IEEE Spectrum: “Is Ham Radio a Hobby, a Utility…or Both?”

Many thanks to a number of SWLing Post readers who have shared a link to the following article that follows the debate and discussion over an FCC proposal–RM-11831 (PDF)–to “Reduce Interference and Add Transparency to Digital Data Communications.”

The IEEE article, written by Julianne Pepitone, covers both sides of the debate:

Is Ham Radio a Hobby, a Utility…or Both? A Battle Over Spectrum Heats Up

Some think automated radio emails are mucking up the spectrum reserved for amateur radio, while others say these new offerings provide a useful service

Like many amateur radio fans his age, Ron Kolarik, 71, still recalls the “pure magic” of his first ham experience nearly 60 years ago. Lately, though, encrypted messages have begun to infiltrate the amateur bands in ways that he says are antithetical to the spirit of this beloved hobby.

So Kolarik filed a petition, RM-11831 [PDF], to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposing a rule change to “Reduce Interference and Add Transparency to Digital Data Communications.” And as the proposal makes its way through the FCC’s process, it has stirred up heated debate that goes straight to the heart of what ham radio is, and ought to be.

The core questions: Should amateur radio—and its precious spectrum—be protected purely as a hobby, or is it a utility that delivers data traffic? Or is it both? And who gets to decide?

Since Kolarik filed his petition in late 2018, this debate has engulfed the ham world. Fierce defenders of both sides have filed passionate letters and comments to the FCC arguing their cases.

On one side is Kolarik in Nebraska. In his view, it’s all rather simple: “Transparency is a core part of ham radio,” he says. “And yet, you can find tons of traffic from automatic[ally controlled digital] stations that are extremely difficult to identify, if you can identify them at all, and they cause interference.”

The automatically controlled digital stations (ACDS) Kolarik refers to can serve to power services like Winlink, a “global radio email” system.

Overseen and operated by licensed volunteers around the globe, Winlink is funded and guided by the Amateur Radio Safety Foundation, Inc. (ARSFI). The service uses amateur and government radio frequencies around the globe to send email messages by radio. Users initiate the transmission through an Internet connection, or go Internet-free and use smart-network radio relays.

On Winlink’s website, the service says it provides its licensed users the ability to send email with attachments, plus messages about their positions, and weather and information bulletins. Representatives of the service say it also allows users to participate in emergency and disaster relief communications.

But Kolarik’s petition argues two points: First, because such messages “are not readily and freely able to be decoded,” the FCC should require all digital codes to use protocols that “can be monitored in entirety by third parties with freely available, open-source software.” Secondly, he wants the rule change to reduce the interference that he says services like Winlink can create between amateur-to-amateur stations—by relegating the often-unattended automatic stations to operate solely on narrower sub-bands.

Loring Kutchins, the president of ARSFI, says he believes Kolarik’s petition is “well intentioned in its basis. But the fundamental conflict is between people who believe amateur radio is about hobby, not about utility. But nowhere do the FCC rules use the word ‘hobby.’”[…]

Click here to continue reading the full article on the IEEE Spectrum website.

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6 thoughts on “IEEE Spectrum: “Is Ham Radio a Hobby, a Utility…or Both?”

  1. Braden Glett

    Good proposal. I am not allowed to use my preferred mode (CW) without identifying my station regularly, and using English. Why are others allowed to ignore these rules?

  2. Ron Kolarik

    Thanks for posting the article Thomas. The entire premise of RM-11831 is all transmissions on amateur
    spectrum must be open to understanding the message by anyone listening in. Simply owning the equipment, or software, for digital modes must allow anyone, hams, SWL’s, or the general public, access
    to what’s being said. The problem is some modes do not allow 3rd party listening even if you own the equipment, or a suitable software decoder does not exist, which creates a private communications channel.

    Thanks again,
    Ron K0IDT
    author of RM-11831

  3. TomL

    FCC rules state that usage of the frequency bands assigned to amateur radio must conform to certain operational procedures. One of these is that all communications must identify the operator at the end of every session (and every 10 minutes if it is that long) and this identification must be without encryption. Technically, Winlink breaks this very important rule which has gotten human operators in trouble and banned from the airwaves and equipment confiscated. If humans have to abide by very strictly enforced rules like this, then Winlink must also have it banned/equipment confiscated just like people have had done to them over the entire history of FCC jurisdiction over these frequencies.

    There is also blurring now of the communication itself having to be non-encrypted if humans use it, but computers do not have to abide by such rules.

    FCC should give electronic services like Winlink their own dedicated sub bands and stop blurring the lines between human vs. computerized use!

    1. Jason

      Winlink isn’t encrypted. That’s not the issue, it it was, it would be clear-cut. It’s more to do with the non-experimental, non-hobby subjective nature of the winlink email service that someone else could probably more clearly explain than me.

      1. TomL

        If it is a commercial use, that is also illegal. And if data is interfering with voice, then the FCC should separate them, similar to CW vs SSB/AM modes being separated.

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