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.