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:  http://www.airport-technology.com/features/featuremobile-spectrum-nats-radar-uk-air-traffic-control/

Photograph: Getty Images

Julian Turner works for NRIdigital, part of Progressive Media.

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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.