OFCOM’s Five Week debacle -

or how wireless equipment users will subsidize Digital Switchover

By Peter Filleul

I would like to make everyone aware of the latest request from OFCOM to respond to their suggestions about compensation for wireless equipment that will become redundant because of the proposed requisition of Channel 69 (the band of radio frequencies currently allocated to wireless entertainment equipment).

The terms of OFCOM’s proposals are severely limited: the compensation will only be provided for certain equipment bought at the beginning of this year, something which is completely unsatisfactory even for 'power’ users like hire companies, theatres and big show & festival companies.  

My interest in all this is principally concerned with the thousands of individual users, the singers in bands, the electronic instrumentalists, the small PA crews, the freelance sound recordists and the small venue owners who have yet to wake up to the impending redundancy of their wireless kit and will quickly find that OFCOM’s compensation proposals do not include anything for them.   This army of wireless equipment users, probably the largest constituency of PMSE (Programme Making and Special Events) users, cannot afford to replace expensive performance equipment until it has run its expected stage life.

As you know, many of the jobbing guitar players and location sound-men of this world still seem blissfully ignorant not only of the considerable investment they will soon be required to make but also of their legal requirement to acquire usage licenses.  Indeed, only a small proportion of individual users involve themselves in acquiring licenses to operate their wireless equipment and likely most will continue to use their existing gear until one day they notice stray sounds emanating from the PA or their headphones… What on earth is going to persuade the vast majority of unlicensed wireless users to enter the bureaucratic and costly maze of legal usage? Maybe wireless detector vans patrolling the stage doors of England will muster some interest but the cost of licenses and how they are applied and administered will do little to encourage small-scale users to go legal.

This debate / negotiation between users, the BEIRG (British Entertainment Industries Radio Group) and OFCOM has reached a crucial stage for two particular reasons. First, the latest ‘consultation’ about compensation is being forced into a summer holiday 5 week window, a deadline surely not cunningly contrived to discourage and probably avoid the attention of even the most dedicated amongst us, at a time when MPs, along with many other of the interested parties, are away and the festival season is pre-occupying many of the principal users. Not an uncommon device in government consultation circles but one which, in this case, betrays OFCOM’s fear that it is running out of time and needs to wind up all this up as swiftly as possible.

Secondly, this issue is the first to highlight the diverse (yet synergetic) interests of the various elements that comprise the PMSE communities and, indeed, the BEIRG alliance.  Alliances between poachers and gamekeepers can be expected to include occasional tensions and even conflicts but the manufacturer/user/customer understanding thrives very successfully as long as the joint goals are inclusive. The current consultation does tend to blur that comfortable perspective slightly, setting the users and customers as potential losers in an end game that has manufacturers burdened with the costs of devising new kit but with the assured confidence that, in the end, it will be sold into a pretty captive market.

Not that that can divide PMSE lobby, especially if it can redouble its collaboration and work together to find some practical solutions that genuinely counter the financial impact upon everyday, individual end-users.  The MU, Equity, PSA, AMPS and the other member representative bodies that have supported the BEIRG campaigns should rally their enthusiasm once again, this time pointing out that the OFCOM proposals will cost their members lots of money both in equipment purchase costs and stricter licensing requirements.

Maybe manufacturers could come up with a ‘scrappage scheme’ like that used to save the car manufacturers. Maybe some transitional ‘conversions’ would be possible installing a replacement chip or some such miracle - or perhaps ‘dual system’ models that bridge the ‘buy now, buy again later!’ dilemma offering a magical switch to be thrown in 2013.  I don’t know.  I bluff my way through most technical discussions but I’m sure that eventually the ‘needs must’ spirit will come up with something.

In the mean time, OFCOM needs to understand that replacing channel 69 will hurt a lot of everyday professional entertainment practitioners (and voters) directly in their pockets at a time when life is hard enough to contend with. They need to work with the manufacturers to broaden the scope of the compensation so that this enforced transition does not fall hardest on those that can least afford to pay for it.

© APRS, 2010
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