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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.