By Mark Lancaster MP - 18th May 2011
Mark Lancaster MP warns that technology meant to spread broadband access could jeopardise national security, as it endangers the radio spectrum.
In previous centuries we have fought smog with campaigns for clean air; now we are seeing a battle for clean airwaves. That is because the radio spectrum is being threatened by very 21st century type of pollution, caused by the introduction of new technology.
Power line telecommunications devices, or PLTs, transmit broadband and TV throughout households using the mains electricity supply. But because mains wiring wasn’t designed for transmitting data, the wiring emits a by-product: radio waves. The result? Interference – a loud hissing noise which disrupts users of the same frequencies.
Today, radio isn't just the preserve of 'hams' tinkering with obscure equipment. It is essential to preserving our national security. It is vital to pilots who want to land their aircraft safely. It is relied upon up and down the country every single day by the emergency services. It is also necessary for mobile phones, televisions, DAB radios, and many other electronic devices.
Shortwave radio may sound archaic but it continues to step in when other systems fail. It has been used in the aftermath of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina to coordinate rescue efforts. And it's not something we want to ignore, because it provides the ideal mode for terrorists who want to bypass the internet and mobile phones.
So it no surprise that many bodies have spoken out against the radio spectrum being jeopardised. The Civil Aviation Authority, GCHQ, the Radio Society of Great Britain, the BBC, and even NATO have joined the chorus of consensus warning against the unchecked proliferation of these PLTs. (Though, curiously, GCHQ has withdrawn its statement which prophesies the detriment to its work.)
Regulator Ofcom has commissioned reports which have concluded that PLTs do not meet the standards set out by the relevant EU directives. It has also been warned that changes need to be made to the manufacturing of the devices if they do not want to see a real threat posed to, among others, aeronautical systems.
Instead, the regulator seems content that in the 200-odd complaints it has received, it has found no breaches. At the same time, it implies there are no rules at the moment to breach, and therefore it is waiting for the EU to 'harmonise standards'. Meanwhile, more and more PLTs are being sold.
What we need is to acknowledge that this is a problem. We need Ofcom to take a proactive approach (heeding reports, seeking out breaches), rather than its current reactive one (waiting for complaints, waiting for new standards to be drawn up).
I am proud to represent an area which is known for its lifesaving communication technology. Milton Keynes and the surrounding area is home to many listening stations, including Bletchley Park, which intercepted enemy radio messages and helped Britain win the Second World War. Nearby Hanslope Park, the base of Her Majesty's Government Communications Centre, continues to protect our country to this day.
Mark Lancasterhas been Conservative MP for Milton Keynes North, South East since 2005.