The Mal­one Col­umn

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Pat Mal­one Pat has worked as a jour­nal­ist on three con­ti­nents and is a fixed-wing pi­lot and for­mer he­li­copter in­struc­tor with 1,500 hours TT

The ra­dio li­cence costs how much? Truth­fully?

Imen­tioned a while ago that down here at Bod­min we’ve been stuck with an 8.33khz fre­quency, which means we’ve had to buy a new trans­mit­ter and spend time and money pro­mul­gat­ing the news. Well, at the same time we re­ceived an in­voice from the CAA for £3,350 for next year’s ra­dio li­cence, which set our air­field man­ager Jay Gates to won­der­ing why a small grass air­field with an air-ground ra­dio should suf­fer such a hearty fi­nan­cial im­po­si­tion. Jay asked around, did a bit of re­search and ran his own pa­ram­e­ters through the CAA’S on­line tool for work­ing out ra­dio li­cence fees, and to his sur­prise he found that by his cal­cu­la­tion the Au­thor­ity should be charg­ing us not £3,350, but £200.

Now even I, without a cal­cu­la­tor, can work out there’s a big dif­fer­ence there. I looked at the on­line tool my­self, and for the life of me I couldn’t make head or tail of it. If you’re in­ter­ested, google ‘CAA ra­dio li­cence fees’ and click on ‘ap­pli­ca­tion fee cal­cu­la­tor’−you’ll see what I mean. You’ll get an Ex­cel file called ‘il­lus­tra­tive model of be­spoke fee deriva­tion process’ and to my mind it might al­most have been cun­ningly de­signed to baf­fle.

Any­way, Jay was sure of his ground and wrote to the CAA in the fol­low­ing terms: ‘Our Cir­cu­lar DOC, as per your il­lus­tra­tive model of be­spoke fee deriva­tion process, should only be con­sid­ered as C-10/30 and, as we are con­vert­ing this year to an 8.33khz chan­nel, this should at­tract a capped li­cence fee of £200. How­ever, we have re­ceived an in­voice for £3,350, which is a full £3,150 over what it should be.’

Omi­nous si­lence from the Au­thor­ity. With the pay­ment dead­line loom­ing, Jay spent a month chas­ing the mat­ter around Kingsway and Gatwick. The runaround started with: “We can’t seem to find your email…” Just four days be­fore ex­e­cu­tion date, the CAA fi­nally came back and said yes, he was right. The orig­i­nal in­voice was can­celled and an­other, for £200, was sub­sti­tuted.

But Jay had also pointed out to the CAA that for at least three years Corn­wall Fly­ing Club had been charged £3,350 when ac­cord­ing to his cal­cu­la­tions (and given that we pre­vi­ously had a 25khz fre­quency) the bill should have been a max­i­mum of £650. Could we have our money back, please. The re­sponse from the CAA’S Ra­dio Li­cens­ing de­part­ment: “Un­for­tu­nately we are un­able to re­fund a li­cence fee paid for pre­vi­ous years.”

I think we’ve been mugged. Even if the CAA’S bill was based on data pro­vided by the fly­ing club (and we’ve had a change of man­age­ment, so the po­si­tion is un­clear) we must ex­pect that per­son­nel in the Au­thor­ity’s ra­dio li­cens­ing de­part­ment who de­signed the tool by which cal­cu­la­tions were made, and who were deal­ing with these ap­pli­ca­tions ev­ery day of their lives, would have recog­nised that some­thing was amiss when a small grass air­field looked like it was con­trol­ling ev­ery­thing in the South West. And as we have in­con­tro­vert­ibly over­paid, we’re en­ti­tled to a re­fund.

I wouldn’t be as vexed as I am were it not for the fact that I think the whole spec­trum pric­ing busi­ness is a racket that tram­ples on safety in the rush for gold. Back when peo­ple started mut­ter­ing about run­ning out of avi­a­tion fre­quen­cies, AOPA Ger­many pro­duced an al­go­rithm show­ing there were enough for avi­a­tion’s needs, now and for­ever, if the 27 fre­quency al­lo­ca­tion of­fices in Europe were amal­ga­mated to ad­dress over­lap and wastage. But sev­eral coun­tries, in­clud­ing Bri­tain, claimed that fre­quency al­lo­ca­tion was “a mat­ter of na­tional sovereignt­y” and said there would be no amal­ga­ma­tion.

What they meant was that they’d dis­cov­ered some­thing new they could charge for, and they in­tended to milk it dry. Up to then, they’d levied small ad­min­is­tra­tion fees for spec­trum, but with the mo­bile phone busi­ness get­ting its boots on, the air­waves had be­come eye-wa­ter­ingly valu­able. In fact the Trea­sury has made more than £25 bil­lion by flog­ging off spec­trum since the turn of the cen­tury. Out of thin air!

Then of course the ques­tion was asked: why are some peo­ple get­ting ra­dio spec­trum for noth­ing? In avi­a­tion’s case, the an­swer was ‘safety’−but they soon found a dodge around that, which they called Ad­min­is­tra­tive In­cen­tive Pric­ing (AIP). By charg­ing for avi­a­tion fre­quen­cies, they claimed to be en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple who weren’t mak­ing full use of theirs to re­lin­quish them. That might sound plau­si­ble to the lay­man, but only if he thinks a re­lin­quished VHF fre­quency with a line-of-sight range can be bod­ily trans­ported to be used else­where. The Wire­less Teleg­ra­phy Act 2006 granted Of­com the power to set li­cence fees, and they set out a list of aero­nau­ti­cal R/T fees in the Wire­less Teleg­ra­phy (Li­cence Charges) Reg­u­la­tions 2011. That was amended by the Wire­less Teleg­ra­phy (Li­cence Charges) (Amend­ment) Reg­u­la­tions 2014, which came into force in June 2016 and put the prices up. Un­der the bonkers logic of AIP, given that a 8.33 is a third of 25, the 8.33khz li­cence cost a third of the 25khz li­cence. The rest of the for­mula was pretty opaque, and could eas­ily have caught peo­ple out.

Any­way, our Chair­man Dar­ren Fern wrote to our MP Scott Mann, who’s a mem­ber of the All Party Par­lia­men­tary Group on Gen­eral Avi­a­tion, and Grant Shapps’s peo­ple went to bat for us with the CAA. And they cer­tainly get a fast re­sponse! Within days we’d been con­tacted by se­nior ex­ec­u­tives who wanted full de­tails, and they must have raised a hue and cry be­cause an­swers that might have taken weeks came by re­turn. First, they apol­o­gised for the £3,350 bill, which was gen­er­ated by a com­puter and sent out unchecked. Be­yond that, no dice−the pre­vi­ous years’ bills had been cal­cu­lated on the ba­sis of our own in­for­ma­tion, the slice of air we had claimed was not so out­stand­ingly un­rea­son­able as to ex­cite com­ment, and the money had been passed straight on to Of­com−and that’s a one-way street.

So in ef­fect, we’ve been mugged, but it’s our own fault for stum­bling by mis­take into a dark al­ley.

It’s pos­si­ble that Bod­min is not alone in be­ing blind-sided by this; worth check­ing whether you, too, re­ceived a com­put­er­gen­er­ated de­mand, and you’re pay­ing for too much real es­tate.

We’ve writ­ten to our MP and the APPG to thank them for try­ing, and we sit lick­ing our fi­nan­cial wounds. At the end of the year Of­com will cut out the mid­dle­man and trouser the ra­dio li­cence fee it­self, so now the gov­ern­ment arm that forces us to have a ra­dio for flight train­ing is dif­fer­ent from the gov­ern­ment arm that forces us to pay for it. I can’t imag­ine Of­com will be more knowl­edge­able than the CAA about the UK’S air­fields; Of­com won’t know any­thing about GA fi­nances ei­ther, so they may get even more am­bi­tious. I fore­cast fun and games.

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