real war of the generations is that we haven't booted the elderly off their analogue tellies quick enough to get nationwide 4G before the iPhone 5 gets released.

 

How to upgrade, Getty images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.