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Wireless Telegraphy And Signalling Bill

Volume 155: debated on Friday 16 June 1922

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Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a Bill to amend the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1904, under which wireless telegraphy has so far been controlled. That Act was limited to the duration of two years, and has been continued since 1906 under the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Act. Some form of control is growingly necessary in connection with the practice of wireless telegraphy and telephony. In the United States a condition of chaos has resulted from the lack of Government control, and the Government there are making very drastic proposals to remedy the condition of things. This Bill continues the proposals in the 1904 Act and also makes a number of new proposals found to be necessary as a result of the experience of that Act. The steps to be taken were considered by an Inter-Departmental Committee representative of the Post Office, the Air Ministry, the Admiralty, the War Office, and all other Government Departments interested in the use of wireless. The Bill does not propose in any way to withdraw from the public the advantages of wireless communication. On the contrary, its effect will be, by ensuring the proper use of wireless, to assist its development.

The Bill will leave full scope for inventive genius by allowing the erection of experimental stations in proper hands. At the present time some 9,500 licences have been issued, of which 9,100 are licences for receiving, and 400 licences for transmission. The greatest difficulty arises in the transmission, and it is the unregulated issue of licences for transmission in the United States that resulted in the chaos there to which I have referred. We give permission readily for receiving stations, and I am looking forward to a very rapid increase in the number of applications for such licences. The conditions under which broadcasting by wireless telephony will be worked have not yet been decided. As the House knows—I think it is common knowledge—when this question became of real practical importance two or three months ago, I called together all the firms in the country who had shown themselves interested in broadcasting by wireless telephony and asked them to come to an agreement amongst themselves as to the conditions under which the practice of this new art should operate. I do not regard it as desirable that the work should be done by the Government, and I do not contemplate a condition of things under which the Post Office will be doing this work. The part I foresee for the Post Office is that of securing the freest possible play for the inventiveness and ingenuity of all who are interested. I am sorry that I have not so far received any proposals from the films who are discussing this question, but a meeting is taking place at the Post Office to-day between the firms interested and the Post Office officials, and I hope it will be found that some agreement has been come to.

When I have said that the main provision of the Bill is to continue the powers contained in the 1904 Act, and that we are making proposals to amend what our ex- perience has shown to be necessary, I have really covered the ground covered by the Bill. One interesting provision of the Bill is that it shall apply to wireless in aircraft. When the Bill of 1904 was drawn up, no one had contemplated; the possibility of wireless being used in aircraft, and the Bill in that respect dealt only with vessels at sea. It is now necessary that we should have some guarantee that those who use wireless on aircraft are competent. That provision is felt to be necessary by the Air Ministry, and a proposal to that effect is contained in Section 6 of the Bill. One other provision is that dealing with the position of the Dominions. Hitherto I have had powers of control over the use of wireless on ships registered anywhere in the British Dominions when on the high seas, but as all the self-governing Dominions, and many of the Crown Colonies and Protectorates, now possess the necessary legal powers of control, the Colonial Office think that the power which in the past has been reserved to the Postmaster-General might be abrogated. It will be abrogated by this Bill. While this is a modest Bill, which does not raise any new principle, it is a Bill of considerable importance. Without such a Bill the development of wireless, both telephony and telegraphy, would be very seriously hampered, and we might well be experiencing the great difficulties which have arisen in the United States.

Is it proposed under the Bill to ensure that all operators on British shipping are qualified operators, and to that extent improve the present situation?

The Postmaster-General indicated that the Bill is generally one to make permanent the powers he has hitherto possessed. In one or two important details this Bill breaks new ground. One is that it makes provision for dealing with the question of licensing in respect of wireless receiving sets, and it is upon that point that I wish to say a word. In Clause 2, Sub-section (1, e), power is taken by the Postmaster-General to prescribe, subject to the consent of the Treasury, the fees to be paid in respect of the grant or renewal of any licence or certificate. That, presumably, governs the licences now required, for which a fee of 10s. is chargeable, in respect of all the wireless receiving sets. Would it not be possible to add to the Clause a provision that any Regulations which increase the fees chargeable are to be laid on the Table of the House? It is most important that the receiving stations should not be hampered in any way. It is only a few weeks ago that those who are interested in the subject—and they are very many—had their hopes raised very high. Great enthusiasm was created, particularly among the younger members of the community. They felt that they would shortly be able to get a very good wireless service. We were told that eight broadcasting stations were to be established. These eight stations were to cover the whole of the countryside and all who cared to listen in would be able to listen in. I thought it might prove of considerable advantage, particularly to the rural worker, who would get information which otherwise would not be available to him. But up to the present nothing has been done in that direction. I understand that the difficulty is a financial one. I am very glad that the difficulty has arisen at this stage, because in the United States chaos has been caused, largely as a result of not taking a long view and seeing how the scheme was eventually to he financed. I would suggest that this matter can be financed most effectually by placing at the disposal of the broadcasting stations some proportion of the fees now charged in respect of these receiving licences. Under the provisions of the Bill it would be possible to increase those fees. I see no reason for increasing them. It has been estimated that 1,000,000 sets will shortly be established in this country. If only 200,000 or 300,000 were established, that would result in an annual income of from £175,000 to £200,000 per year and half of that distributed over the eight broadcasting stations should secure a very efficient and effective service. Therefore I hope the Postmaster-General will consider the possibility of setting aside portions of these licence fees for the purpose of financing broadcasting stations. I hope he may be able to consider favourably the possibility of doing it on a fifty-fifty basis. The service which would be rendered by the Postmaster-General in this respect is a very small service indeed. It approximates very closely to the 5s. fee charged to the driver of a motor car. It is merely a registration fee, and very little work will be undertaken or, as far as I can visualise the position, will be required by the Postmaster-General in this connection. I also ask if it is not possible at once to give some sort of temporary licence to those who are willing to broadcast information. The right hon. Gentleman told us that difficulties have arisen. At the same time, I do hope that a service may be forthcoming under temporary licence, and that those of us who take an interest in the matter may not be held up from receiving a service of some kind, and that something will be done in this direction pending the formation of permanent regulations.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.