Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Who can be a ham?

There aren't a lot of restrictions on who's allowed to be a ham radio operator, at least in the United States.  There's four basic requirements that every person wishing to obtain an amateur radio license from the FCC must meet.  The applicant must not be a representative of a foreign government, must have a mailing address somewhere where the United States Postal Service delivers mail, must not be prohibited by from being licensed by the FCC or by court order, and must successfully pass the required examination (or examinations) for the grade of license sought.  What's more notable in this list of qualifications is what isn't required: more specifically, there's no minimum age and no citizenship or residency requirements.

There is no minimum age for licensees.  The youngest licensee that I've been able to find record of was five; his license was earned back in the days when we still had the Novice exam.  With the end of the Novice license, all new licensees must now pass the (somewhat harder) Technician test, which would be somewhat difficult for most five year olds, and the youngest Technician I've ever heard of was nine.  (Unfortunately, I can neither find, nor remember, any details about either of these two child prodigies.) 

Nor are licensees required to be either citizens or residents of the United States.  Resident aliens are just as entitled to have a US-issued amateur license as citizens are, and even nonresident aliens can obtain one if they have an address in the United States at which they can receive mail.  (A PO Box or mail drop, or the address of a friend or relative who is willing to forward your mail to you, is sufficient for this purpose.)  However, if you do not have a Social Security Number, you will need to obtain a Federal Registration Number (FRN), via the FCC's website, prior to taking the license examinations, or the VE team will not be able to process your application.  It's entirely possible to obtain an FCC license without ever setting foot in the United States, although I'm not clear on why one would want to do this.

The FCC does reserve the right to deny a license or license renewal, or to cancel a license, if the applicant or licensee "lacks the requisite character qualifications to be and remain a Commission licensee".  This is pretty rare, though, and requires pretty signficant misconduct.

As a side note, there is no prohibition on federal government employees being amateur radio licensees.  While no federal agency may obtain an FCC license (federal agencies are required to coordinate their radio activities through the NTIA instead of the FCC), in general nothing prohibits a federal employee from being an amateur radio operator on their own time.  Federal employees who may have a reason to use amateur radio frequencies in the course of their duties must be specially authorized to do so by the FCC or by other relevant authority.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1D02 and T1D03.  Section references above are to Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations, browsable via the GPO Access eCFR service.

Operator licenses, station licenses, and licensing-by-rule

The astute reader will, by now, have noticed that most of the recent articles on this blog have been related to questions on the amateur radio licensing exams used in the United States.  This one is no different, but I'm going to get to where I'm going a bit circuitously.  Bear with me here, there really is a point to all this.

In the United States, federal law (47 USC §301, the Communications Act) requires that any person who use a device which emits electromagnetic energy for the purpose of communications must do so pursuant to a license issued for that purpose.  The FCC issues a large number of different licenses for various different uses; the different categories of license are grouped into what are called "services", which is a term that itself derives from the international Radio Regulations, which govern radio worldwide under the auspices of the ITU (which I've talked about earlier).  However, some of these services include things like the Citizen's Band service and the Family Radio Service, which are commonly spoken of as being "unlicensed".  How does this make sense, given that the Communications Act requires a license for everyone who uses a radio for communication?

Well, the FCC has a clever way around not bothering with issuing individual licenses to everyone with a CB radio (which they used to do) or FRS radio.  The FCC declares that anyone (other than an agent of a foreign government) who possesses (for example) a Citizen's Band radio manufactured in accordance with FCC regulations is, by virtue of possession of that radio, "licensed by rule" to use it for the purpose of communications in accordance with the relevant regulations (in this case, Part 95 Subpart D, §95.401 through 428).  As a result, persons licensed in services which are licensed-by-rule do not receive individually identified licenses.

Amateur radio, of course, is not a license-by-rule service; amateur radio licensees are individually licensed and do, in fact, receive individually identified operator licenses.  And that's how we come back to the exam questions that I'm writing about:  Question T1D01, on the Technician test, gives a list of radio services regulated by the FCC and asks which one is issued an "operator station license".  Two of the services listed are "license-by-rule" services: the Family Radio Service and the Citizen's Radio Service.  The third, the General Radiotelephone Service, does issue licenses (the General Radiotelephone Operator License, or GROL) to individually-identified persons, but this license does not entitle one to establish a station, only to operate, repair, maintain, or adjust stations already licensed in some other service; such licenses must be independently obtained and maintained.  A GROL, or any other license under the General Radiotelephone Service, is an operator license only.

The amateur radio service is unique in that the license grant is a dual grant, both of an operator license and a primary station license, which is what the NCVEC is, somewhat inaccurately, calling an "operator station license" (the actual language in §97.5 is "operator/primary station license grant" and the NCVEC really should, but for some inexplicable reason did not, use the same language in the question as in the regulation).  So this question, as inartfully worded as it is, is really testing on whether one understands the duality of the license grant in the amateur radio service, and (for that matter) if one recognizes that the amateur radio service is, in fact, called the "Amateur Radio Service".  Not the best question, I must admit.  I have to wonder if it'll be carried forward into the next version of the pool.

This post has been brought to you by pool question T1D01.  Section references above are to Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations, browsable via the GPO Access eCFR service.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Keeping the "amateur" in amateur radio

I've talked quite a bit about what you can do on ham radio here.  This post will talk about the restrictions that prevent the  commercialization of amateur radio: things you cannot do on ham radio.

The first restriction I want to talk about is the prohibition on the use of ham radio "on a regular basis" for communications that "could reasonably be furnished alternatively through other radio services" (§97.113(a)(5)).  This is basically the "noncompete" rule: the amateur radio service is not permitted to compete with or displace commercial radio services (for which the FCC collects licensing fees, some of which are quite substantial).  In practice this rule is impossible to enforce, and would only be enforced in the most egregious of cases.  However, hams should consider whether any proposed long-term ongoing use of amateur radio frequencies might be better accomplished in one of the other radio services, especially when the intent of that ongoing use is not very much in keeping with the basic purposes of the amateur radio service.

A more significant set of restrictions are the prohibitions on the use of amateur radio to facilitate commercial gain.  There are basically two of these in the FCC rules.  First, no amateur station may transmit any communication in which either the station licensee or the control operator has a "pecuniary interest"; this includes transmissions made on behalf of an employer (whether or not specific compensation is received).  You may not operate a business (either your own or your employer's) via amateur radio, even if your business is related to amateur radio.  You're not allowed to use ham radio frequencies to communicate with or about other employees of the business, with or about customers or vendors of the business, or with or about potential customers or vendors.  The only exception to this rule is that you may use amateur radio to notify other amateurs of the availability of equipment for sale or trade (so-called "swap and shop" traffic), provided such communications are not conducted on a regular basis.  If you're working on your friend's radio for him and he has promised to pay you for your time and effort when it's ready, you may not call him on the local repeater to tell him it's ready, as that would be a communication in which you have a pecuniary interest.  But if you have a radio you're willing to trade or sell, you may use amateur radio to attempt to find someone willing to buy or trade for it, and consummate the transaction via amateur radio, provided you don't do this on a "regular basis".

Second, you cannot be paid to operate an amateur radio station (with two very limited exceptions which I won't cover here; they're found in §97.113 if you want to look).  This has created some controversy of late because many local and state governments, as well as private entities that provide emergency services such as hospitals, have encouraged their employees to have and use amateur radio equipment for emergency communication purposes.  The FCC recently issued a public notice clarifying this regulation: such employees may not use amateur radio while "on the clock" except in an actual emergency.  The FCC has provided a waiver process for agencies who wish to allow their employees to participate in drills involving the use of amateur radio frequencies to obtain a waiver of this rule for the purpose of that drill.  So far one such waiver has been applied for and approved, for a drill in Kentucky.  A question I don't have an answer for yet is whether the Illinois indemnity and loss compensation scheme for volunteers accepted into service to the state during a disaster constitutes "employment" for the purpose of this rule.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1C11, T2A09, T2A10, T2A11, T2D04, G1B09, E1F10 and E1F11.  Section references above are to Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations, browsable via the GPO Access eCFR service.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Hamming internationally

Historically, one of the major appeals of ham radio was the opportunity to use amateur radio to talk to people in far-off lands.  While the Internet and cheap international long distance has cut into this somewhat, it's still a significant draw of the amateur service, and in fact building international goodwill is an explicit purpose of the amateur radio service (§97.1).  Radio signals have a nasty habit of not respecting national boundaries, and as all of the HF bands have at least long-range if not world-wide propagation at least some of the time, it's very likely that any ham with HF privileges will at some time be involved in a conversation with someone in another country; even someone without HF privileges has a decent chance of it.  The availability of direct, personal international communications via ham radio has been quite controversial historically, and some of the special rules that apply to international communications can be clearly tied to the geopolitical history of the 20th century.

The general rule for international communications for amateur radio operators is that they are allowed.  However, if the national communications authority of either country involved has notified the ITU that it objects to international amateur radio communications, then the communication is prohibited.  The United States does not currently ban any countries, and at the present time there are, in fact, no banned countries.

In addition, all international communications must be "limited to communications incidental to the purposes of the amateur service and to remarks of a personal character" (§97.117).  This is much more restrictive than the rules for domestic amateur radio communications.  The main purpose of these restrictions is to prohibit communications of a political nature, and it is, in fact, a very bad idea in many countries.  Communications of a political nature are permitted in the US (although many of us believe they should be discouraged), but they are, in fact, forbidden across national boundaries and hams would be well advised to avoid them. 

In addition, when operating internationally there are limits on your authority to forward messages on behalf of others (so-called "third party communications").  Third party communications (messages forwarded for people who are not themselves amateur radio operators) are limited to the same terms mentioned above regarding content.  In addition, the general rule for third party communications is that they are prohibited except when specifically authorized, except for emergency and disaster relief communications.  So, while amateurs have the presumptive right to chat with one another, they do not have a presumptive right to pass messages for third parties.  Passing messages for third parties requires that a "third party message agreement" be in effect between the countries involved.  The United States presently has such agreements with about four dozen countries; the current list can be found on the FCC's website.  It should be noted that virtually none of Europe is on this list: third party traffic to European stations is generally prohibited.  This rule also applies to the situation where a nonlicensed person participates in the sending of a message (usually, by allowing someone other than a licensed amateur talk into the microphone).  In other words, if you're in the US talking to a ham in Germany, you may not put your kid on the radio unless your kid is also a licensed ham (the third party rule does not apply if the third party is eligible to be the control operator of the transmitting station).

Another small note: when operating internationally (or domestically, for that matter) it's perfectly acceptable to carry out the conversation in a language other than English.  However, you are required to identify in English, even if the conversation is progressing in some other language.  The internationally-standardized NATO phonetic alphabet, which is encouraged in the amateur service anyway, counts as "English" for the purpose of this rule (which is, for the record, §97.119(b)(2)).

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1C10, T2B07, T2D05, G1E05, G1E07, G1E08, G1E09, G1E10, and E1F16.  Section references above are to Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations, browsable via the GPO Access eCFR service.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Getting along with others: Primary and secondary allocations

There is a general rule of radio operation that says that a station is entitled to operate free of harmful interference from other stations in the same or other services, and at the same time all stations are obliged to operate so that they does not interfere with other stations in the same or other services.  Stations that suffer harmful interference from other stations are generally entitled to relief from such interference; that is, the national administration responsible for supervising the interfering station is generally obliged, under law or treaty, to take steps to cure the interference, if the interfering station doesn't do so first.  However, this rule is a very general one, and (like most rules) is subject to some exceptions.  This post is about one of those exceptions: the system of primary and secondary allocations.

I've mentioned the ITU a few times now, and that one of their major responsibilities is frequency management.  One of the things that the ITU, and also national regulators such as the FCC, do in furtherance of this is sometimes allocate a band to more than one use.  When they do so, they will typically designate one of those uses as "primary" and the other(s) as "secondary".  When a band has been designated with both a primary allocation and a secondary allocation (either by the ITU or by the FCC), this modifies the general rule regarding cross-service interference.  Specifically, a station in a service which has a secondary allocation in a particular band has no right of protection against interference, harmful or not, from stations in a service which has a primary allocation in that band.  Such stations, more succinctly referred to as "secondary stations" in §2.105(c)(2), must at all times yield to primary stations and take steps to avoid interference.

Many of the bands allocated to amateurs are also allocated to other services.  For example, the entire 70cm UHF band (420-450 MHz, in the United States) is a secondary allocation for amateurs; the primary allocation is federal and the principal user is the military, who mainly uses this band for various radar systems, most notably the PAVE PAWS early warning system deployed at Beale AFB and at Cape Cod AFS (which leads to limitations on the use of the 70cm band for hams in proximity to either of these sites).  Another band for which the amateur service is a secondary allocation is the 60 meter HF band.  The 60 meter band is channelized and is the only band on which an amateur may not transmit Morse code.  It is shared with the federal government (the primary user) and amateurs must immediately cease operation if interference is caused with a federal station.

The situation with the 30 meter band is even stranger.  While 30 meters is primarily allocated to hams by the FCC, that allocation is only valid within the United States and its outlying insular regions.  Outside that area, the 10100–10150 kHz band is allocated primary to the fixed service, and a footnote (footnote US247) to the Table of Frequency Allocations (§2.106) states that "[t]he band 10100–10150 kHz is allocated to the fixed service on a primary basis outside the United States and its insular areas. Transmissions from stations in the amateur service shall not cause harmful interference to this fixed service use and stations in the amateur service shall make all necessary adjustments (including termination of transmission) if harmful interference is caused."  Because 30 meters has worldwide propagation (and in fact is one of the most interesting bands there is in terms of propagation), interference is pretty easy here, which is probably part of why hams in the US are limited to 200 watts in this band (instead of the more usual 1500), and why this band is the only amateur band with no voice privileges anywhere within the band.  (I've yet to find out the specific, historical reason why this band has this rather unusual noninterference restriction and to what purpose the other fixed stations in this band used it or if they're still there.  If anyone knows, please do let me know.)

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1C09, G1A14, and G1A15.  Section references above are to Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations, browsable via the GPO Access eCFR service.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

How long is your band?

When talking about frequency, and especially about "bands" (divisions of spectrum made for the purpose of allocation), it's very common to see frequencies specified in units of length (meters and centimeters being most common) instead of in units of frequency (kilohertz, megahertz, or gigahertz, or, more archaically, kilocycles or megacycles).  When a length unit is used, it specifies the wavelength involved.  The wavelength of a light wave is, of course, directly related to its frequency: the wavelength is the distance the wave travels (at the fixed speed of light) over the period of one oscillation, and so wavelength is just speed divided by frequency (and frequency is speed divided by wavelength).

Fortunately, the math for this is pretty simple, especially in the metric system (which even us backward Americans use when doing ham radio, thankfully).  By pure serendipity, the speed of light (in a vacuum) is approximately 299,792,458 meters per second; this is close enough to 300,000,000 meters per second that for most purposes the latter value can be used.  So to convert a wavelength in meters to a frequency in megahertz (or vice versa), one must merely divide 300 by the wavelength (or frequency).  Hams routinely refer to all the amateur bands below 200 MHz by their wavelength instead of their frequency, and it's quite common to hear the higher frequency bands by wavelength as well, so it's important to be able to do this translation on the fly (at least until you memorize the more common ones).  Fortunately, dividing into 300 isn't that hard.

So when a ham talks about the "160 meter band", they're not talking about a really long parade; instead, they're talking about a band whose wavelength is approximately 160 meters, which corresponds to a frequency of about 1875 kHz.  The 160 meter band is actually 1800 to 2000 kHz, so this is pretty close.  Other examples (more pertinent to the student preparing for the Technician exam) include the 6 meter band (50 to 54 MHz), the 2 meter band (144 to 148 MHz), the 1.25 meter band (222 to 225 MHz), the 70 centimeter band (420 to 450 MHz), and the 23 centimeter band (1240 to 1300 MHz).  Please do note also that these band definitions apply only in ITU Region 2 (and obviously only in the United States or other places where the FCC regulates amateur radio), and that other restrictions based on location may also apply (especially with respect to the 70 centimeter band, which has a lot of interesting restrictions on it).

Of the questions on the Technician exam related to this, two (T1C04 and T1C06) present an additional challenge that cannot be resolved simply by dividing into 300, as there are incorrect answers that are "close enough" that you can't eliminate them based solely on approximate wavelength.  Therefore, it's very important that you commit to memory the limits of the 6 meter, 2 meter, and 70 centimeter bands given above, not only for the purpose of passing the exam but also for the purpose of responsible operation.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1C04, T1C05, T1C06, T1C07, and T1C08.

Mayday, mayday, mayday: Emergency operations

Quite a lot of people get into amateur radio for the purpose of emergency communications.  There are two meanings to that phrase, too, and it's important to keep them straight.  The first, "emergency communications", is the provision of communication assistance during an "emergency"; that is, responding to a station in distress and, based on the ensuing communication, providing assistance directly or dispatching others to provide assistance.  The second is more strictly a "communications emergency", which is when an emergency situation cause (or is likely to cause) a failure or breakdown of ordinary communications systems.  Amateur radio operators have specific powers and duties in both of these situations.  Providing emergency communication is one of the declared purposes of the amateur radio service, so hams should have some understanding of these powers and responsibilities.

Amateurs are, generally speaking, not permitted to communicate with stations in other services using their amateur radio station.  This includes the licensed-by-rule Family Radio, General Mobile Radio, Citizen's Band, or Multi-Use Radio services.  Even though all of these services are available to anyone (other than a representative of a foreign country) who possesses the appropriate equipment, hams are not exempted from the requirements in these services to use type-accepted equipment and hams who wish to operate in these services must ordinarily meet these same equipment limitations and requirements as any non-ham would.  Nor may a ham use his or her equipment to communicate with public safety entities.  There are, of course, exceptions to this general rule, almost entirely for emergency situations. 

There are three major exceptions for "emergency" situations:  First, an amateur may use any means of radiocommunication at his or her disposal in order to provide essential communications needs during an emergency which immediately threatens human life or property, when other forms of communication are unavailable or disrupted.  Second, an amateur station which is actually in distress ("distress" also being a term of art which in this case means "in immediate threat of loss of life or serious permanent injury") may use any means at its disposal to attract attention and obtain assistance.  Third, an amateur station who is aware of a station in distress may respond to that station in distress or make any other communications necessary to obtain assistance for that station in distress, even if that would involve transmitting to stations outside the amateur service or using frequencies not authorized to the amateur.

These exceptions are to be construed very narrowly, in practice.  The communications must be "essential", the threat to life or property must be "immediate", and other forms of communication must be "unavailable".  Don't use this one lightly; if you have a choice between running next door to use their phone to call 911 or transmitting on the local fire department's general frequency, please go next door and call 911.  This is intended as an absolute last resort "when all else fails", not an option to used when other options are merely inconvenient.  Similarly, if you are monitoring, say, the marine HF bands and you hear a Mayday call, do not immediately respond; you might interfere with other ships or the Coast Guard responding.  Only if you do not hear a response, or if the calling station repeats the call (instead of responding to a response to their Mayday call) should you "unlock" your gear and respond to the calling station, or relay the call.

In addition, the FCC may declare a "communications emergency" when a disaster causes the loss of normal communications in an area.  During such a declaration, amateurs must refrain from using any frequencies designated in the disaster declaration unless they are actively involved in providing assistance.  Such declarations are common during major disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, which tend to disrupt normal communications.   The FCC may also authorize amateurs involved in providing assistance to use frequencies other than those which are normally available to amateurs, or to communicate with stations not in the amateur service, during a communications emergency; amateurs are required to comply with the directions of the FCC and its Field Engineers in such situations.

Outside of an FCC declaration of an emergency, no frequencies are reserved for emergency communication; there is no amateur equivalent of CB channel 9 or marine channel 16.  In general, the best frequencies to use for declaring an emergency in the amateur bands would be the various national calling frequencies, because there's a better chance that someone will be listening on one of these.  However, emergency traffic always takes priority over non-emergency traffic, on all frequencies and at all times.

It should go without saying that if you hear a station calling with an emergency (for which the most proper method to call "Mayday" three times, followed by identification) any non-emergency communications on the same frequency must immediately suspend until the emergency is resolved.  At the very least, do not interfere with emergency communications, and to the extent that you are able, you should assist the station in distress.  (But avoid creating confusion; listen closely and think before you transmit.)  You should always assume that a declaration of emergency is real; if it's not, the station calling the emergency is the one on the hook for making a false distress call.  In the United States, making a false distress call is a federal felony; offenders will almost certainly lose their FCC licenses, and will face stiff fines (in one recent instance, $45,000) and even the possibility of prison time, so don't do that.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1C03, T8A01, T8A02, T8A03, T8A04, T8A06, T8A08, T8A09, T8A10, T8A11, T8A12, T8B08, T8B11, and T8C01.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

What's in a call sign, anyway?

Most people have some familiarity with call signs, if nothing else from broadcast radio stations, which in the US tend to be four letters starting with either K or W.  The more knowledgeable will know that in the broadcast services, K stations are west of the Mississippi and W stations east of it (with some grandfathered exceptions).  Those near the borders may know that Canadian stations start with a C, and Mexican stations with an X.  But, unless you're a shortwave listener or a ham, you probably don't know why the letters used are K and W, or what other letters might be used for, if anything.

The ITU, which I talked about in my last post, is the entity that makes the rules that everyone has to follow for call signs.  Each member country is assigned one or more one or two character prefixes (or, in two cases, three character), and all call issued by that country have to start with one of those prefixes.  There are nine one-character prefixes: B, F, G, I, K, M, N, R, and W; the United States, being a charter member of the ITU and the largest at the time that it was decided to regularize call signs, got three of them; (N, K, and W); the UK gets two (G and M), and the other four go to China (B), France (F),  Italy (I), and Russia (R).  Everyone else has to use at least two characters for national identification; Canada, for example, is allocated CF through CK, and Mexico is allocated XA through XI.  (Both countries have other allocations.)  Some countries even have prefixes that start with digits instead of letters.

So why N, K, and W for the US?  France, Italy, and Russia got their initials, after all.  Well, during the early years the US military used A call signs for Army stations and N call signs for Navy stations.  W (. - -) and K (- . -) are what you get when you add a dah to the Morse code for A (. -) and N (- .), and so commercial stations adopted those letters.  The United States has since given up part of A for the use of other nations, and now only has AA through AL (in addition to all of W, K, and N).

In addition to allocating prefixes to the many member nations, the ITU also sets standards for the parts of the callsign after the prefix, at least in certain services.  For amateur radio stations, the ITU mandates a one or two character national prefix, then a digit, and then up to four additional characters, the last of which must be a letter.  For the United States, which has three one-character prefixes, that means a callsign can be as short as three characters or (in theory) as long as 7.  The FCC, however, does not issue four-character suffixes yet, and reserves the so-called "one-over-one" callsigns (one letter, one digit, and one more letter) as "special event stations" (which are issued for short-term use by any ham who requests and obtains one from the NCVEC, who administers that program, and never permanently), so all FCC-issued amateur call signs are four to six characters long.  Not all combinations within this space are used, either; the FCC excludes for the moment all "two-over-three" (two letters, one digit, and three letters) call signs beginning with A and N from the amateur service, and excludes certain others combinations for a variety of other reasons.  Also, while the ITU regs would allow for the issuance of a call sign containing more than one digit, the FCC does not do this; US amateur call signs always contain exactly one digit.  And that digit is not entirely without meaning.

For the purpose of the amateur radio service, the FCC divides the country into 13 regions.  The first 10 regions, numbered 1 through 9, and 0, are groupings within the "lower 48" (see map to right).  Regions 11 through 13 are Alaska; Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands; and Hawaii and other Pacific islands.  The FCC issues call signs based on what region the amateur's mailing address is in, and within each region based also on the amateur class of license, using what is called the sequential call sign system.  For those in regions 1 through 10, the digit in the call sign corresponds to the region number; for regions 11, 12, and 13 the digit used also depends on location (typically, which island you're on).  Every amateur gets a sequentially-issued call sign initially; after that a ham's call sign will only change (barring extraordinary events) if the amateur, applies for a vanity call sign or requests a new sequentially-issued call sign.  Also, once the FCC has issued a call sign, it will never issue it again via the sequential system; the only way for a call sign that has been abandoned to be used again is via the vanity call sign system. 

In addition to dividing the country into 13 regions, the call signs available in each region are further divided into four groups, A through D.  Calls in Group A are reserved only to Extras; those in Group B are available to Extras and Advanceds; those in Group C to everyone except Novices; and those in Group D are available to any amateurs.  Because of this, you can tell from a call sign what the minimum license class someone has: someone with a two-over-one or a one-over-two is necessarily an Extra.  But you cannot assume that someone with a two-over-three is a Novice (and in fact that's almost certainly not the case), for three reasons.  First, a ham who upgrades does not automatically get a new call (anymore; that used to be different), and so could have a higher license class than his or her call sign group indicates.  Second, a ham may request any call sign which is permitted to his or her license class through the vanity program.  The third, and perhaps most common, for call signs that don't fully reflect the licensee's operating class is that Group C is exhausted in almost all regions, which means new General and Technician licensees (in the lower 48, at least) now get two-over-three "Novice" calls (as do initial club licenses, which are applied for through Club Station Call Sign Administrators, instead of the usual VE process). 

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1B03, T1B04, T1B05, T1B06, T1B08, T1B09, and T1B10.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thinking regionally

I mentioned the ITU briefly in my last post; I'll talk a bit more about this nebulous entity here.  The International Telecommunication Union, or ITU, is a multinational treaty organization established by a multilateral treaty that has been acceded to by almost all of the world's nations; the United States is one of the charter members.  The ITU makes rules for radio operation (and especially frequency allocation) that all member nations agree to respect.  As radio signals have a bad habit of refusing to stop at national boundaries, this is pretty much necessary, especially with respect to the world-reaching HF bands, in which a station in South America can easily interfere with a station in Russia. 

For the purpose of aiding frequency management, the ITU has divided the world into three regions, named (unsurprisingly enough) Region 1, Region 2, and Region 3 (see map). Roughly speaking, Region 1 is Europe and Africa, Region 2 is North and South America, and Region 3 is Asia (excluding Asiatic Russia) and Oceania.  The allocation of frequencies to the various services that a treaty member may make varies by region, mainly due to historical reasons but also due to different technological paths that were taken in different parts of the world.  A full discussion of the details of the differences would be quite long; fortunately, hams don't need to know most of it.

The main situation in which differences in ITU region allocation has an impact on US hams is in 40 meters; the Region 2 allocation for the 40 meter amateur band is 7.000 to 7.300 MHz, while in Region 1 it's only 7.000 to 7.200 MHz and in Region 3 it's only 7.000 to 7.100 MHz.  To make matters worse, many of the frequencies that are not allocated to hams in these regions are allocated to broadcasters.  Since 40 meters is a worldwide band (much of the time), this creates a good deal of opportunity for interference.  In addition, the subbands reserved for CW and data in each region are different, and until recently it was actually legally impossible for a US ham in Region 2 to have a phone QSO with a Region 1 ham on the same frequency (as the US phone subband doesn't start until 7.125 MHz, which was above the entire Region 1 40 meter amateur allocation).  US hams wishing to work Australia, and until recently Europe, on 40 meters phone have to resort to "split operation", in which one station transmits on one frequency authorized to his use (but not to the use of the station he is calling), and the other station then responds on a different frequency that is within his authorization.  The frequency pair to be used would either be agreed on by prior arrangement, or indicated in the initial call by specifying "split" and the frequency on which a response was expected (or sometimes by using "up" or "down" and the difference between the transmit and receive frequencies).

The astute reader will notice that just about all of the United States is in Region 2 (a tiny bit of US territory—Guam, American Samoa, and the Marianas—is in Region 3).  However, §97.301 shows separate listings not only for Regions 2 and 3, but also for Region 1, even though no part of the United States is in Region 1.  Why is this?  Because of the "ship at sea" provision: FCC regulations apply to any person who wishes to operate as an amateur onboard a US-flagged ship while that ship is in international waters, no matter where in the world that might be.  So if you're ever on a transatlantic cruise, and you've taken your ham radio along (and gotten permission from the ship's captain to operate, which actually isn't that hard to get), you'd better keep track of where the ship is; when it crosses over that line you may have to change your operating frequencies.  (Of course, you have to keep track of where you area anyway, bceause once you enter the national waters of another country you become subject to that nation's rules.) 

This post has been brought to you by pool question T1B02.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Please do not interfere, we're busy here!

Interference is a frequent problem in all radio services, and the amateur service is no exception.  Interference is anything (natural phenomena, other signals, whatever) that hampers or prevents the successful receipt of a radio communication by its recipient other than the simple lack of a signal path between the transmitter and the receiver.  Hams distinguish between natural sources of interference (often called "atmospherics" or "QRN"), which are typically caused by things like lightning storms or coronal mass ejections hitting the magnetosphere, and artificial sources of interference (or "QRM"), which may be the result of other people's attempts at transmissions, deliberate jamming, or noise produced by noncommunicative uses of RF energy (like microwave ovens, computers, and hybrid cars). 

The exact definition of interference can be found in 47 CFR §2.1(c): "The effect of unwanted energy due to one or a combination of emissions, radiations, or inductions upon reception in a radiocommunication system, manifested by any performance degradation, misinterpretation, or loss of information which could be extracted in the absence of such unwanted energy."  As this regulation is taken directly from the ITU's Radio Regulations, this definition is effectively universal across the world.  The International Telecommunication Union, or ITU, is the international treaty organization that regulates radio worldwide; the United States is a member nation of the ITU, as are virtually all other countries in the world.  (An important side note here: while the regulations that apply to amateur radio specifically appear in Part 97, hams are also required to comply with the general regulations that appear in Parts 1 and 2, and reference to these parts sometimes clarifies matters that are left unclear by Part 97 standing alone.  Some familiarity with these parts, as well as with Part 97, is therefore a good idea for the conscientious ham.)

I'm writing this series of posts at least in part as an effort to discuss the questions on the various exams.  And in this one I've come to a question that I disagree with the NCVEC about.  The question in this case is T1A10, which I here quote in full:
What is a transmission called that disturbs other communications?
A. Interrupted CW
B. Harmful interference
C. Transponder signals
D. Unidentified transmissions
The NCVEC considers the correct answer to be "B", "harmful interference".  However, the FCC explicitly defines "harmful interference" (in §97.3(23)) as "Interference which endangers the functioning of a radionavigation service or of other safety services or seriously degrades, obstructs or repeatedly interrupts a radiocommunication service operating in accordance with the Radio Regulations."  (This same definition is found in §2.1(c) and also derives from the ITU Radio Regulations.) The FCC's definition requires more than just a simple "disturbance" of communications for a transmission to be "harmful".  In this case, "B" is the "most correct" answer, but it is not a correct answer, simply because not all transmissions that disturb other communications will qualify as "harmful interference", merely as "interference".

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A10 and T1B01.

Monday, October 26, 2009

If it's a "station", how come it can move?

An amateur radio station is defined (by regulation) as "the apparatus necessary for carrying on radiocommunications".  In other words, the station is the radio (transmitter and, as appropriate, receiver), feedline, antenna, and presumably also power supplies and other mechanical appurtenances required to enable all that to work together for the purpose of communications via radio.  The station does not include the operator, and stations are technically licensed separately from operators, although this is very much not obvious anymore. 

Despite the name, "station", nothing about this definition of a station requires that the station be stationary, at least in the amateur service.  Older hams will remember the "mode" suffixes of "mobile" (/M), "portable" (/P), "maritime mobile" (/MM), and "aeronautical mobile" (/AM), which used to be required whenever an amateur was operating a station that was not at that amateur's primary station location.  The FCC no longer restricts amateurs to a single primary station (we're allowed to have as many primary stations as we want now without obtaining additional license grants, which is why amateurs are now restricted to one and only one amateur radio license per person), and no longer requires the modal suffixes, but it doesn't hurt to know what these mean because they are still commonly used (and occasionally misused), and furthermore they are sometimes still required when operating outside the United States on a reciprocal treaty grant. 

"Mobile" is defined as "operating a station which is capable of being operated while in motion".  Therefore, one is "mobile" when operating a station installed in a car, motorcycle, or bicycle.  It also applies when using a handheld transceiver (since you can operate a handheld while wilking), although many people incorrectly use "portable" for this.  There are two special sub-cases of mobile: operating while on a boat is "maritime mobile", and operating from an aircraft is "aeronautical mobile"; in both of these sub-cases permission of the master of the boat or the pilot in command of the aircraft is required, and your station must be independent of the craft's own radio equipment (except that you may share an antenna with a boat's radio systems, but not an aircraft's).  (Additional conditions apply; see §97.11.)

"Portable" is defined as "operating a station which has been temporarily installed in some location other than the licensee's primary station location".  Since amateur licensees no longer have a defined primary station location, the "portable" designation no longer makes sense, and so some people have (as I note above) co-opted it for the case of operating a handheld.  An example of "portable" operation would be a transmitter running off a battery into a longwire temporarily thrown up into a couple trees at a public park. 

There's several other modes of operation (the so-called "special operations" that are set out in Subpart C of the regulations), but I'll save those for a subsequent post. 

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A09, T2C02, and T2D07.

Amateur Radio and the FCC

The need for at least some top-down regulation of radio, and of amateur radio specifically, should be somewhat obvious.  Radio spectrum is limited, of course, and it's very difficult if not impossible for two stations to share the same frequency, at least within the same geographic area.  In the very early days of radio, of course, there was no government regulation of radio, and stations did whatever they wanted.  Once radio went commercial, in the early part of the 20th century, stations started to interfere with one another, and before long there were lawsuits being filed, typically in state courts under various property law theories.  It quickly became obvious that judicial regulation of radio would become untenable.  Other problems included amateur radio operators who interfered with ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore, and military communication.  The issue came to a head in the public eye with the 1912 sinking of the Titanic; the federal government responded by requiring the licensing of amateurs, prohibiting amateurs from operating in commercial or military frequencies (amateurs were restricted to operating only on the "useless" high frequency bands; at this point skip had not been discovered) and giving minimal regulatory authority to the Department of Commerce.  In 1927 this authority was expanded and transferred to the Federal Radio Commission, and in 1934 to the Federal Communication Commission, or FCC, where it remains today. 

The FCC has regulatory authority over all uses of radio frequency energy for communication purposes within the territory of the United States and the coastal waters thereof, as well as ships at sea sailing under the flag of the United States, except for use by instrumentalities of the federal government itself (which is separately managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, another federal agency).  The FCC also has some jurisdiction over noncommunicative use of radio frequency energy, to the extent that such usages might possibly interfere with communicative uses.  (The Department of Health and Human Services, via the Center for Devices and Radiological Health, a division of the FDA, also has some jurisdiction over devices that use or emit electromagnetic energy, but their jurisdiction is concerned entirely to health and safety aspects.)  Since amateur radio amounts to the use of radio frequency energy for communication purpose, it falls within the scope of the FCC's jurisdiction, and the FCC is the principal source of the regulations that apply to amateur radio in the United States.  Amateurs must also be aware of restrictions imposed by NTIA, since many amateur frequency allocations are shared with various federal (including military) uses.

An amateur license issued by the FCC is valid for use anywhere where the FCC has jurisdiction.  Unlike most of the other licensed services, amateurs are not required to declare their station locations to the FCC; we are free to pick up and move whenever we want without notice to the FCC.  (This used to not be the case; the FCC used to require that amateurs could only operate from their fixed station location which had to be reported to and specifically licensed by the FCC.)  The FCC only requires that an amateur keep the FCC notified of his or her current mailing address so that the FCC may contact him or her if it should need to do so.  If the FCC sends you mail and it comes back undeliverable, your license may be suspended or revoked, so it's a good idea not to let this happen.  Also, due to a rather large and complicated system of treaties, an FCC-issued license is also valid for use in many other countries, although many conditions and restrictions apply and the amateur should carefully research the relevant regulations and conditions before operating outside the United States under the authority of a treaty grant.

In general, the FCC takes a pretty light hand in regulating amateur radio.  This is partially because the amateur radio community is pretty good at regulating itself.  However, it's probably more because the FCC is (like many federal agencies) required to meet the bulk of its budget out of user fees.  The nearly three decades of experience of having federal agencies self-fund out of user fees has shown us that when this is done, users who pay large fees get more attention from the regulator than users who pay small fees.  Amateur radio operators pay no user fees to the FCC (except for vanity license fees, which are entirely optional), so the share of the agency's attention we get this way is very small.  And, of course, amateur radio doesn't have a lot of lobbying power, either, which is the other factor that determines the amount of attention an agency spends on an issue.  As a result, amateur radio is typically a very small piece of the FCC's attention at any time.  The FCC is simply not going to spend a lot of effort (that is, money) on monitoring amateur radio operators for compliance, or dealing with issues that involve only the amateur radio service; it's not worth it to them.  At the same time, it's very important that amateurs avoid creating problems with the holders of more lucrative licenses; we don't want to set up a conflict between amateur radio operators and someone with a lot of financial and political power, because that's a conflict we have a very good chance of losing.  Basically speaking, amateur radio continues within the larger scheme of radio at sufferance; it's in our best interest not to create too much trouble.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A07, T1B07, T1C02, T1D04, T1D09, T1D10, and T1D12.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Certificate of Successful Completion of an Examination

I left this topic out of my previous post because it wold have lengthened it considerably and made it too dense for a single post that was already getting overly long and dense anyway.  The document that a VE team gives to someone who has successfully completed a licensing exam is called a Certificate of Successful Completion of an Examination, which is such a hideously long phrase that everyone simply calls them CSCEs.  There are an inordinately large number of rules and, more importantly (at least to the person seeking a license), exam questions related to these documents, which used to be much more important than they are today.  I would hazard to say that the amount of testing related to these documents more reflects their historical importance than their (much smaller) current importance.  The reduction of importance is the consequence of two things: the simplification of the licensing system (which I talk about more here) and the deployment of ULS (which I discuss to some degree here).

At the time the VE system was introduced, there were five levels of license and every license required the successful completion of at least two exam elements (at least one theory element and one Morse code element).  The CSCE is the answer to the situation in which one passes some, but not all, of the elements required to qualify for a given license.  Instead of having to retake all these elements, the partially-successful examinee is given a document, a "certificate of successful completion of an examination", that certifies that he or she successfully completed an examination.  This document is good for 365 days (note that that's 365 days, not one year; if a leap day intervenes the document is good for one year less one day) and, if presented at an exam session at a date not more than 365 days in the future, will result in the examinee being given credit for that previous successful pass without retaking the exam.  This meant that if you should flub the theory test but pass the code, test, or vice versa, your day (and testing fee) wasn't a complete waste; you cold go home, bone up on whatever you missed, and try again without having to go through the whole process from scratch.  The CSCE is issued to any examinee who passes any element, whether or not the examinee qualified for a new license or upgrade at that session.

CSCEs also served two other purposes (one of which still obtains).  First, a CSCE which attests the successful completion of all the elements required for an upgrade of an already-licensed amateur entitles the bearer to operate with the privileges of that new class for up 365 days (or until the FCC either issues an upgraded license or notifies the licensee that the upgrade is being declined for some reason).  Before ULS, this was a big deal: it could take a month or more for an upgrade to post to the FCC system and for the FCC to mail back confirmation of the upgrade.  Waiting months to use newly-earned privileges was deemed unacceptable.  However, upgrades post now in typically under a week, and so the window in which a newly upgraded ham has to use the upgrade-indicating call sign suffixes (/KT for a recently upgraded Technician, /AG for a recently upgraded General, and /AE for a recently upgraded Extra, required whenever one is using frequencies that are available to the operator by virtue of the upgrade and the upgrade has not yet been processed by the FCC) is now typically quite short. 

The other purpose that CSCEs used to serve was as evidence of the pseudo-upgrade from Technician to Technician Plus.  A CSCE for the 5 word per minute Morse code element (regardless of date; the CSCE could even predate the Technician license) combined with a Technician license entitled the holder to Novice privileges on HF.  This was the sole exception to the 365 day rule for CSCEs; such a CSCE was good for the life of the underlying license.  This is partially because the FCC didn't (at first) treat this as an upgrade and so no record of the completion would be sent to the FCC.  Fortunately, this all went away in 2007, when the Technician Plus license was folded back into the Technician license and Morse code competency testing became a thing of the past.

We still issue CSCEs for successful examinations, of course, and they still have the purpose of authorizing an upgraded licensee's newly-earned privileges during the short period it takes the FCC to process the upgrade.  And in the unlikely event that someone were to pass, say, Element 3 but fail Element 2, we can still issue a CSCE for just Element 3.  However, that's extremely unlikely to happen; VEs are discouraged from allowing examinees from taking elements out of order, mainly because it doesn't make a lot of sense.  One can only wonder if we'll be simplifying this process in the future, or if the NCVEC will be reducing the number of questions related to this process on the exams in the next round of revisions.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A05, G1D01, G1D03, G1D06, G1D08, and G1D09.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Volunteer Examiner System

Prior to 1982, examinations for amateur radio licenses were conducted by the FCC directly; candidates had to travel to an FCC office (which might not be that close) at times set by the FCC (which might not be that convenient) and take the test in front of an FCC examiner in a government office.  (In some cases it was possible to obtain an introductory license through a field examination, but such licenses were probationary, typically nonrenewable, and in some cases not upgradeable, meaning the licensee would have to retake the same test when they sought to upgrade.)  With the election of Ronald Reagan came cost-cutting measures throughout the entire federal government; one of these consequences was that the FCC was forced to  consider eliminating the amateur radio program because it could no longer afford to foot the bill for conducting examinations of amateur radio licensees.

Enter Senator Barry Goldwater.  Senator Goldwater (formerly K7UGA) had been an avid ham for years at this time, and was also a very influentual member of Congress.  He authored and pushed through the law that established the Volunteer Examination (VE) system for amateur radio licensing, in so doing sparing amateur radio from what would otherwise been almost certain death at the hands of Reagan's "pay-as-you-go" funding approach for federal agencies.  From the FCC's standpoint, the VE system took nearly all the expense of the testing system away from the FCC.  Exams would be conducted by volunteer teams organized and supervised by FCC-approved Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (VECs).  The examinations to be used would also be developed by the coordinators, subject to approval by the FCC.  The FCC's expense was reduced to the very minimal effort of supervising the VECs.  The Goldwater bill also extended the normal license term to ten years and made all licenses renewable (prior to that time, most licenses were for five year terms, and Novice licenses were nonrenewable), which also reduced FCC expense (the longer the term, the less paperwork the FCC has to process).  As an extra bonus, the testing process got a lot easier for most hams; now exams would be held at times and places that were convenient for the VE teams and the examinees, not at times that were consistent with govenrment business hours.  Our team holds ten regular sessions a year, on the first Friday of each month (except July and January) at 7:30pm, one additional session at the end of our annual training classes, and special sessions as the need arises.

Each volunteer examiner team consists of at least three Volunteer Examiners (VEs) each accredited by a Volunteer Examiner Coordinator (VEC).  To be a volunteer examiner, an individual must be a currently licensed amateur radio operator at least 18 years of age whose license has never been suspended or revoked.  An individual may be accredited by more than one VEC (many VEs are accredited by multiple VECs, although personally I'm only accredited with the ARRL/VEC), but all VEs at a given session must be accredited by the coordinator that is sponsoring that session.  There is no requirement that VEs be citizens, but non-citizen amateurs do have to hold a US-granted license; it's not enough to be permitted to operate as an alien amateur radio operator under a reciprocity agreement.

The VEs administering an exam must be of a license class greater than the license that the exam being administered would qualify the candidate for, except that an Extra VE may administer any element (since there is no license class greater than Extra).   In specific, the three examiners giving an exam for Element 2, the test which qualifies one for the Technician license, must all be of General class or higher.   Under the current system there is no class below Technician for which a new license can be earned, and so there is no point in having Technician VEs.  Before the elimination of the Novice license, it was possible to get the Novice license, and only the Novice license, at a VE session attended by only two Technician-class or higher VEs, but those days are behind us now.  Some (but not all) VECs will only accredit Extras; in any case, most VEs are Extras.

One of the really nice features of the VE system is that a VE team can hold a testing session at literally any place or time as long as there are three VEs available to be in the same place at the same time, all accredited by the same VEC (and not a "close relative" of the examinee, and, yes, the FCC has a precise definition of "close relative").  This means, for example, that we can administer a test in the home of someone who is unable to travel due to disability; this goes a long way toward making the hobby accessible to people with disabilities.  It also means that a session can be held at a convention or other event where interest is discovered, even on relatively short notice. 

While the questions and answers used on the exams are provided by the NCVEC, the final determination of the correctness of any examinee's answer rests with the VEs.  There was a question on the old Extra pool (removed in the 2008 revision) that had the same answer for both answers A and C in the question bank, with only A being considered correct, although obviously C is as well.  The VE team would be within its discretion to consider C correct as well.  In the event this discretion is abused (or for any other reason that the FCC finds reasonable), the FCC may order any licensee to be retested either by the FCC itself or by such VEs as the FCC may direct; failure to comply with such an order will result in the cancellation of the license. (This power has not often been used.)

The test to become a VE (at least as managed by the ARRL/VEC) is not very difficult, and it's not uncommon for Extras to decide to take this "next step" in the service to the hobby.  The club I'm a member of (the DuPage Amateur Radio Club) has a great supply of VEs, and we routinely have more VEs at our sessions than we do examinees.  However, I've heard that in other parts of the land, VEs can be hard to find.  For those of you who have reached the "pinnacle" of Extra, why not take the time to fill out a relatively simple form, answer a few questions, and earn your very own VE badge?  (You don't have to be a ARRL member, and the rules regulating VECs prohibit the fees collected by the ARRL/VEC from flowing back to the ARRL general fund, so if you should happen to not support the ARRL, understand that you aren't funding them by participating in the ARRL/VEC or by taking an ARRL/VEC coordinated exam.)

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A04, T1A06, T1D06, G1D07, G1D10, G1D11, G1D12, G1D13, E1E04, E1E05, E1E06, E1E07, E1E12, E1E17, and E1E20.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Incentive Licensing System

In the United States, at least, the amateur licensing system has always incorporated multiple classes of license.  A full history of the system is beyond the scope of what I want to write for this article.  For most of the last few decades the FCC's approach has been to use increased privileges as an "incentive" to upgrade, giving rise to the name "incentive licensing system".

Prior to April 15, 2000, there were six license classes that could be earned in the incentive licensing system.  These were Novice, Technician, Technician Plus, General, Advanced, and Extra.  It's not entirely possible to arrange these in terms of increasing privileges, because Novice and Technician (both considered "entry level" licenses) had different, incompatible privileges: Novices had limited HF privileges but relatively few VHF and UHF privileges, while Technicians had no HF privileges at all but full privileges above 50 MHz.  The Technician Plus license had exactly the combination of the Novice and Technician licenses and was earned either by upgrading from Novice or upgrading from Technician.  The General, Advanced, and Extra licenses all granted steadily increasing privileges.  The big step then, as now, was from the introductory licenses of Novice, Technician, and Technician Plus to the broader General license, which gave access to almost all of HF; the only operating privileges gained with the Advanced and Extra licenses were access to small slivers of reserved spectrum in certain HF bands.  (There are other privileges gained by virtue of holding Advanced or Extra licenses, but those relate mainly to reciprocal operation, the Volunteer Examiner system, and access to shorter call signs, all topics that I will cover in later posts.)

In 2000, the FCC semi-eliminated the Novice and Advanced licenses.  Existing holders of these licenses would retain their licenses and the privileges associated therewith, but no new licenses would be granted in these classes.  That reduced the number of license classes that one could obtain to three (or four if you count the "Technician Plus" license endorsement).  The 2000 revision also eliminated all Morse code tests other than the 5 word per minute test, which remained required for all licenses except Technician. 

Subsequently, in 2007, the FCC eliminated the Morse Code requirement from the licensing system.  This effectively upgraded all Technicians to the "Technician Plus" license (thereby granting all Technicians at least limited access to HF) and finally made the license privilege grants strictly increasing with increasing license class.  As a result, there are only three licenses that one can earn at this time: the entry-level Technician license (with full VHF+ privileges, and very limited HF privileges), the mainline General license (with the same VHF+ privileges as Technicians and a wide variety of HF privileges excluding only a few slivers of spectrum in four of the contesting bands), and the "elite" Amateur Extra license (with the widest range of privileges available to any amateur).

The historical status of the Novice license still shows up in a few other places; there are a few privileges that are granted to all amateurs holding a "Technician-class or higher" license, which seems strange in the current context but is necessary because there's still some 10,000 Novice licensees hanging around.  The main privileges granted to Technicians but withheld from Novices, other than full and unrestricted use of the VHF and higher bands, are the privileges of operating the various "special operation" stations (auxiliary, beacon, and repeater).  Novices are permitted to operate stations in the amateur satellite service (space, ground, or telecommand), but the very limited VHF privileges of Novices make it difficult to actually do this.  For example, a Novice would not be able to communicate with the ISS using amateur radio (under his own privileges) because a Novice has no privileges on 2 meters or 70 centimeters.  (By the way, this is something I learned writing this post.  I learned, while studying for my exams, that one had to be at least a Technician to work ISS, but didn't learn the reason at the time.  I had mistakenly thought that Novices couldn't operate stations in the amateur satellite service.  That would be wrong; I had the right answer but for the wrong reason.  Novices may indeed operate stations in the amateur satellite services, but are very limited in doing so by their really rather limited frequency privileges.)

There has been a great deal of criticism of the FCC's approach to licensing.  For example, Technicians are authorized 1500 watts on just about all amateur bands above 50 MHz, including the microwave bands, and so a Technician could legally build a "catcooker" by constructing a 1500 watt microwave transmitter.  While this is true, it doesn't appear to be a serious problem; there is not a rash of cats being inadvertently cooked by newly-minted amateur licensees running around with ill-considered microwave transmitters.  Another common complaint is that the step from General to Extra is much larger than the step from Technician to General, but the privileges gained from Technician to General are much larger than the gain from General to Extra.  This is true.  There's not much of an response to be had to this, either; unless you're a contester, the Extra license doesn't give you a whole lot beyond the General.  Still, enough people go for the Extra (myself included), so there must be something to it.

Many countries restrict power levels, modes of operation, and choice of equipment for introductory licensees.  For example, Basic licensees in Canada are limited to (in general) one-quarter the power of Advanced licensees, and in both the UK and Australia Foundation licensees are restricted to using transmitters that have been commercially manufactured (as opposed to homebrewed).  While similar proposals have been made from time to time in the United States, none of them has caught root.  This is, perhaps, a consequence of the Technician license having been originally intended for experimenters who would have been expected to build their own equipment. 

I'm personally not that thrilled with the incentive licensing system as it stands now, but at the same time I've yet to see a proposal to replace it with anything that would be better.  There's not enough evidence that it's currently broken, so I supose it's not really worth fixing.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A03, T2C03, and T7B04.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Why do we have amateur radio?

The reasons why people become hams are myriad, and a full understanding of that is probably beyond the scope of this post; if you want to read more on this, perhaps see this older post of mine. But that's not what I'm going to talk about here. Rather, I'm going to talk about why the government continues to let us play with radios, when countless other entities are continuously clamoring for more spectrum.

The FCC recognizes five purposes to the amateur radio service (and the NCVEC expects you to know at least three of them for the Technician test):

  1. Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.
  2. Continuation and extension of the amateur's proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.
  3. Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communications and technical phases of the art.
  4. Expansion of the existing reservoir within the amateur radio service of trained operators, technicians, and electronics experts.
  5. Continuation and extension of the amateur's unique ability to enhance international goodwill.
It's occasionally difficult to explain how the routine activities of most hams fit into any of these five categories. VHF repeater ragchewing, for example, doesn't seem to fit well into any of these; at best it's got something to with the reservoir of trained operators, but if you've ever listened to a group of VHF ragchewers, you'd be hard-pressed to consider them "trained operators". And one thing amateur radio is absolutely not intended to be is a routine substitute for cell phones or email or any other such service. Amateur radio services are not intended to be used for passing messages for the general public, except when no other alternatives are available; this is why ARES and other emergency communications groups often use the motto "When all else fails..."

Far too often hams seem to forget that their license is granted to them by the government on the condition that they use it, at least some of the time, in the furtherance of these purposes; at the very least, we should not act contrary to these purposes in our amateur radio activities. If for no other reason than that if we don't at least make an effort to reflect the government's interests in amateur radio, it'll get harder and harder to justify our special privileges with them.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A02 and T1A08.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How long does it take to get an amateur radio license?

This question is one that we get asked quite frequently at VE sessions, typically by people who've just successfully completed their examination for Element 2, thereby earning their first amateur radio license.  (And actually in those cases it's "How long before I get my license", but anyway.)  Most of them are pleasantly surprised to find out that the answer (for us, at least) is "typically about five or six days".  We're an ARRL/VEC VE team, so we submit our results back to Newington by priority mail, which tends to result in them hitting the FCC database (ULS) about three business days later, and as we test on Friday evening that usually means the resulting licenses clear ULS on Wednesday or Thursday.  Some VE teams, notably Laurel VEC, submit results electronically, which results in new licenses making it onto ULS sometimes within 24 hours.  How's that for instant gratification?

Of course, this question comes up because (as anyone who has recently studied for the Technician license knows), one is not permitted to go on the air until one's license actually appears in the "ULS consolidated licensee database" (unless one qualifies for a reciprocal operating grant as an alien); until this happens, one is not technically an "amateur radio operator".  However, it's rare indeed that the study guides that most people use to prepare for the exams tell them how long it takes for this to happen. 

This is another area where US hams have it good.  Very few countries have turnaround this quick; more typical waits range from a week or so (most of Europe) to months or even years.  I know a guy in India who tested nine months ago who has yet to receive his license; he didn't even find out that he passed until two months after the test.  We tell you if you passed or not immediately (the FCC regs on the VE program mandate this). 

I haven't talked about how long it takes to learn what you need to know to get the license.  That's because that's really a function of the student.  Some people can learn this stuff in a few hours; others will take a bit longer.  There's a group that's been doing one-day classes for years with a pretty high success rate.  I personally spent about a month in preparation for the tests, but I took all three elements at one time and I'd say that most of my study time was spent on the material for the (much harder) Element 4 test for the Extra license.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A01, T1C01, and T1D05.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Do I have to coordinate my repeater?

The title of this post was a search that hit my blog recently.  Now, in order to discuss the topic, I'm going to make a couple of assumptions: first, that the individual in question is interested in American practice (since the IP address in question geolocates to Alabama, I'd say that's a safe bet), and that the repeater in question is an amateur repeater, rather than a commercial one.  (I'll touch on the situations in the commercial services, and in other countries, at the end of the post).

My immediate reaction to the question is, of course, "If you don't know the answer to that question, you shouldn't be running a repeater."  That is, I suppose, a bit harsh of me.  Part 97 is pretty unclear about coordination.  Frequency coordinators are only mentioned twice in Part 97, once in the definitions, in §97.3(a)(22), and once in §97.205, which specifies the special rules that apply to the operation of repeaters.  All §205(c) says is that if one repeater interferes with another repeater, the operators of both stations are primarily and equally responsible for resolving the interference, unless one of them is coordinated and the other is not, in which case the uncoordinated station's operator is primarily responsible for resolving the interference.  That doesn't equate to mandating coordination.  In fact, Part 97 nowhere mandates coordination, and so that's the answer to the question: assuming you're in the United States and you're talking about an amateur radio repeater, you do not have to coordinate your repeater.  Unless you're in an area with lots of repeaters, there's a good chance that not coordinating your repeater will turn out to be no big deal; just pick a frequency nobody is using for anything at the moment and have fun.

Of course, if there are a lot of repeaters in your area there might not be any frequencies that nobody is using.  And even if there aren't, if the local repeater coordinator council is run by a bunch of annoying busybodies (as many of them are), they might arrange for your uncoordinated repeater to "interfere" with a coordinated repeater just to teach you a lesson.  People are, after all, people, and politics are often at their worst when the stakes are the lowest.  Not coordinating a repeater that's intended to serve a large area or large number of amateurs is probably not a good idea, for a lot of different reasons.  But if you're just putting up a small repeater to cover you and a few guys down the street, it's probably not worth the hassle.  And many coordination bodies have gotten way too big for their britches; I think some of them miss the days when coordination was mandatory.

Of course, repeatars in the commercial services have to be coordinated, but then again virtually all uses of commercial frequencies have to be preapproved by a frequency coordinator of some sort.  And the "permissive coordination" practice that US amateurs enjoy is pretty unusual; most other countries have some form of mandatory coordination, either through their regulatory agency directly or through a coordinating body assigned by the regulator.  American hams really have it pretty easy, in comparison.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wiktionary and the USPTO

A few months back (my web reading backlog is ginormous, really) I ran across a mention that the USPTO had denied a trademark application for a Twitter-related trademark on the basis that "tweet" is "merely-descriptive" on the basis of a Wiktionary entry defining "tweet".  Twitter's own application for "tweet" was (as of July) still outstanding.  Now, wouldn't it be funny if one of Twitter's own marketers was behind the editing of that Wiktionary article?

Of course, brand creators always walk a fine line in trademark, lest their descriptive term become "generic".  I still think it's very touchy for the USPTO to be using Wiktionary as evidence of "mere descriptiveness", however, especially since Wiktionary is just as much at risk to being edited by anyone at all as Wikipedia is, a situation which has led to Wikipedia being essentially banned from the federal courts.  Not to menion the New Jersey court that held that Wikipedia's volatile nature means it doesn't meet the evidentiary standard for judicially noticable facts.  I don't see how the trademark examination process is so distinguishable that these precedents should not apply there as well.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Guardian gets it half right

A recent article in the Guardian, reacting to the news that the English Wikipedia is about to hit 3 million articles, and the news that Wikipedia's growth appears to have fallen out of the logistic phase, made the mistake of, for all intents and purposes, listening to Aaron Swartz.  The first part of their piece, covering the statistical findings from PARC regarding Wikipedia's growth dropoff and increasingly hostile environment for casual editors, is all spot on, but the second part, in which they blather on about inclusionism and deletionism being a "significant battle" in Wikipedia, is significantly misinformed.  I suppose that's what they get for talking to Aaron, who has never been a significant player in Wikipedia's community.  I suppose they picked him as their "random Wikipedian" because he's something of a internet celebrity for reasons entirely unrelated to Wikipedia, and because he's got an ego larger than Montana.

The "struggle" between "inclusionists" and "deletionists" pales to irrelevance in comparison to the more serious struggles among all the pitched camps of ideologues in Wikipedia. Both "inclusionist" and "deletionist" are reasonable philosophical attitudes that one can take toward the activity of editing an encyclopedia. However, the ideologues do not fall reliably into either category, because they each individually favor including only that content that furthers their respective personal agendas, and favor deleting content that opposes those agendas.  The friction in Wikipedia's community comes largely from these ideological battles (which can be on nearly any topic, although perennial ones are the Middle East, animal rights, and Northern Ireland), not from any dispute over philosophical attitudes related to encyclopedic worth.  Wikipedia has never developed any meaningful way to resolve content disputes, so these matters usually end up being settled with one side goading the other into breaking enough of Wikipedia's polymorphic conduct rules badly enough to get themselves banned.

Unfortunately, there's no good statistics on how biased Wikipedia content is.  It's not easy to measure bias.  It's not even easy to define bias in any objective way.  At least the inclusionist/deletionist axis is simple to define and one can identify individual Wikipedians on that axis by examining their deletion votes (which, while tedious to do, presents no serious evaluatory challenge).  Given that, I suppose it's excusable that the Guardian fell for it when Aaron told them that this was actually an important division within Wikipedia and that the current factionalism of its community (which is very real) is somehow derived from that.  To be honest, Wikipedia would be a much better place if the inclusion question represented the most serious division within its community.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How The ITU Screwed Over Fiji and Swaziland

In the past I've written a bit about how amateur radio call signs (and call signs generally) are formed. Basically speaking, the ITU has allocated various prefixes to various nations, with some nations getting a lot (e.g. the US, which has all of W, N, and K, and AA through AL), and others just a few (such as Tonga, which just gets A3).

But there's two countries who really get the short end of the stick on this issue: Fiji and Swaziland, who have to share the 3D prefix between them. Technically, Swaziland has 3DA through 3DM and Fiji has 3DN through 3DZ. However, amateur radio call sign prefixes, according to the ITU's own standards, are at most two characters; a call sign that begins "3DA" is not compliant with § 30 of the ITU's standards. This puts Fiji and Swaziland into the difficult position of being unable to issue conformant callsigns to amateurs within their jurisdiction.

In practice, Fiji issues call signs with the prefix 3D2, while Swaziland has issued call signs prefixed 3D6 and (nonconformantly) 3DA0. Neither country has very many hams, but both are occasionally the target of DXpeditions, especially Fiji (due to being an island).

Still, it amuses me that Fiji and Swaziland have to share a prefix, while both the ICAO and the World Meterological Organization get whole prefixes to themselves (4Y and C7, respectively) despite not even being countries. I suppose they must have been late to acceed to the ITU treaty or something, to be singled out for such inauspicious treatment.

Are crowds really all that wise?

So I've been thinking a bit about why Wikipedia actually seems less trustworthy on so many issues than just picking random websites with a Google Search. And last night, it came to me, while arguing with someone on IRC over why I don't trust Wikipedia for most topics.

Most websites put up by most people are put up by people who are trying to tell you the truth, at least as they believe it to be. That is, they're not deliberately trying to lie to you. Now, there are some sites that are actual hoaxes, but not many, and they're often obvious, but not always. And of course there are sites that are put up by honestly misguided fools, but these are also often obvious, but not always. And there are outright propaganda sites that are deliberately lying to you (to some extent or another), and these too are often obvious, but not always.

Wikipedia's content, like the rest of the web, is no different in general character: most of its content is contributed by people who believe it to be true (although quite often they're wrong), but mixed in with that is some quantity of deliberately false information, mainly hoaxes and propaganda. It's my argument that Wikipedia is a magnet for hoaxes and propaganda, and thus that Wikipedia quite likely contains more hoax and propaganda content than the Web on average, and that Wikipedia's format makes it harder to spot hoax and propaganda content.

Suppose, for a moment, that you're someone interested in spreading hoax or propaganda content on the web. Now, you could just create a website and put your content on it. But that approach isn't going to be all that effective by itself: nobody is going to have much of an incentive to go to your website. Now, you could launch your site and then run an aggressive marketing campaign to try to draw people to your site, but even then you have the problem that your hoax or propaganda content is going to be in a context that isn't necessarily going to convince people to believe it. You might get lots of visitors (which, if you're just after pageviews, may be all you want), but you aren't likely to get many believers.

A more effective way to convince people to fall for your hoax or propaganda is to try to insert it into Wikipedia. People are already going to Wikipedia, so you don't have to drive traffic there, so no marketing campaign required. And people are inclined to believe Wikipedia because it presents itself as an encyclopedia, and people (stupidly) assume that that means some reasonable effort to maintain accuracy is made. Of course, you have to keep Wikipedia's content police from removing your hoax or propaganda, but experience has shown that this actually isn't that hard to do, especially if you can find some difficult-to-check citations to back up your claims (few Wikipedians will bother to check off-web or pay-for-view citations, for example). Unless the place where you choose to insert your hoax or propaganda material is already being closely watched by a powerful Wikipedian, odds are your content will stand for quite some time. And if you take the time to inveigle yourself into Wikipedia's "community" first (which isn't really all that hard), it might last even longer.

The difference between a random site on the Internet, and Wikipedia, however, is that for content on a random site you can evaluate that content in the context of the rest of the site; that may tend to give you an idea as to whether you can trust the author(s) of that site for reliability. Wikipedia makes this harder to do, because articles may have dozens of authors and examining each of the contributions of an individual author can be extremely timeconsuming and tedious. Most people coming across a website asserting something vaguely incredible where there was just the one page on that site and no other context in which to evaluate it, would probably reject the assertion. But come across the same assertion on Wikipedia, and most people are going to be more willing to accept it, even if that assertion is that author's only contribution to WIkipedia, because of Wikipedia's "cachet" as an encyclopedia and because of the difficulty in evaluating the trustworthiness of individual article authors in Wikipedia's context.

So, it seems to me that if your motivation for publishing on the Internet is to change people's minds on some issue, there's a real incentive for you to do so by trying to edit your viewpoint into Wikipedia instead of publishing on your own site. I'm sure I'm not the only person to think of this, and so we must assume that this is actively going on at Wikipedia, and that therefore Wikipedia content is at least as likely to contain hoaxes and propaganda as the rest of the Internet. If anything, Wikipedia should contain more such content, because it is an "attractive nuisance" in that regard: the relative ease of inserting such content into Wikipedia and getting it to stick relative to creating one's own website makes the Wikipedia option more practical, and so Wikipedia should actually be less reliable than the Internet as a whole.

Wikipedia is a great source for popular culture trivia, but it falls down on topics that involve any degree of controversy (because of the ease of using the platform for advocacy) or that require advance knowledge to effectively evaluate (because Wikipedia's content police, who are generally mostly ignorant of most issues, cannot evaluate the merits of individual contributions). Combine that with the attractive nuisance aspect for hoaxers, propagandists, and revenge-seekers, and it's no small wonder that the discerning choice when searching for information on the Internet is "-site:wikipedia.org".

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Unlimited" means "limited" at Skype

Some of the local hams have been talking about Skype a lot lately, presumably because someone introduced it to them and it is kinda neat at first and it is free in its basic incarnation. Now I used to use Skype because of a few Wikipedia-related things that made use of it, but I haven't for quite a while now.

On their front page Skype is advertising, in big letters, that you get "unlimited" calls to cell phones, mobiles, and land lines with its subscription service. But the careful reader that I am notices that there's a suspicious looking asterisk on "unlimited" and notes that there's a Marketing Qualification on that "unlimited": a "fair use policy" applies to your "unlimited use", and in fact you're only allowed 10,000 minutes a month, six hours a day, and not more than 50 distinct numbers a day.

To be fair, there are only about 40,000 minutes in a month, so in order to exceed this "fair use policy" you'd have to be on the phone six hours a day, every day, but still, that's a limit. "Unlimited" means "no limits", not "a high limit that you're unlikely to reach".

What Skype doesn't say explicitly, but is clearly intending to do, is prohibit the use of their service for commercial purposes, more specifically for telemarketing. Which is reasonable. I'm just peeved at the idea that "unlimited" has defined, fixed limits.

Still, it beats Comcast's notion of "unlimited", which is "unlimited unless we decide you're using too much according to no defined standard, in which case we'll suspend your account without warning". At least Skype sets forth a standard and tells you the consequences for exceeding them up front.