Aerial warfare

There's a long-running battle being fought in Ireland. At issue, an Irishman's do-it-yourself right to watch British TV.
When we were growing up in the west of Ireland in the 1970s, a house with a BBC aerial was an exotic and advanced phenomenon. There were only two of them on our street, houses with chimneys towering above their neighbours and parents who had not absorbed the official antipathy to the pernicious cultural influence of perfidious Albion. Although the vast majority of Irish people living along the east coast could pick up the signals without difficulty, for those of us who lived in what is now called "rural Ireland", there was something deeply magical, a combination of the forbidden and the next-to-impossible, about being able to receive British television. On a Saturday night, living rooms of these two anointed families would be filled with the male youth of the street, their eyes glued to the flickering, snowy image on the box perched high in the corner, for Match Of the Day.

In the early Eighties, entrepreneurial spirits in this and other Irish country towns began to work out that, with the right equipment, it should be possible to pick up British TV signals beamed down from Northern Ireland at a local vantage point, and boost and re-broadcast them throughout the community. The TV deflector era was born. In some cases, deflector systems were co-operative groups of local people pooling their resources to provide a communal service. In others, the service was provided by the local TV shop, which covered its cost through the sale of aerials and amplifiers, or by imposing a small annual charge, usually between pounds 10 and pounds 50. The deflector systems operated on a minimum output, both in terms of power and cost. Their legal status was never quite clear, and in particular their position with regard to copyright. Unlike the cable companies operating in the major towns and cities, they did not pay royalties to ITV or the BBC.

For a decade or so, these deflector systems operated without attracting any significant official notice, and it is estimated that by the mid-Eighties, some 150,000 households had come to rely on deflector systems for multi- channel TV. But 10 years ago, when the commercial possibilities of multi- channel television had been established, and simultaneously concerns began to emerge about the scarcity of transmission frequencies, the then government announced that it favoured granting an exclusive licence for the retransmitting of multi-channel television to cable companies operating on MMDS (multipoint microwave distribution system).

In 1989, the government issued exclusive licences to the MMDS operators, who undertook to bring multi-channel television throughout the country on a regulated basis. The MMDS system gives a very high-quality picture, but cannot be successfully transmitted over long distances. Thus the MMDS system is more costly than the UHF deflectors.

To date, the cable/MMDS industry has supplied service to nearly 100,000 households throughout Ireland. In 1991, the government gave what the MMDS people describe as a "solemn commitment" that the deflector systems would be taken off the air. Some deflectors, particularly in areas beset by poor reception, went off the air without protest, but in other areas, consumers baulked at instalment costs of between pounds 200 and pounds 300, in addition to an annual charge several times what they were paying for the deflected signal. MMDS annual costs currently run at close to pounds 200 annually per subscriber, but it has been promised that this charge, which includes an pounds 8 copyright fee, will drop as the number of subscribers increases.

There were a number of skirmishes and arson attacks in various parts of the country when MMDS personnel were "discouraged" by deflector operators from attempting to introduce the new regulated system. The MMDS people have calculated that the level of revenue generated by the deflector sector is between pounds 3m and pounds 4.5m, with an estimated loss of levies to the state of about pounds 1m. The deflector operators say they would have no difficulty paying their way if they were to be put on a proper legal footing. They have also claimed that the MMDS system represents a radiation risk to health.

In the past month, this has become a major political issue. A series of court actions taken by the MMDS operators succeeded in taking the deflector systems off the air. Many small towns, particularly in the west of the country, were left without British TV.

A focus was brought to the matter when deflector groups in the west began to make noises about putting forward candidates in the forthcoming general election. Now the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications, Mr Alan Dukes, has announced a series of proposals to allow for legalised deflector systems operating in accordance with copyright and other regulations. Licences would be offered for the provision of multi-channel television on UHF up until December 1999, when the situation would be reviewed.

With the general election expected for the end of May, the widespread public perception is that the government has caved in to the deflector lobby. But even some of the deflector groups are unhappy that the proposals do not go far enough to safeguard their position, and have not withdrawn their threat to field candidates.

Mr Dukes has made much play of the importance of competition, but the MMDS operators point out that competition between MMDS and UHF deflector operators is not possible, on account of the vastly different cost factors.

The Cable Communications Association of Ireland, which represents the licensed cable/MMDS operators, is currently consulting legal advisers, with a view to taking action against the State for breach of contract and loss of income. Damages would be likely to run to tens of millions of pounds.

Ironically, while all this is going on, many citizens on the east coast continue to receive British TV signals which stray in from Wales or Northern Ireland without having to pay anything at all. This raises a rather interesting question: does the obligation to pay copyright fees depend on the TV signal being re-transmitted, and are those who pick the signal up "by accident" free from such obligations? It is this, the old story about having one law for the east and another for the west, that remains the most effective weapon in the deflector war n