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.