In about a year Britons will be able to talk to each other legally on citizens' band radio. But it will not be called citizens' band, and proposed government rules are threatening to make the new facility the preserve of the rich.
There have been demands from CB Enthusiasts for some years that they be allowed to enjoy the benefits of a system widely used in the United States, Canada, and other countries. While they waited for the government to act, an estimated 50,000 people decided to become pirates of the air, risking heavy fines for operating CB sets illegally.
Now that CB fans are about to be given a chance to "go straight," however, it emerges that they may have to pay heavily for the privilege. Instead of proposing a frequency of 27 MHz -- the one used elsewhere in the world -- the British Home Office is talking about 900 MHz.
The effect of this would be to hike the price of a CB set to about $:500 ($1, 150) -- instead of the $:50 ($115) paid by the current illegal users.
Rather than use the solidly democratic term "citizens' band" to describe the system, the government is talking of introducing "open channel" radio.
An additional blow to the CB enthusiasts' hopes is that the proposed new system would have a maximum range of a mere 10 miles -- short by international standards and, say the CB fans, far too short for cities and towns where radio waves are swallowed by the shadows of tall buildings.
A spokesman for the enthusiasts said what the government has in mind would be like expecting CB users to signal with a flashlight.
The government, as always, has plenty of answers for CB fans. A 27 MHz system, it says, would interfere with hospital paging systerms. It might also cut into radio, ambulance, and other essential service-radio transmissions.
Perhaps a splendid British compromise is in the offing -- final choice of a frequency somewhere between 900 MHz and 27 MHz.