Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Closed repeaters: to ban or not to ban

This morning (well, by now yesterday morning), while cruising the Internet (as I am wont to do in the mornings), I noticed a link to a site called the Rain Report at which, according to Bob, had something about a petition to outlaw "closed repeaters". Getting there I didn't find a whole lot of detail except for an audio file which I was not about to take the time to listen to, and a call sign: K3BEQ, who turns out to be Murray Green. A bit more digging found not the current petition, but instead an older petition from K3BEQ on a completely unrelated topic (extending the time between required identifications to thirty minutes, which was denied by the FCC) as well as a much older proposal by WB4RTP which does have something to do with closed repeaters, and an current online petition also seeking a change in the regulations related to closed repeaters.

None of the sites I found, though, detailed Mr. Green's specific proposal, nor could I find it at the FCC or at the GPO site. Fortunately, I lucked out and found an old ARRL news article that gave Mr. Green's email address. A quick email to him and he was gracious enough to send me a copy of his petition. Calling it a "ban on closed repeaters" is perhaps a bit overstating it, but let's set some background first.

I've written a bit on this before, arguing (somewhat in passing) that closed repeaters should be refused coordination. A "closed repeater" is a repeater, set up by some group, the use of which is only available to members of that group (and invited guests), and not available for the general use of any amateur. This may be enforced by the use of selective calling methods (such as CTCSS or MDC) or merely be a matter of custom enforced by social controls, and when necessary legal threats. The principle behind this is that the repeater is the property of its owner, and its owner has the legal right to control who can use it and how, pretty much without limitation.

Most repeaters are available for the use of any amateur; if there is a CTCSS tone in use (as there often is to mitigate interference and reduce inadvertent retransmissions), it is published and widely known, and any amateur with the technical ability to transmit on the repeater's input is welcome to use the repeater as long as they do so "in accordance with good engineering and good amateur practice". However, nonsubscribing amateurs are typically not permitted to use a closed repeater, and may face the risk of civil lawsuits, criminal prosecution, and suspension or termination of their licenses, if they should use a closed repeater without permission. Closed repeaters are relatively rare in most parts of the country, but in some of the more densely populated areas (Southern California and the Potomac River Valley are two that come to mind) there are quite a lot of them; so many, in fact, that it may not be possible to get a coordinated frequency pair for a new repeater in any of the commonly used repeater bands. There's a few of them here in the Chicago area.

Mr. Green clearly believes that the situation has gone too far. (It should be noted that he lives in the Potomac River Valley, one of the most ham-dense areas of the country.) His petition asks the FCC to amend the regulations to remove the language in §205(e) to remove the language that explicitly permits a repeater operator to restrict access to the repeater and replace it with language that would prohibit anyone from "limiting the use of frequencies used by repeaters". His main argument is that the current rule is inconsistent with §101(b) (which states that no frequency will be assigned to the exclusive use of any station), and that it also results in poor utilization of amateur radio frequencies. In further support of his position, he argues that closed repeaters are intimidating to newly licensed amateurs, and may create a negative atmosphere within the community and harm the public perception of amateur radio. Unfortunately for his proposal, he provides no evidence in support of any of these claims.

Now, I'm a bit sympathetic to K3BEQ's position here, but I think there's no chance of the FCC adopting this proposal as it stands. While Murray does at least set forth an argument why the current regime creates harm, he provides no evidence of that harm, and my experience is that the FCC will generally not act on the assertion of harm without evidence to back it up. Also, he doesn't provide any clear explanation how his proposed change mitigates that harm. In addition, the language of his proposed replacement for the final sentence of §205(e), "Because repeaters and their coordinated frequencies are inseparable, and to make more effective use of amateur radio service repeater frequencies, limiting the use of frequencies used by repeaters, directly or indirectly is prohibited, except where a user blatantly violates the Commission Rules," goes much further than required to remedy the alleged harm. And, finally, there's the problem of the claim that "repeaters and their coordinated frequencies are inseparable", which is neither supported by evidence nor in fact even true.

If I were to contemplate sending a petition to the FCC on this issue, here's how I'd go about it. First, I'd get the coordination rosters for some of the more densely populated areas, such as southern California, DC metro, New York, Boston. Using those rosters, document that most or all of the available frequencies for repeaters within the repeater plans in use in those areas are currently allocated, breaking down what percentage of those allocations are to closed repeaters. Also document, by affadavit if by no other means, that many of these repeaters are silent most of the time (many of them in reality are barely more than "talking clocks"). Document, if possible, how long it takes for a new coordinated pair to become available in one of these regions. This would demonstrate a particular harm that the current system is creating, that being frequency exhaustion (a problem the FCC completely understands, since it is struggling with it constantly in the other services it regulates). Finally, document (by anecdote if by no other means) how closed repeaters conflict with the mission of the amateur radio service as set forth in §1; I know of at least one incident where a closed repeater's configuration prevented, at least for a time, the effective provision of public service communications (during a severe weather event) because of the technical measures used to restrict access to the repeater.

If the evidence thus collected does in fact show (as I expect it would) that closed repeaters are strangling frequency plans in at least some areas, preventing willing amateurs from setting up new open repeaters, and hampering the provision of public service and emergency communications, then the next step is to come up with a solution that would tend to mitigate these problems. The problem with K3BEQ's solution is that it doesn't reduce the number of "talking clock" machines taking up spectrum without actually utilizing it; it just means these people can't complain to the FCC when people use their machines (which would be a plus to the FCC, to be certain). If the data does tend to suggest that closed repeaters are more likely to be underutilized, then an argument could be made for altering the rules to prohibit a repeater station from enjoying the protection from interference granted by §205(c) unless that repeater is operated so that it is available for the use of any amateur whose is himself not violating the Commission's rules. That would then give frequency coordinators a reason to be less generous in coordinating, or to deny coordination entirely, to closed repeaters. You could still run one, but you'd be running barefoot.

Of course, another option is to petition one's local coordinating body to alter its rules so as to not coordinate closed repeaters, or to give preference to open repeaters over closed repeaters when granting coordinations (so that, e.g. a closed repeater might lose its coordination if an open repeater comes along and no other frequencies are available). However, most repeater coordinating bodies are going to be unlikely to agree to such a change, because the voting membership of these bodies is the operators of coordinated repeaters, including closed repeaters. In an area where closed repeaters dominate, such a proposal would be unlikely to gain a majority, for obvious reasons. Getting action from the FCC, as difficult and unlikely as that is, is probably easier than convincing some of the old boy clubs that are coordinating councils to change their minds on this issue.

The FCC denies virtually all petitions for rulemaking that come from amateurs, and I don't expect this one will be any different. It's still a pretty important issue, and I think one that is ripe for some attention, especially with the spectrum audit that is currently underway. We've got a large chunk of spectrum in 70 centimeters especially and there's plenty of people who'd love to grab a hunk of it.