It was interesting to read about a Belgian local government scheme to tax Wi-fi antennas and computer monitors at the Brussels Journal. The story seemed so outlandish as to be almost written for the Onion. Yet apparently it's true that a town wants to tax each and every network transmission antenna and that discovery branched off into an exploration of the fascinating world of TV detector vans in Britain: vans which are supposedly employed to find unlicensed television sets. But first, to the antenna tax.
Olivier Maingain, the mayor of Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe, one of the 19 Brussels boroughs, is planning to tax all "antennas for the transmission of data". Each antenna will be taxed a staggering 4,000 euros per year. Such antennas are used for WiFi or WLAN, i.e. wireless internet or wireless networks over relatively short distances. ... Some Brussels boroughs are already taxing companies on the number of computer screens in their offices. The government of the Brussels Region, however, considers this tax so detrimental for business investments and for the image of the region, that it offers money to boroughs that do not levy the computer screen tax.
Four thousand Euros is equivalent to about $5,350 which is probably worth more than the sum of all the computing equipment I own. Who the heck has money to pay a tax like that? But the subject of TV detector vans is historically more interesting because it conjures up scenes from World War 2 era movies where Nazi radio detection trucks prowl a darkened city in search of Resistance radio operators, busy tapping out Morse signals to London. In this case, the detector vans are operated by London. Specifically by agents of the BBC. The TV Licensing website explains that the BBC is responsible for enforcing the law against unlicensed television sets.
As a result of The Broadcast Act 1990, the BBC were made responsible for licence administration. TV Licensing is a trading name used by entities contracted by the Licensing Authority (the BBC) to administer the collection of television licence fees and enforcement of the television licensing system.
Everyone who owns a television set, set top box or a tuner card for a computer in Britain has to pay the BBC for the privilege. "A colour TV Licence costs £135.50 and a black and white licence costs £45.50." Per year. Which is good to know because I have a Pinnacle USB tuner for my laptop which I might stupidly take to Britain. I wondered whether it was subject to a fee and looked on the website to see if tourists had to pay the fee without success; nor could I find out if the device actually had to be in use to accrue liability.
However that may be it seems clear that one would get reduced fees from the BBC if you were physically incapable of viewing the TV set you owned. There is a generous discount for the blind.
If you or someone you live with is blind, you qualify to receive a 50% concession on the cost of your TV Licence. If the person who is blind isn't the current licence holder for your address, you first need to transfer the licence into their name. To do this, call us on 0870 241 6468 and we'll talk you through what you need to do.
If one were blind, however, there would be little obvious utility to watching TV at all. And I wonder how many blind people there really are in Britain sitting in front of their television sets. But if for whatever reason one were in legal violation of The Broadcast Act of 1990, then the TV detector van would be sure to get you. According to the TV Licensing website:
Our TV detector vans and enforcement officers are equipped with state-of-the-art detection equipment which can tell in as little as 20 seconds whether you are using a TV. We have a range of detection tools at our disposal in our vans. Some aspects of the equipment have been developed in such secrecy that engineers working on specific detection methods work in isolation - so not even they know how the other detection methods work. This gives us the best chance of catching licence evaders. We can use a hand-held scanning device. These measure both the direction and strength of a signal, making it easy for us to locate TVs - even in the hardest to reach places.
And woe to someone found in illegal possession of a TV set. The fine is nearly $2,000.
Using a TV or any other device to receive or record TV programmes (for example, a VCR, set-top box, DVD recorder or PC with a broadcast card) without a valid TV Licence is against the law and could lead to prosecution and a fine of up to £1,000, not to mention the embarrassment and hassle of a court appearance.
There is some dispute over whether TV detector vans actually exist. A forum at the Guardian, for example, contains numerous entries from readers who claim the whole thing is a scare story made up by the BBC to make evaders pay up. Others believe that, like Orwell's Room 101, the dreaded device is real and speculate as to how it works.This online forum very soberly debates the merits of various theories about the existence -- or nonexistence -- of TV detector vans. One leading theory is that TV detector vans are a cover story for detection by database.
Despite the prevalence of "detector vans" in TV licensing advertising and literature, the main method of detecting evaders is by the database system known as "LASSY", which contains a list of all addresses in the UK. Letters and agents from Capita, referred to as "enforcement officers" or "enquiry officers", are sent to any address listed in the database as not having a TV licence.
No evidence from any kind of detection equipment has been used by Capita in any UK court case to date. Some speculate that such evidence would be inadmissible because information about how such equipment works is not known (unlike for example Gatso speed cameras, which require regularly updated calibration certificates); however, a more accurate reason is that use of the detection equipment would constitute covert surveillance - evidence from which is inadmissible in court unless properly authorised in line with the Police Act 1997 and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. In other words, TV detection vans are used solely for scaring evaders into coughing up the license fee.
But some argue, with equal vehemence, that detector vans do exist.
They certainly do exist - I've seen inside one. Most older models work by detecting the IF (intermediate frequency) leakage from the set (39.5Mhz ish usually). They can detect any set tuned to any broadcast. Even if you're watching a DVD, the internal tuner in your TV will probably still be receiving and can be detected. Newer models can do the above and detect the leakage from the high voltage scanning on the monitor. Some can even give a copy of the display of whatever is being watched. I believe this has been used industrial espionage once or twice.
Imagine that: "covert surveillance" techniques to find out if -- you have a TV. Interesting possibility. Which got me to thinking whether one could use RF shielding to block the leakage which might be detected by the BBC. People in the "West" very often assume that people in other countries live very similar lives. That's true in most cases, but not so true, perhaps, in others. Have a good weekend everybody!