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.