Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The No-Broadcasting Rule in Ham Radio

An odd fellow I ran into on Twitter has been digging into the history of the prohibition on broadcasting in the amateur radio service. He recently asked me (for no reason that I can fully understand) whether there is much debate on the merits of this rule today. According to at least one site, hams were originally allowed to broadcast, way back in the early early days, but that privilege was taken away from them in the 1920s when commercial broadcasting came onto the scene.

I've talked to a few hams who think that the rules for microbroadcasting are overly restrictive (and I am inclined to agree with them), but these are people who happen to be both hams and potential microbroadcasters. The thing is, today, the technology of broadcasting is pretty much solved, something that wasn't true in 1912. Sure, there are new modulations being developed (digital is all the craze today), but those modulations can be developed, whether commercially or by hams, without being used initially for broadcasting to the general public; the exact same techniques one uses to put a signal on the air to transmit a directed two-way communication can then be turned around (once mature) and used to broadcast one-way communications to the general public. And once a technology is mature, it is no longer very much the scope of the amateur radio service. Ham radio is supposed to be on the cutting edge of technology, not running in the middle of the pack. Any cutting-edge radio technology is not going to reach the general public because the general public won't have receivers capable of picking up the signal anyway.

Fundamentally, broadcasting isn't about radio; what matters to the broadcaster is putting the content they create (or assemble) in front of a consuming public. Radio is just one of the mechanisms that can be used for this. Ham radio isn't about content. Most of the communications we send in ham radio are unimaginative, prosaic, even formulaic. About the only time the content matters is when we're sending emergency traffic. Ham radio is about the mechanism.

Hams do have a limited right to broadcast. We run beacons to explore propogation. Right now there's a growing community of hams experimenting with WSPR beacons to see how far even quite weak signals can be sent and still be recovered with content intact. This is, technically, a form of broadcasting, but it's permitted because it is being done to advance the science and technology of radio communication. Nothing about a guy sitting in front of a microphone jabbering on about politics to anyone who would care to listen, or playing prerecorded music for anyone who cares to hear, advances the science and technology of radio communication. No offense to anyone who wants to be a broadcaster; I'm sure it's a ton of fun and all that, but it's simply not what ham radio is about.

Now, maybe my sense of what ham radio is about is colored by the fact that hams (in the US, at least) have been forbidden from broadcasting for nearly 90 years. It's virtually a certainty that the hobby would be different if we still counted amateur broadcasters amongst our ranks. I'm almost certain that it would be for the worse, however. I'm all for broader privileges for microbroadcasters, but I don't think we would benefit by sacrificing the amateur radio service for their benefit; the two serve totally different purposes, and keeping them segregated is almost certainly for the best.