Thursday 13 March, 2008, 08:41 - Pirate/ClandestineFinding a frequency must be one of the most fraught tasks for any prospective London pirate radio operators. The band is now so crammed with stations that there are next to no gaps anywhere. The problem is not made any easier by the BBC using lots of frequencies to infill coverage of its local stations; nor by the new wave of community stations taking to the air. Now don't get me wrong, BBC, commercial and community radio stations have a licence and are authorised and legitimate users of the FM band and as such should be respected, and nothing hereinafter should be in any way taken as non-recognition of that important fact. But the fact also remains that pirate radio stations exist and are likely to continue to exist until technology renders them irrelevant and that finding a frequency that doesn't cause interference to these legitimate users, which is a goal to be aimed for if both legal and illegal stations are to co-exist, is nigh-on impossible.
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Since 2000 Ofcom (and its predecessor the Radiocommunications Agency) have been aware (through an oft overlooked study that examined the re-planning of the FM band) that there are small pockets of the FM band that could be used for low-power, limited geographical coverage transmitters in and around London, and it is the results of this study that are, to a large extent, enabling the licensing of the community stations. It's also interesting to note that many of these community stations are using frequencies that were esrtwhile used by pirates. Question: If they can now be used legally for such services without causing interference, can it be completely true that when being used illegally by pirates that the interference they cause was really so bad? Well the power of the community stations is typically less than 100 Watts and they are specifically located in areas where the frequencies they use will not cause interference, whereas the pirates on the same frequencies were often using 250 Watts or more in an attempt to cover a much wider, or a different, area. So it is quite likely that the pirates did cause interference in some areas, but clearly not in others.
One of the interesting side-effects of this use of previous 'pirate' frequencies by the new community stations is that the pirates have been forced to take action to try and maintain their coverage and listenership without causing (too many) problems to the new stations. Blasting several hundred Watts over the top of a new community stations is the perfect recipe to get busted. Hats off, therefore, to Passion FM who, having been forced off their long-time frequency of 91.8 MHz by community station Hayes FM in West London, have taken to using two different frequencies, with directional antennas, to protect Hayes FM yet maintain their service area. Passion can now be found in East London on 91.8 MHz and in West London on 97.9 MHz, thereby making an effort not to interfere with Hayes FM at the expense of having two lots of transmitters to replace each time they are taken off-air.
West Londoners Point Blank FM also deserve a mention. They are broadcasting to South West London on 103.6 MHz (and thus avoiding Life FM in Harlesden, North London and TGR Sound on 103.7 MHz in South East London) and to Central London on 90.2 MHz, having moved off 108.0 MHz where they used to cause undue interference to Radio Jackie on 107.8 MHz. 108.0 is now used by Unknown FM whose service area, being further East causes fewer problems to Jackie. Both Passion FM and Point Blank FM use the correct RDS Alternative Frequency ('AF') flag so that listeners driving around London will automatically be re-tuned to the clearest frequency - smart! Freeze FM are also 'dual-casting' on 92.7 and 99.5 MHz - it's not clear why but possibly one of the community stations yet to come on-air (Radio Ummah and Irish FM) may use a frequency near 92.7.
Pirates are often accused of not caring about interference to other stations, but the actions of these stations would tend to suggest that they do take some care - not least, perhaps, to protect themselves from an excessive number of raids from the authorities.
For the record, other pirate/community frequency clashes that will no doubt resolve themselves in the end are Westside FM (Southhall, West London) and Select-UK (Rotherhithe, South London), both on 89.6 MHz, Nu-Sound (Forest Gate, East London) and Powerjam (Battersea, South London) on 92.0 MHz, and Voice of Africa (Newham, East London) and Tempo on 94.3 and 94.4 MHz respectively.
Wednesday 27 February, 2008, 09:49 - Pirate/ClandestineIt seems as if Ofcom has been up to its tricks again. On February 19th they announced that they had conducted another large-scale raid on London's pirate radio stations similar to one it conducted in 2005, however this time it was in conjunction with the local council authorities whose buildings are often the home of the pirates' transmitters. 22 transmitters were seized and 3 people were arrested.
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I won't repeat the musings I made last time this happened concerning the probability of pirates causing the kind of wide-spread radio interference they are accused of. The latest news release from Ofcom actually plays down the interference aspects compared to their previous press release, and now plays up the difficulties and dangers that councils face due to the damage caused to property when pirates break into buildings to install their equipment. There can be no doubt that such damage does get caused when pirates break into lift-shafts and onto the rooves of blocks of flats which, if anything, only serves to highlight the desperation that such stations face and their determination to bring the kind of music they play to their audiences. Clearly mainstream radio is not catering for a whole swathe of society.
Whether or not they are working in cahoots or not, it seems that the BBC is intent on reducing the number of frequencies which might otherwise be useful to community (or pirate!) radio broadcasting. It has recently expanded coverage of 'Three Counties Radio (3CR) by adding relay stations in East Herts, South Herts and High Wycombe. However unlike the majority of other BBC local radio stations, these relays use frequencies in the bands usually used by the BBC for relays of national radio stations (90.4, 92.1 and 98.0 MHz respectively). Now the BBC are quite at liberty to use their own spectrum as they see fit, but this move away from a logically planned system to something more flexible surely suggests that a similarly flexible approach might be taken on a wider basis to allow for frequencies for more, new, innovative radio stations rather than just repeating existing ones. These three frequencies could have been used for new commercial or community stations in these areas. It's not that BBC coverage did not exist there before, it's just that it wasn't quite as good as the BBC had hoped.
I still maintain that it's quite possible that pirate stations can (and do) cause interference to legitimate users of the radio spectrum. It's clear, though, that Ofcom is only making small inroads into solving the problem and that other parties are doing nothing to assist. There has to be a long-term solution to the problem if it is ever to be solved and one commentator has suggested that when radio broadcasters have moved over to digital broadcasting (whether DAB, DRM, or something else), some of the 'digital dividend' that results should be given to low power, lightly licensed, radio broadcasting. Sounds like an eminently good idea to me.
Friday 31 August, 2007, 10:48 - Pirate/ClandestineSince the late 1990's rumours have abounded that it was possible to hack into American military satellites and use them for wide area communication. The satellites, originally the 'FleetSatCom' newtork (often abbreviated to FLTSATCOM) use basic FM modulation and have uplinks in the area of 300 MHz and downlinks in the area of 260 MHz. Stories went that tuning in to the downlinks it was possible to hear illegal pirates, from Brazil in particular, who were usurping these US military satellites to use for wide-area communications. It was also said that 'Smile 93.9 FM' (rumoured to be from Manila) was using one of the channels as a studio to transmitter link and could often be heard on the downlink frequency of 269.950 MHz.
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This seemed a little far fetched and unbelievable: How could one of the world's most super-sophisticated armed forces allow their multi-million dollar military hardware be taken control of by such an unsophisticated enemy armed with nothing more than a simple UHF FM transmitter? Using a simple VHF/UHF receiver and a bog standard roof mounted VHF/UHF antenna, I set out to try and debunk the myth.
Within seconds I was listening to a conversation between two likely sounding chaps on a frequency of 255.550 MHz. Next I stumbled across more voice traffic (definitely in Portuguese, the language spoken in Brazil) on 258.650 MHz. And before long I found more voice traffic on 253.850 MHz. Intrigued that this long reported phenomena was still in evidence I did a bit of digging on the internet to find out more.
The original FleetSatCom satellites which were launched in the late 1970's and early 1980's are no longer operational. They were initially replaced by satellites known as Leased Satellites (Leasat) which have also since been replaced by the UHF Follow-On series of satellites, ironically acronymised as UFO. The UFO satellites continue to provide the same communications capabilities as the earlier ones but with somewhat higher transmitter powers, making reception of them fairly straightforward.
A bit more digging uncovered military standard MIL-STD-188-181A which describes the interface specification for the satellites (i.e. the technical requirements for equipment used to access them) and in it we find a list of the uplink and downlink frequencies used. All the frequencies I could hear are in group 'Charlie', now known as group 'Quebec' (Q) on the UFO satellites. Group Q comprises the following 25 kHz wide downlink frequencies (uplink frequencies are 41 MHz higher):
Q1 250.650 MHz (Fleet Broadcast)
Q2 252.150 MHz (Navy Channels)
Q3 253.850 MHz
Q4 255.550 MHz
Q5 257.150 MHz
Q6 258.650 MHz
Q7 265.550 MHz
Q8 267.050 MHz
Q9 269.450 MHz
Q10 269.950 MHz
Q11 260.625 MHz (DoD Channels)
Q12 260.725 MHz
Q13 262.125 MHz
Q14 262.225 MHz
Q15 262.325 MHz
Q16 262.425 MHz
Q17 263.825 MHz
Q18 263.925 MHz
So far, I have heard sporadic voice traffic on channels Q2, Q3, Q4, Q5 and Q6 and something, albeit rather weak on Q7. It seems as if the satellite I am hearing is UFO-7 which is situated over the Atlantic. But is this traffic really pirates using the satellites on purpose, or is it something else? Surely there is no longer the need, in Brazil or other countries, to use US military satellites for communications, especially now that mobile phones and mobile coverage are virtually ubiquitous?
A quick look at the Brazilian frequency allocation table, the Plano de Destinação de Faixas de Freqüência, shows us that the frequency range 270 - 326.8 MHz is assigned to the fixed and mobile service, and in particular to public correspondence. So the frequencies are quite legally in use for various communication services; could it be that they are being relayed by the satellite is incidental and a result of the fact that the uplink frequencies are used differently in different parts of the world? So maybe there are no Brazilian pirate radio mafia trying to jam US military satellites after all then? What a shame, it seemed like such a good story.
Wednesday 16 May, 2007, 14:14 - Pirate/ClandestineThere's a term used in the UK which takes its roots from an overgarment worn by many to keep dry on particularly squally days. The aforementioned garment is an 'Anorak', which is a kind of winter jacket which, no matter what you wear it with, will never look fashionable (the possible exception being Paddington Bear who at least looked cute, though it could be argued that Paddington wore a Duffle Coat rather than an Anorak if we're being pernickety). The Anorak is generally rather unpopular, being an ugly but practical kind of a coat; but due to the fact that it is a rather warm item to wear, those who spend a lot of time outdoors but do no exercise and thus are in need of something to stop them freezing whilst standing around have taken the Anorak to heart as their overcoat of choice.
But who, I hear you ask, would want to spend all day standing around doing nothing especially if it was cold or raining? A very good question! The Anorak became (and to some extent still is) the de facto uniform of those with hobbies such as train, bus or plane spotting, collecting number plates, "Oooh, V355LOX, a rare one from the OX series when they misprinted the 5 so that it looks like an S and it reads 'V35 SLOX'", watching grass grow, and so on... In the UK, however, the term 'Anorak' has come to be associated with anyone whose hobby is just a little bit weird, sits in a niche so small that only a handful of people understand it, is a touch excentric or is just very, very dull. And thus, most avid radio listeners, especially short wave listeners, DXers and even radio amateurs are regularly tarred with the Anorak moniker.
Why is this of much (if any) interest? Well the picture on the right (click it to see it in its full glory), which is a rather splendid example of a clandestine pirate radio transmitter, designed to transmit music programmes on short wave, brought me to thinking about why the stalwarts who built and operated such things continued to do so. I can think of 2000 or more salient reasons why it's no longer such a good idea:
1. No one (except Anoraks - see above) listens to short wave any more.
2. In most locations, the amount of background noise from computers, electrical equipment and the like makes short wave reception virtually impossible.
3. That aside, short wave reception does not lend itself to listening to music due to the annoying fading in and out.
4. If you want people to hear your radio presenting skills, there are easier and cheaper way of doing it - just upload a programme onto the internet.
5. There are 15,000 better things to do with your time (like collecting number plates for example).
6. If you get caught, the fines can be large (GBP2,000 plus 6 months in gaol).
7. And so on...
So why do the operators stations such as AlfaLima and WR International continue to spending their hard earnt cash and wasting their weekends building, setting up and operating such equipment. I would venture to suggest that there's still a real buzz associated with doing so. For a start, it's illegal, and flouting the law often gets the adrenalin flowing (not that I'd know of course). Then there's the kudos you get by being received by other short wave anoraks, 'Radio Flump was sounding hot last Sunday morning - SINPO 32232 - Best signal yet - I could almost make out what DJ Bobbisox was saying'. Also there's a little bit of exhibitionism and showing off in it, and that too provides an ego boost all of its own.
I argue, therefore, that the real anoraks are those people who tune into and listen to such short wave pirate broadcasts but make no attempt to join in the real fun and build a transmitter and get on air with the pioneers, pirates and thrillseekers who supply their fun to start with. So instead of tuning around the band, get your soldering iron out and build a Grenade or a Corsair, record a rubbish radio programme full of music that you think is cool but everyone else has forgotten, find a remote location, set up a transmitter early on a Sunday morning instead of lying in bed a couple of hours longer. And in the process... throw away your anorak and replace it with a skull and crossbones headscarf instead.