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Tuesday, 18 April, 2000, 13:04 GMT 14:04 UK
Are you on my wavelength?
By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy.
In London and other parts of the UK, property prices are burning a hole in the pocket of homebuyers. But above ground level, a new battle for territory has taken off.
Hi-tech companies keen to get a foothold in the new generation mobile phone market have been bidding billions of pounds for one of five new operating licences.
In essence, each licence boils down to a "plot" of virtual real estate on the increasingly congested radio spectrum.
Britain's big four mobile names - BT Cellnet, Vodafone, Orange and One 2 One - have been locked in a bidding war with a clutch of others for the government-issued frequencies.
Like edgy homebuyers desperate to land a dream property, the players frantically "gazumped" one another with ever-higher bids.
The process, initially expected to raise £1bn, is set to provide the UK Government with a windfall of £22.47bn.
The vast sums are good news for the Exchequer but also highlight the intense and growing demand for even a small slice of radio waveband.
As wireless technology offers up more and more potential applications, the lure is leading to radio congestion.
The radio spectrum caters for an immense range of wireless applications, from satellite TV to maritime navigation signals; mobile phones to radar; shortwave radio to remote-control toys.
The spectrum is broken up into eight segments and runs from about 3KHz (very low frequency) to 300GHz (extremely high frequency).
In between these extremes come the VHF and UHF bands that are ideal for much of our day-to-day use, including terrestrial television and FM radio.
Until the 1980s, these wavebands were mostly operated by publicly owned agencies and strictly monitored commercial monopolies. Since about 1985 the trend has been towards liberalising and commercialising the radio spectrum.
Here competition has boomed thanks to a host of new applications and services with the side effect that congestion - one signal interfering with another - is increasingly commonplace.
"At present, there's severe congestion in all developed countries where population density is above 200 persons per square kilometre," says Prof William Gosling, author of a new book, Radio Spectrum Conservation.
Britain, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, is among the chief victims. And the effects can be more than an irritating crackle on the radio breakfast show.
"Human lives have been lost because of waveband congestion," says Mr Gosling.
Certainly the emergency services in Britain must contend with having their signals squeezed by those of FM radio.
One example where congestion is a frequent irritation is in theatres, where mobile phones often interfere with wireless microphones used by performers.
"When they ask you to turn off you telephone at a West End musical it's not just to stop them ringing," says Richard Greenleaf.
"Mobile phones operate on a very close waveband to radio mics so there's a risk of interference," says Mr Greenleaf, of JFMG Ltd. The firm is contracted by government's Radiocommunications Authority to handle licensing in the "special events" field.
But he dismissed speculation in Sunday's Observer newspaper that the new third generation (3G) licences would cause a similar headache.
"The 3G frequencies are actually further up the spectrum and they rely on better technology, so they should not cause us a problem."
However, 3G licences are not occupying completely fallow frequencies. The wavelengths involved are currently used for business-to-business communications and companies occupying them are being forced to give them up by 2002.
But there are signs that some of the spectrum will be freed-up thanks to new technological progress. The main hope is digital technology, which uses compression to shoehorn several signals into the space of one analogue signal.
Mr Gosling says government must drive down the space occupied by current operators in the interests of everyone.
Forcing operators to bid for wavelengths - the 3G auction is the first of its sort in Britain - will encourage more efficient use. After all, companies who have stumped up billions for a wavelength will need to use it efficiently to cover their mammoth entrance fee.
"There's a direct correlation between economic growth and the use of radio spectrum and, in a hi-tech economy, this is more and more the case," says Mr Gosling.
"If you do not heed that then the economy will hit the wall."
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