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Government regulations and state monopolies

Almost from the outset regulatory controls were imposed by governments of all political shades over the use of airwaves, usually permitting only a state-owned or state-operated service to broadcast within a specific country. Alternatively some governments issued a limited number of licences, franchises or concessions to ‘independent’ operators granting them, in effect, monopoly rights to provide a particular service.

A classic example of this type of governmental control was to be found in Britain where Marconi’s invention of wireless telegraphy had been patented in 1896. The following year Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company Ltd. was formed and started to commercially exploit this new means of communication, primarily in maritime transmissions using Morse Code. However, by 1904 the British parliament had introduced the Wireless Telegraphy Act prohibiting the establishment of any new wireless telegraph station, except under licence from the Postmaster General.  

Severe restrictions were imposed on non-military uses of wireless telegraphy during the First World War, but when those were lifted in 1919 Marconi established a public broadcasting station at Writtle, near Chelmsford, transmitting for two and a half hours each day with a power of 6Kw.

By 1920 the Post Office, under pressure from the military authorities who had enjoyed exclusive rights during the War, prevented any further commercial development of wireless telegraphy until a system of public broadcasting and receiving licences had been introduced. These came in 1921 when 4,000 private individuals and 150 operators were officially licensed to receive or transmit radio broadcasts. Marconi was one of the 150 operators licensed by the Post Office and on 14th February 1922 his station - 2MT at Writtle started broadcasts while another experimental station was opened from Marconi House in central London.  

The success of experimental broadcasts made by the Marconi Company led, in October 1922, to the formation by a number of radio manufacturers of the British Broadcasting Company Ltd. (BBC). On 18th January 1923 the BBC was licensed by the Postmaster General as the sole body authorised to ‘‘establish eight radio telegraphy stations and make transmissions from them of broadcast matter for general reception.’’ The BBC, which obtained its income from half of the 10/- (50p) licence fee and a 10% royalty on all receiving sets sold, had a remit to broadcast ‘‘news, speeches, lectures, educational matter, weather reports, concerts and theatrical entertainment.’’ The Company had thus been given monopoly rights over public broadcasting which it retained after becoming the British Broadcasting Corporation on 1st January 1927.

In addition to sound broadcasting the new Corporation took part in the early development of television, and as early as 1929 started experimental transmissions in that medium. In 1935 the Corporation was granted an additional licence by the Postmaster General to provide a public television service, which was introduced the following year. The BBC maintained its monopoly position in this medium for another 20 years but it was to be a lot longer before it relinquished that status in radio broadcasting.

This is one example of state control over the broadcasting systems but the situation was not unique to Britain and similar government licensing controls and restrictions were introduced by many other countries throughout the world.


International agreements

In addition to national government restrictions on who could provide broadcasting services the allocation of frequencies and transmitter powers were regulated by international agreement from quite early days.

A number of such agreements were made at conferences of the Union Internationale de Radiophonie (UIR):-

These agreements were designed initially to avoid technical chaos on the airwaves, particularly in Europe, but within a short time the agreements were being broken or ignored - even by signatories to the original treaties, leading to the very chaos they were intended to prevent.  

The 1948 Copenhagen Convention supposedly governed the use of radio frequencies after the Second World War and was most often quoted by governments and authorised broadcasters when accusing offshore stations of pirating frequencies and breaking international agreements.

In fact when the Copenhagen Convention was signed seven countries (Austria, Iceland, Portugal, Spain, Luxembourg, Sweden and Turkey) refused to accept the frequencies which had been allocated to them. Further, by the time the first British offshore radio station arrived in 1964, seventeen countries who were signatories had still not fully ratified the agreement.

The cumulative effect of this was that by the mid 1960s between 300 and 500 radio stations in Europe were using frequencies without authorisation under the 1948 Copenhagen Convention. In this context the relatively small number of frequencies used (‘pirated’) by the offshore stations pales into insignificance and many offshore broadcasters drew attention to this situation in justifying their own use of a frequency which had not been allocated to them under the international agreement.

Despite the repeated  breaking of agreements all these controls made some sort of sense at the time  they were  introduced  -  radio is a very powerful medium, with the potential for a single station's broadcasts to reach many millions of listeners. The mere thought of anarchy on the airwaves was  sufficient stimulus for most governments in the 1920s and 1930s to impose tight controls over who would be permitted to engage in the business of transmitting radio (and later television) programmes within  their boundaries. Generally they opted to retain that right for themselves or for bodies over which they had overriding control.  

In some countries  the actual principle  of having commercially funded programmes was repudiated by governments and state monopoly  broadcasters  alike. Radio was considered too powerful a medium to be controlled by private businessmen and it was feared that profits would be maximised at the expense of programme standards - as, according to critics, had apparently happened in the USA. Even in those countries which developed the hybrid of a state broadcasting service accepting commercial advertising spots or programme sponsorship the government-backed monopoly was usually protected from the  introduction of a competitive private commercial system by restrictive rules and regulations.

The Marconi broadcasting station, 2MT situated in an ex-Army hut at Writtle, near Chelmsford

          

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2MT test transmissions from Writtle, Peter Eckersley

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Writtle test transmission.mp3