One of my pet peeves is politicians and political activists spouting off about technology issues they apparently understand bugger all about.
A good topical example of this is the oft-made claim that independence for Scotland would mean Scottish homes lose access to the BBC unless they paid a separate subscription fee for them or the Scottish government bought access to them.
This is a massive over-simplification of a technically very complex issue.
The BBC’s channels are distributed via cable, digital terrestrial (aerial) and satellite.
Clearly it’s possible to end the commercial transmission deals which allow cable firms to carry the channels and to cease broadcasting on specific digital terrestrial transmitters to limit the channels’ availability.
But the fact that the BBC’s channels are broadcast unencrypted (free to air) on satellite makes doing so rather pointless.
That’s because they’re broadcast on a satellite (Astra 2E), the transmission ‘footprint’ of which covers the whole UK and cannot be narrowed to chop off Scotland should voters decide to go it alone.
To block access to Scottish viewers, you’d need to encrypt the signals for ALL UK homes.
This would instantly kill the BBC and ITV backed Freesat service because its boxes lack the slots and software needed by the cards used to decrypt scrambled channels.
At a stroke, English, Welsh and Northern Irish households who use Freesat would find themselves unable to watch EastEnders and Doctor Who while millions of pounds of investment by the BBC, ITV and their set top box manufacturer partners would be wiped out.
It is possible, as Brian Butterworth has previously said, that the channels could remain unencrypted but Sky and Freesat drop them from the EPG in Scotland at the behest of the BBC.
But that doesn’t render the channels unavailable, it just means viewers would need to manually add them to the ‘other channels’ section of the EPG and while that might be a hurdle for some, it’s hardly the black-out that’s so often threatened.
Clever types would soon look for ways to hack the boxes or, in Sky’s case, seek to undermine the security of, or profit from a cross-border trade in, its viewing cards.
The BBC’s shareholding in Freesat may ensure that platform’s compliance, but given Sky’s access to the BBC’s channels is – and in the rest of the UK, would continue to be – guaranteed by Ofcom, how long before it simply refused to play ball and put the channels back on its guide north of the border?
Or worse for a BBC which would already be seeing an 8% drop in income, send it the bill for losses it incurred because of its request, driving up expenditure?
So for lots of reasons, blocking access to the channels via satellite is a non-starter and simply making it harder to find the channels isn’t guaranteed to work.
It may be easier for the BBC to block access to iPlayer and online services, but to do so would simply risk driving up piracy of the corporation’s top shows.
It’s to stop piracy that BBC America broadcasts Doctor Who so close to its UK premiere, would the BBC really want to encourage more fans to download illicit copies?
Sitting comfortably in London, it seems threatening to take the BBC away from an Independent Scotland is the biggest stick the ‘no’ camp have, but few of those issuing the threats seem to have given the practicalities much thought.