Friday, May 16, 2008

Connecting to the Internet with Amateur Radio

Yes, a lot of people seem to want to do this. ICOM even claims that you can do it using D*STAR, although they're kinda vague on how it works. There are a few problems with doing so. The most commonly cited one is the "third party rule" (§ 97.115), but this actually isn't a major obstacle in most cases; the real obstacle (in the US, at least) are the list of "prohibited communications" in § 97.113.

The third party rule, as implemented by the FCC, only comes into play on international communications; that is, when one of the two amateur stations in the communication is in the United States (or other area regulated by the FCC) and the other station is not so located. So the third party rule would be a problem if you were in the US and trying to use a radio to communicate with a station in, say, Germany, and then from there to connect to the Internet. However, if both of the stations involved are in the United States, this doesn't come into play. The third party rule says nothing about where the third party in the communication may be located; as far as the radio regs are concerned, it doesn't matter that you're going to a website in Armenia, as long as your radio communication isn't going there.

However, the real problem is that any connection to the Internet would have to be continuously supervised to ensure that no prohibited communications took place over the link. And there are so many things that are prohibited: music; anything encrypted; any message in which the operator has a pecuniary interest other than the occasional sale of radio equipment; obscene or indecent language. Imagine how hard it would be to avoid all of these while browsing the Internet.

On top of that, there's the general prohibition in § 97.113(a)(5) on "[c]ommunications, on a regular basis, which could reasonably be furnished alternatively through other radio services." There are plenty of alternative services that can provide mobile connections to the internet, in most circumstances, at least. There's probably a few edge cases where this won't get in the way (out of the way areas, or during a communications disaster).

The problem that this creates is that the only time that the regulations really allow a ham to connect to the Internet would be during a communications disaster. But because we aren't allowed to do it under ordinary circumstances, there's not a whole lot of incentive to have the equipment and infrastructure in place to do it in the event that we do need it. And once-a-year drills on Field Day aren't really a good test of how the system would perform in an actual emergency. We've become increasingly dependent on the Internet for ordinary and extraordinary communications needs; it's almost certain that in a major disaster getting Internet access active in a disaster zone is going to be a priority, and the FCC, by not letting us do this during non-emergency conditions, makes it that much less likely that we'll be able to when it really does matter.

The other day I came across this old article from 2001 about an effort by hams to provide a backup Internet infrastructure using ham radio services. I don't think they're still around; a search for their organizational name (the Emergency Communications Network) turns up only a company in Florida that seems to be providing telephone-based emergency communication services. (Fat lot of good that'll be during a telecom emergency when the telephone network is down.) I have no idea what happened to them or their idea.

So, the long and the short of it is basically that you really can't use ham radio to connect to the Internet... but we would probably be better off if you could.