Wireless Waffle - A whole spectrum of radio related rubbish
Putting pirates to good usesignal strength
Thursday 24 March, 2016, 12:50 - Broadcasting, Pirate/Clandestine, Spectrum Management
Posted by Administrator
This week, Wireless Waffle took a rare trip to the far reaches of the UK. Or Birmingham to be precise. To be even more precise, the motorways surrounding the UK's second city, whilst en route to elsewhere. The journey gave the opportunity to do a bit of tuning around the FM band to see what's happening in the West Midlands these days. Other than the various commercial stations (including local regional stations Touch FM and Free Radio), and a handful of community stations (including some in neighbouring Coventry), the thing that was most different to the airwaves in the South East was the absence of much in the way of pirate radio.

hot 92 birminghamOnly two pirate stations were heard during the journey:A bit of desk-research has yielded the fact that there arpparently three other stations that are often on the airwaves in the area, including:None of these were heard though.

It's probably about time that Wireless Waffle stopped banging on about pirate radion stations, after all it's now just a year shy of the 50th anniversary of the Marine etc Offences Act whose purpose was primarily to bring down the original pirate stations of the day. The fact, however, that such stations continue to abound suggests that the mainstream UK radio market is failing certain sections of society, which appear to be certain ethnic minorities (Caribbean, African and Turkish in particular) and those who like gruff-beat, wacka-jam and gutter-beat music (or genres with similiarly bizarre titles). It's also clear that Ofcom's efforts to take the stations off-air is not having the desired effect (meaning 'to force pirates off-air').

Information on enforcement activity released by Ofcom under the freedom of information act reveals, for example, that between 2007 and 2012, Kriss FM had its transmitters taken off-air by Ofcom 17 times and its studios raided 6 times. Hot92 had its transmitter raided 42 times and its studio raided 3 times. Sting had an astounding 60 transmitter raids (and 3 studio raids) over the same period.

ofcom raid rooftopWe recently discussed the idea that pirate radio could move to small-scale DAB radio services, or conversely that the closure of regular FM services might open up the FM band as a playground for even more pirates. But could there be yet another option... If Ofcom were to cease all enforcement activity on pirate radio (except in casese where it was causing interference to safety-of-life services) and let the illegal broadcasters run riot, the amount of intereference they would cause to legitimate stations would increase and this might be the incentive needed for those listeners to finally go out and buy a digital radio! So instead of continued enforcement, why not leave the pirates alone and see if that has the desired effect (in this case meaning 'forcing a move to digital radio').
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Pirate radio to go digitalsignal strength
Saturday 23 January, 2016, 11:49 - Broadcasting, Licensed, Pirate/Clandestine, Radio Randomness, Spectrum Management
Posted by Administrator
The number of pirate radio stations on-air in London does not appear to have diminished over the past 10 or more years, despite there now being many legal ways in which stations could reach their audiences, most recently though streaming audio on-line.

brighton dab transmitterOfcom has recently proposed that many local radio stations could be accommodated on 'small scale DAB' transmitters which provide a localised service, and it is conducting a number of trials around the UK of such a service. The idea is to use low cost hardware and software to develop the DAB signals, for example using a USRP software radio, and the various software tools provided by the Open Digital Radio project. Using these, it is possible to put a (very) low power DAB station on-air for less than GBP1000 and with a suitable power amplifier (for example a 30 Watt Mitsubishi amplifier module, or how's about a 1.2 kW amplifier module), a DAB transmitter with reasonable coverage can be built for not that much more. Indeed research conducted for Ofcom suggests that a 100 Watt e.r.p. service using such technology could be provided to broadcasters for around GBP1400 per year (at a bit rate of 160 kbps which is far higher quality than most of the existing UK DAB services!)

An article in spectrum newsletter PolicyTracker entitled, 'Can DAB save us from the pirates?' (note - a subscription is required to read the full article), makes the point that the criteria which the UK has set to begin the digital switch-over of radio services (e.g. the turning off of analogue services in favour of digital) is almost upon us. The criteria is that 50% of UK listening should be on a digital platform (whether DAB, on-line, cable, satellite or other) and the latest figures show this is now up to 43%, though as Wireless Waffle has pointed out before, the proportion of digital listening appears to have stagnated. If the UK does set a date for the winding down of FM radio, one of two things could happen:
  1. pirates may move to digital platforms, in order to be found on the same dial as other stations; or
  2. pirates may take the opportunity of an emptier FM band to choose clearer frequencies, increase their power, or just increase the number of services.

The problem is that in either case there is no guarantee that the pirates would do this in a legal fashion. Pirate radio stations are not renowned for co-operating with each other so why would they pay to be on a DAB platform, rather than buy the equipment themselves and set up digital pirate stations? The answer might come in the form of the reduced number of frequencies available. In the FM band, assuming a station every 300 kHz (which is just about OK from an interference perspective), there is room for 68 stations on the dial. Taking into account the 20 or so legal stations already on-air in London (depending on what you count as London), this leaves a potential for 48 pirates. For DAB radio, which requires 1.4 MHz of spectrum to operate, there is room for just 32 transmissions in any one location. In London 4 of these frequency blocks are in use, leaving 28 'available'.

local dab radio"Ah", you say, "but each DAB multiplex can carry 10 or more stations, so really the number is 280". That is true, but this requires the pirates to club together to buy and operate the equipment and, as already stated, they aren't that good at this. Perhaps the business model they employ could change, and a smaller number of illegal transmitter operators could provide services to multiple pirate stations. Or perhaps a small number of legal transmitter operators could provide the same service. The problem here seems to be that in order to legitimise the pirates, they would have to be invited to 'come in from the cold', and Ofcom would have to have a set of licensing policies that were sufficiently lax to permit 24 stations all playing the same kind of electro-shed, play-house or garage-door music onto the dial. It is almost certain that the existing legitimate stations would object to this on the grounds that it would provide unfair competition. But the fact is that such competition already exists on the FM band, and at least if it were done under a licensed framework, there would be some control over what went on, and thus greater protection of the existing 'big boys'.

Maybe Ofcom could take a leaf out of the book of the Lebanese regulator (the TRA) who offered all unlicensed FM operators (which was a large proportion of the country's stations at the time), a licence, if they came forward and provided the necessary details of their transmitting facilities (power, frequency, antenna height and so on). Most stations did this, wishing to gain legitimacy for their service. As soon as they did, however, the TRA could begin to change frequencies, powers and so on to bring the stations in-line, through a proper legal framework that allowed them to inflict penalties if people refused.

pirate surrenderAnother model might be for Ofcom to licence small-scale DAB operators, but not to set any criteria over which stations are carried on the multiplex, other than their normal broadcasting code which is designed, for example, to stop politically motivated stations from using the airwaves in an partial way. Other than a bit of swearing here and there, most pirate stations would probably already meet most of the rules. This is not dissimilar to the way in which Ofcom licenses digital television, with multiplexes being awarded to companies who are then largely at liberty to select which programmes they include.

In either of the above cases, whether the idea that Ofcom could have an 'amnesty' for pirates, if they agreed to go onto small DAB multiplexes, or if the operation of the DAB multiplexes were made flexible enough to accommodate pirate stations being on them, there might be a sufficient increase the listening to DAB services such that the necessary 50% switch-over threshold is reached sooner rather than later. A 'win-win' situation?
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Hold tight HTMLsignal strength
Monday 2 December, 2013, 22:04 - Pirate/Clandestine
Posted by Administrator
With thanks to Keith over at the other Wireless Waffle for bringing this to our attention. Pirate Wogan has to be one of the best pieces of radio broadcasting since Chris Morris's various shows on BBC Radio London and Radio 1. Invented by Peter Serafinowicz the concept is a simple one. Put Terry Wogan (or T-Wog$ as he is now to be known) in front of a microphone on a fictitious pirate radio station and record the ensuing mayhem.



Not only is the result hilarious (up there with '10 things to change the world' - which you can hear on the Cook'd and Bomb'd web-site) but it's available in app format too!

pirate wogan appThe Pirate Wogan app allows you to loop various drum and bass sounds together with samples of T-Wog$ to produce your very own London pirate sound-alike. In principal you should get bored in no time, but there is something hypnotic about the combination of T-Wog$ dulcet tones and the deep dark bass throb of the music.

Big up the Wireless massive. Easy now.
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Pirate Radio disposal squad called into action in Surreysignal strength
Sunday 27 May, 2012, 17:50 - Pirate/Clandestine
Posted by Administrator
A report recently arrived on the Wireless Waffle newsdesk of the discovery of some kind of (probably illegal) transmitter discovered on land in Surrey next to a military establishment. According to the report:
Army bomb disposal experts were called to Camberley on Monday morning to deal with a "suspicious" object that turned out to be a radio device... Shortly before 3pm, Surrey Police said the unit had been confirmed to be a "transmitter or repeater for a citizen or pirate band radio station", and that roads had been reopened and cordons lifted.

Of course this piqued the interest of the Wireless Waffle team. Let's look at the possible options:

CB Repeater
Such things do exist but require a great deal of technical skill to install and operate. As CB radio operates at 27 MHz, they generally require large antennas, and as transmitter powers are usually at least 4 Watts, need power supplies the kind of size that wouldn't easily be left lying around in a piece of woodland.
Probability rating: ***** (2 out of 5)

Pirate Repeater
Not something that is often heard of, in fact, do a 'google' search and nothing of any substance comes up. One possibility is that it could have been a PMR446 repeater which, whilst not strictly legal, is not fully pirate as it operates on an unlicensed basis. Such devices would (sensibly) be located on high ground, though they could be operated from batteries for some time. Ideally, they would be high off the ground too (the news report does not indicate whether the so-called repeater was on the floor or up a tree).
Probability rating: ***** (1 out of 5)

FM Pirate Transmitter
piratelistenerMost FM pirate stations in the UK use transmitters on top of tower-blocks. The area in question is clearly not one bedecked with such skyscrapers, it is woodland. It is not unheard of for pirates to put transmitters up trees but there are better places, especially those with power and somewhere dry to put the transmitter. There aren't that many pirates in this area, Point Blank FM was one which used to broadcast specifically to the area but it hasn't been on air in that part of the world for many months. Pressure FM (also known as 'Presha') is another station in that part of the world. It is possible they would use a site such as that, but if they were locals, presumably they would know the area was largely military and steer clear of it?
Probability rating: ***** (4 out of 5)

Short-Wave Pirate Transmitter
Short-wave pirates are almost uniquely confined to woodlands in order to string up the large antennas necessary given the frequencies they use. They often use hidden battery powered equipment. On the face of it then, this is exactly the kind of place you would expect to find such a transmitter. The bigger question is whether any such pirates operate from that part of the country, the answer to which is, of course, 'who knows?' Certainly there is some history in the area including Radio Fax which used to operate from Surrey in the late 1980s, and of course, the infamous Radio Jackie which used to operate from the London end of Surrey. There's also a vague recollection of a maildrop for short-wave pirates that was in that part of the world (though my memory is a bit hazy on that). Anyhow, it's not impossible but the number of UK-based short-wave pirates seems very much in decline.
Probability rating: **** (3 out of 5)

Our conclusion then - probably an FM pirate - but a bit of a stupid one to go so near to ministry of defence land!
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