Buying assets in rain, snow and sunshine

The air traffic control revolution will be televised.

Remember Enron? Back in the late 1990s, a few short years before it filed what was then the largest bankruptcy case in US history, the energy behemoth began trading in weather derivatives. In the same way that it made millions manipulating the electricity market in California, Enron wanted to develop complex financial instruments to hedge against adverse or unexpected weather conditions.

The fact that the underlying asset (rain, snow, temperature) had no obvious value that could be used to price the derivative was problematic, but by the time Enron imploded in a wave of accounting scandals, its Enron Weather subsidiary was turning a profit. The message was clear: big business was no longer trading in tangible commodities such as natural gas alone; in the future, everything, the abstract, the ethereal – even the elements themselves – could potentially be bought and sold.

Fast forward a decade and the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom has just produced £2.34bn out of thin air, so to speak, by auctioning off the new 4G mobile spectrum. From 2014, smartphone and tablet computer users can look forward to download speeds up to 100Mbps, five to ten times quicker than current 3G networks.

But while politicians continue to lock horns over a reported Treasury shortfall of £1bn from the auction and tech-heads debate the potential merits and pitfalls of broadband’s brave new world, a critical upgrade project undertaken by NATS, the UK’s leading supplier of air traffic control (ATC) services, has quietly slipped under the radar.

The organisation has become the first operator to future-proof its ATC systems against potential interference from 4G telecommunications masts.

“The impact of the 4G network on safety is fundamental in that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to detect all aircraft in our airspace,” says Graeme Henderson, NATS’ general manager for engineering policy and design.

NATS has solved the problem by upgrading its existing radars with filters that suppress the electrical waves generated by the 4G frequencies, and is offering support and engineering expertise to other ATC operators.

With aviation passenger numbers in Europe forecast to almost quadruple by 2030, competition between commercial and government-sponsored entities for the UK’s already overcrowded airwaves is set to become even more intense, as are calls to overhaul the nation’s aging radar system, which is struggling to deal with interference from 21st-century phenomena such as onshore wind turbines.

One radical solution is multi-static primary surveillance radar, which works by using existing TV aerials around the UK. Each transmitter will receive the identical TV signal but at a slightly different time due to interactions with nearby air traffic. The received signals are then compared to the original broadcast, and the difference is used to pinpoint the position of the aircraft.

The EU is already looking to release more spectrum for next-generation 5G mobile services by 2020; multi-static primary surveillance technology would free up that space, meaning the UK Government could sell off bandwidth currently used by airports.

Radar systems, like everything else in the commercial aviation industry, rarely remain static for long.

Read the full feature here:

Photograph: Getty Images

Julian Turner works for NRIdigital, part of Progressive Media.

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.