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The switch to digital

Digi-geeks and stubborn luddites

How to upgrade, Getty images
How to upgrade, Getty images

 

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.