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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.