Thursday, September 25, 2008

Repeater lists, and collaboration in the amateur radio community

Many of you reading this blog will be familiar with Tom White's (K5EHX) repeater database.  This tool seeks to make repeater listings more useful using mapping technologies such as those provided by Google.  Combined with splat, Tom's database is a really useful tool for locating repeaters.

For the past several weeks, I've been working with Tom to clean up the data in his database, eliminating duplicates and fixing obviously invalid entries, assisted by dumps he provides me daily and some scripts I've written to scour the data for suspicious entries.  It's slow going as there are over 14,000 entries, and it takes time to examine and validate the entries.

At one point, I wrote a bot to create pages on my ham radio wiki for each repeater in the database.  I have neglected this part of the project, and so those pages are sitting there largely untouched; I really should just delete them as that script no longer works due to changes I've made in my underlying database anyway.  There are only so many hours in the day, though, and I just haven't gotten back around to it.  So those pages languish, growing increasingly out of date every day.  I should delete them, but to do that I have to figure out how to delete them; there's 14,000 of them (give or take) so deleting them one at a time with the web interface would be quite tedious.  There's probably a bulk tool I can use, but I don't know what it is just yet.

The other day, the holder of a particular call sign which appears in those pages due to a particular problem with the dataset (one which Tom and I have been working to correct) discovered this.  He contacted not me (even though I provide contact information on the wiki), but instead the holder of the other call sign that appeared on the page for that particular listing.  That person then contacted Tom, who contacted me.  I'm not really bothered by the contact, and nobody in the exchange seemed too terribly upset, just someone who seemed a bit startled to find his call sign associated with a repeater he doesn't operate.  There was one thing in the exchange that caught my eye, though, and which inspired me to write this post.

One of the people involved made the comment "I guess you place a lot of faith in the Internet community to voluntarily update."  And, yes, we do.  It would be nice if we didn't, but it's all we can do right now.  This in itself is sad, because there are very good databases out there listing virtally every repeater operational in the United States.  If we had access to those databases, Tom's site would be much better.  The problem is that the holders of those databases, in general, refuse to share.  These people are, of course, the various frequency coordination bodies throughout the United States.

The coordinators necessarily have to have records of, at least, every repeater for which they have provided coordination, because without such records they cannot hope to coordinate new repeaters in their territory.  They probably also have access to the same records in adjoining territories, since RF signals are notorious for not stopping at state (or national) boundaries.  However, I have yet to see a coordination group that makes its database available to the public or even to all hams.  Some, for example SERA, sell their list, or at least excerpts from it.  Texas offers a search but warns that "data obtained by this search function may not be republished without permission".  I have yet to find a repeater coordinator that does not take an extremely proprietary attitude toward the data it has amassed in the course of coordinating repeaters.  Frankly, I find this attitude incomprehensible. 

So, yes, we rely on the Internet for updates.  In general, repeater operators are unwilling to provide us with updated information because they've already provided it to the coordinator; why should they have to provide it to us as well?  The coordinators won't share, so our only hope is to either go out and gather the information ourselves, or ask people to send it to us.

So what can be done about this?  If you are the operator or trustee of a repeater, beacon, or IRLP- or Echolink-linked simplex station, please go add it to K5EHX's list (or update it if it's already there).  Please provide all the information you can, including the exact location, altitude, power, etc.  If you are a a member of a repeater coordination council, please consider publishing your coordination data, or publishing it in more detail than you do presently.  If you're not a repeater coordinator, consider becoming a member of your local repeater coordination council, so that you can influence them to be more open with their data.

Or, consider forming an alternative coordination council.  There's nothing in the FCC regulations (that I can find) that specially privilege the existing coordination councils.  Anybody with the information and technical know-how can act as a frequency coordinator.  The FCC defines a frequency coordinator as "an entity, recognized in a local or regional area by amateur operators whose stations are eligible to be auxiliary or repeater stations, that recommends transmit/receive channels and associated operating and technical parameters for such stations in order to avoid or minimize potential interference."  If there's any formal mechanism for such recognition, I don't see it.  As far as I can tell, if you can get a group of hams in a local area to recognize you as someone who can coordinate frequencies, that makes you a frequency coordinator. 

It's not like the tools are hard to get.  They used to be; accurate terrain maps used to be hard to find, and the software to do RF modeling expensive.  But neither of those is the case now.  Highly accurate DEMs for most all of North America are available for free download from the United States government, and reasonably good RF propogation modeling can be done using splat, a free tool.  The only other piece of information required to do coordination is a list of already-existing coordinated stations: the one piece of data that the coordinators refuse to release.

But I'm not really interested in dethroning the current coordinators; the work they do is important and necessary, although I think they could do a better job of it in some ways (for example, I think they should refuse to coordinate closed repeaters or other stations that are not operated in some way for the benefit of all hams or the public generally, and something needs to be done about the problem of "paper repeaters").  I just want them to be more open with their data, so that hams everywhere will be able to more readily find what repeaters are actually in their area (or in some area they are going to visit).  Just the benefit to emergency communications of having more accurate comprehensive lists would be substantial.