By RYAN TAYLOR
A ROW has broken out over plans for a huge hike in VHF licencing fees charged to the RNLI for using radio channels.
The rescue organisation already pays almost £40,000 annually to communications regulator Ofcom in discounted licence fees to use the vital radio equipment.
It accused Ofcom of threatening to increase the charges by over 600 per cent, to £260,000, as part of a new pricing proposal.
Lifeboat volunteers said the new charge would be equal to the cost of eight inshore lifeboats.
The hike has been proposed under an Ofcom scheme known as administered incentivised pricing – or AIP – and is designed to encourage more efficient use of radio spectrum, the range of radio frequencies available to users.
Ofcom said it did “not recognise” the figures quoted by the RNLI, suggesting that £100,000 would be a more realistic figure to pay.
A spokeswoman for the regulator said: “The RNLI will probably be looking at paying less than half what they say. It is likely they would have to pay around £100,000 with a discount.”
She added the regulator was taking concerns into consideration during an extended consultation period. “If these proposals go ahead they won’t come into effect until 2010.”
Objectors have until 30th October to respond to the consultation by logging on to the Ofcom website.
RNLI spokesman Peter Bradley stood by the £260,000 total, and said charities providing a search and rescue service should not have to pay anything in licence fees.
“With a 50 per cent discount, if we apply the new formula, we could pay up to £260,000. My colleague has discussed these figures with Ofcom and they came up with very similar figures.”
He said even £100,000 was far too much to pay.
“It’s still the same argument. Charities should not be paying anything if they are providing services which help UK Plc meet its search and rescue obligation. We’re doing that, and we’ve been doing it since 1824.
“Ofcom has been instructed by the government to find solutions which will make better use of the spectrum, and it has come up with the idea of applying a new scheme of charging to encourage people to use less of it or use it more efficiently.
“We don’t have a problem with that. But what we do have an argument with is the fact that for maritime and aeronautical users VHF frequencies are set by international agreement. We don’t have the choice of using anything else.
“We are a charity and we provide a vital search and rescue service, as do other charities. We raise funds to operate that service, and we have to provide that service because the government signs up to all international agreements to provide a search and rescue service. Here we are being charged for using radios in support of that service.”
He said other, smaller charities – which also use VHF radios – such as mountain rescue teams could have to pay a thousand pounds extra if the proposals go ahead, threatening their future viability.
“This will also place a massive demand on our volunteer fundraisers who are under a lot of pressure already because of the current economic climate.”
The plans have been criticised by Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, who called on the regulator to alter its plans.
“For Ofcom, effectively a branch of government, to propose to impose such a price rise on a charity is not acceptable.
“In Britain, the RNLI, a charity supported by volunteers, provides a vital life saving service which in many other countries is provided by the state.
“The result is a lifeboat service second to none, but it is not acceptable that they should be faced by the threat of such a huge hike in the taxes they pay for use of radio channels. Indeed, I cannot see why they should pay anything.
“The increased charges are meant to improve the efficiency of the use of the airwaves. But when it comes to saving lives, such arguments are not relevant and are an insult to the RNLI and their crews. Ofcom must back off.”
The regulator said new products and services, such as satelite communications and digital TV networks, place an increased demand on the spectrum available.
In its consultation document, Ofcom said the price hike would create an incentive for spectrum to be used more efficiently.
“AIP is intended to apply market disciplines to the holding and use of spectrum rights, by requiring users to consider their spectrum needs in light of the AIP fees payable.
“It is neither feasible nor desirable for Ofcom to try and determine, on behalf of citizens and consumers, exactly how spectrum should be used, or how much spectrum should be allocated to a particular application.
“Ofcom’s approach is, instead, to create clear incentives for decision makers (users, government and society at large) to use spectrum efficiently. In particular, we seek to ensure that users can determine their need for spectrum in light of the cost which this imposes on society.”
The government commissioned a major review of spectrum holdings in 2004, which recommended AIP be extended to the civil aeronautical and maritime sectors.