Surfing at the beach

One of the great things about the migration to digital broadcasting platforms is what gets left behind. As the VHF band is cleared of television and radio signals, previously unavailable (or incredibly scarce – and therefore expensive) spectrum becomes freed up.

That empty spectrum, or ‘whitespace’ as it’s becoming known, has been attracting a lot of attention recently. Bill Gates is having a say, Google are putting their hands up. It’s a turning point in communications history.

Now, contrary to popular belief, there are two (rather than just one) possible uses for that spectrum that would be of enormous social and cultural use. The first would be to reallocate it for community broadcasting, low power FM, access television and other political and grassroots media. The second would be wifi. Gigabytes-fast, ubiquitous and, to the public, potentially free wifi.

You could have a long argument about which of those two uses are the principle democratising forces. Frankly, either would be a superb result in my book. Because both ways, there is more speech, more access to speech and more availability for citizens to make media.

The migration to digital television and DAB radio has not been, in my opinion, a phenomenal success. There are all sorts of exciting things around picture quality and enhancement of services, but in the end these things are more flavours of the same thing — with audio and picture fidelity improvements that are not the solution to any genuinely experienced problem. And you can keep that bloody red button.

But the freeing of the whitespace makes for a genuinely promising and potentially hugely rewarding opportunity for the connectedness, wellbeing and productivity of the communities covered by those vacated stretches of spectrum. One gives local music exposure and a much greater chance of hearing marginalised voices and arts. The other allows for mobile working, connectivity and access to technology – a serious dent in the digital divide (at least at a national level).

Community media – or ubiquitous wifi. There’s no wrong answer here.

Now let’s wait and see the politicians screw it up.