Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thinking regionally

I mentioned the ITU briefly in my last post; I'll talk a bit more about this nebulous entity here.  The International Telecommunication Union, or ITU, is a multinational treaty organization established by a multilateral treaty that has been acceded to by almost all of the world's nations; the United States is one of the charter members.  The ITU makes rules for radio operation (and especially frequency allocation) that all member nations agree to respect.  As radio signals have a bad habit of refusing to stop at national boundaries, this is pretty much necessary, especially with respect to the world-reaching HF bands, in which a station in South America can easily interfere with a station in Russia. 

For the purpose of aiding frequency management, the ITU has divided the world into three regions, named (unsurprisingly enough) Region 1, Region 2, and Region 3 (see map). Roughly speaking, Region 1 is Europe and Africa, Region 2 is North and South America, and Region 3 is Asia (excluding Asiatic Russia) and Oceania.  The allocation of frequencies to the various services that a treaty member may make varies by region, mainly due to historical reasons but also due to different technological paths that were taken in different parts of the world.  A full discussion of the details of the differences would be quite long; fortunately, hams don't need to know most of it.

The main situation in which differences in ITU region allocation has an impact on US hams is in 40 meters; the Region 2 allocation for the 40 meter amateur band is 7.000 to 7.300 MHz, while in Region 1 it's only 7.000 to 7.200 MHz and in Region 3 it's only 7.000 to 7.100 MHz.  To make matters worse, many of the frequencies that are not allocated to hams in these regions are allocated to broadcasters.  Since 40 meters is a worldwide band (much of the time), this creates a good deal of opportunity for interference.  In addition, the subbands reserved for CW and data in each region are different, and until recently it was actually legally impossible for a US ham in Region 2 to have a phone QSO with a Region 1 ham on the same frequency (as the US phone subband doesn't start until 7.125 MHz, which was above the entire Region 1 40 meter amateur allocation).  US hams wishing to work Australia, and until recently Europe, on 40 meters phone have to resort to "split operation", in which one station transmits on one frequency authorized to his use (but not to the use of the station he is calling), and the other station then responds on a different frequency that is within his authorization.  The frequency pair to be used would either be agreed on by prior arrangement, or indicated in the initial call by specifying "split" and the frequency on which a response was expected (or sometimes by using "up" or "down" and the difference between the transmit and receive frequencies).

The astute reader will notice that just about all of the United States is in Region 2 (a tiny bit of US territory—Guam, American Samoa, and the Marianas—is in Region 3).  However, §97.301 shows separate listings not only for Regions 2 and 3, but also for Region 1, even though no part of the United States is in Region 1.  Why is this?  Because of the "ship at sea" provision: FCC regulations apply to any person who wishes to operate as an amateur onboard a US-flagged ship while that ship is in international waters, no matter where in the world that might be.  So if you're ever on a transatlantic cruise, and you've taken your ham radio along (and gotten permission from the ship's captain to operate, which actually isn't that hard to get), you'd better keep track of where the ship is; when it crosses over that line you may have to change your operating frequencies.  (Of course, you have to keep track of where you area anyway, bceause once you enter the national waters of another country you become subject to that nation's rules.) 

This post has been brought to you by pool question T1B02.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Please do not interfere, we're busy here!

Interference is a frequent problem in all radio services, and the amateur service is no exception.  Interference is anything (natural phenomena, other signals, whatever) that hampers or prevents the successful receipt of a radio communication by its recipient other than the simple lack of a signal path between the transmitter and the receiver.  Hams distinguish between natural sources of interference (often called "atmospherics" or "QRN"), which are typically caused by things like lightning storms or coronal mass ejections hitting the magnetosphere, and artificial sources of interference (or "QRM"), which may be the result of other people's attempts at transmissions, deliberate jamming, or noise produced by noncommunicative uses of RF energy (like microwave ovens, computers, and hybrid cars). 

The exact definition of interference can be found in 47 CFR §2.1(c): "The effect of unwanted energy due to one or a combination of emissions, radiations, or inductions upon reception in a radiocommunication system, manifested by any performance degradation, misinterpretation, or loss of information which could be extracted in the absence of such unwanted energy."  As this regulation is taken directly from the ITU's Radio Regulations, this definition is effectively universal across the world.  The International Telecommunication Union, or ITU, is the international treaty organization that regulates radio worldwide; the United States is a member nation of the ITU, as are virtually all other countries in the world.  (An important side note here: while the regulations that apply to amateur radio specifically appear in Part 97, hams are also required to comply with the general regulations that appear in Parts 1 and 2, and reference to these parts sometimes clarifies matters that are left unclear by Part 97 standing alone.  Some familiarity with these parts, as well as with Part 97, is therefore a good idea for the conscientious ham.)

I'm writing this series of posts at least in part as an effort to discuss the questions on the various exams.  And in this one I've come to a question that I disagree with the NCVEC about.  The question in this case is T1A10, which I here quote in full:
What is a transmission called that disturbs other communications?
A. Interrupted CW
B. Harmful interference
C. Transponder signals
D. Unidentified transmissions
The NCVEC considers the correct answer to be "B", "harmful interference".  However, the FCC explicitly defines "harmful interference" (in §97.3(23)) as "Interference which endangers the functioning of a radionavigation service or of other safety services or seriously degrades, obstructs or repeatedly interrupts a radiocommunication service operating in accordance with the Radio Regulations."  (This same definition is found in §2.1(c) and also derives from the ITU Radio Regulations.) The FCC's definition requires more than just a simple "disturbance" of communications for a transmission to be "harmful".  In this case, "B" is the "most correct" answer, but it is not a correct answer, simply because not all transmissions that disturb other communications will qualify as "harmful interference", merely as "interference".

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A10 and T1B01.

Monday, October 26, 2009

If it's a "station", how come it can move?

An amateur radio station is defined (by regulation) as "the apparatus necessary for carrying on radiocommunications".  In other words, the station is the radio (transmitter and, as appropriate, receiver), feedline, antenna, and presumably also power supplies and other mechanical appurtenances required to enable all that to work together for the purpose of communications via radio.  The station does not include the operator, and stations are technically licensed separately from operators, although this is very much not obvious anymore. 

Despite the name, "station", nothing about this definition of a station requires that the station be stationary, at least in the amateur service.  Older hams will remember the "mode" suffixes of "mobile" (/M), "portable" (/P), "maritime mobile" (/MM), and "aeronautical mobile" (/AM), which used to be required whenever an amateur was operating a station that was not at that amateur's primary station location.  The FCC no longer restricts amateurs to a single primary station (we're allowed to have as many primary stations as we want now without obtaining additional license grants, which is why amateurs are now restricted to one and only one amateur radio license per person), and no longer requires the modal suffixes, but it doesn't hurt to know what these mean because they are still commonly used (and occasionally misused), and furthermore they are sometimes still required when operating outside the United States on a reciprocal treaty grant. 

"Mobile" is defined as "operating a station which is capable of being operated while in motion".  Therefore, one is "mobile" when operating a station installed in a car, motorcycle, or bicycle.  It also applies when using a handheld transceiver (since you can operate a handheld while wilking), although many people incorrectly use "portable" for this.  There are two special sub-cases of mobile: operating while on a boat is "maritime mobile", and operating from an aircraft is "aeronautical mobile"; in both of these sub-cases permission of the master of the boat or the pilot in command of the aircraft is required, and your station must be independent of the craft's own radio equipment (except that you may share an antenna with a boat's radio systems, but not an aircraft's).  (Additional conditions apply; see §97.11.)

"Portable" is defined as "operating a station which has been temporarily installed in some location other than the licensee's primary station location".  Since amateur licensees no longer have a defined primary station location, the "portable" designation no longer makes sense, and so some people have (as I note above) co-opted it for the case of operating a handheld.  An example of "portable" operation would be a transmitter running off a battery into a longwire temporarily thrown up into a couple trees at a public park. 

There's several other modes of operation (the so-called "special operations" that are set out in Subpart C of the regulations), but I'll save those for a subsequent post. 

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A09, T2C02, and T2D07.

Amateur Radio and the FCC

The need for at least some top-down regulation of radio, and of amateur radio specifically, should be somewhat obvious.  Radio spectrum is limited, of course, and it's very difficult if not impossible for two stations to share the same frequency, at least within the same geographic area.  In the very early days of radio, of course, there was no government regulation of radio, and stations did whatever they wanted.  Once radio went commercial, in the early part of the 20th century, stations started to interfere with one another, and before long there were lawsuits being filed, typically in state courts under various property law theories.  It quickly became obvious that judicial regulation of radio would become untenable.  Other problems included amateur radio operators who interfered with ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore, and military communication.  The issue came to a head in the public eye with the 1912 sinking of the Titanic; the federal government responded by requiring the licensing of amateurs, prohibiting amateurs from operating in commercial or military frequencies (amateurs were restricted to operating only on the "useless" high frequency bands; at this point skip had not been discovered) and giving minimal regulatory authority to the Department of Commerce.  In 1927 this authority was expanded and transferred to the Federal Radio Commission, and in 1934 to the Federal Communication Commission, or FCC, where it remains today. 

The FCC has regulatory authority over all uses of radio frequency energy for communication purposes within the territory of the United States and the coastal waters thereof, as well as ships at sea sailing under the flag of the United States, except for use by instrumentalities of the federal government itself (which is separately managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, another federal agency).  The FCC also has some jurisdiction over noncommunicative use of radio frequency energy, to the extent that such usages might possibly interfere with communicative uses.  (The Department of Health and Human Services, via the Center for Devices and Radiological Health, a division of the FDA, also has some jurisdiction over devices that use or emit electromagnetic energy, but their jurisdiction is concerned entirely to health and safety aspects.)  Since amateur radio amounts to the use of radio frequency energy for communication purpose, it falls within the scope of the FCC's jurisdiction, and the FCC is the principal source of the regulations that apply to amateur radio in the United States.  Amateurs must also be aware of restrictions imposed by NTIA, since many amateur frequency allocations are shared with various federal (including military) uses.

An amateur license issued by the FCC is valid for use anywhere where the FCC has jurisdiction.  Unlike most of the other licensed services, amateurs are not required to declare their station locations to the FCC; we are free to pick up and move whenever we want without notice to the FCC.  (This used to not be the case; the FCC used to require that amateurs could only operate from their fixed station location which had to be reported to and specifically licensed by the FCC.)  The FCC only requires that an amateur keep the FCC notified of his or her current mailing address so that the FCC may contact him or her if it should need to do so.  If the FCC sends you mail and it comes back undeliverable, your license may be suspended or revoked, so it's a good idea not to let this happen.  Also, due to a rather large and complicated system of treaties, an FCC-issued license is also valid for use in many other countries, although many conditions and restrictions apply and the amateur should carefully research the relevant regulations and conditions before operating outside the United States under the authority of a treaty grant.

In general, the FCC takes a pretty light hand in regulating amateur radio.  This is partially because the amateur radio community is pretty good at regulating itself.  However, it's probably more because the FCC is (like many federal agencies) required to meet the bulk of its budget out of user fees.  The nearly three decades of experience of having federal agencies self-fund out of user fees has shown us that when this is done, users who pay large fees get more attention from the regulator than users who pay small fees.  Amateur radio operators pay no user fees to the FCC (except for vanity license fees, which are entirely optional), so the share of the agency's attention we get this way is very small.  And, of course, amateur radio doesn't have a lot of lobbying power, either, which is the other factor that determines the amount of attention an agency spends on an issue.  As a result, amateur radio is typically a very small piece of the FCC's attention at any time.  The FCC is simply not going to spend a lot of effort (that is, money) on monitoring amateur radio operators for compliance, or dealing with issues that involve only the amateur radio service; it's not worth it to them.  At the same time, it's very important that amateurs avoid creating problems with the holders of more lucrative licenses; we don't want to set up a conflict between amateur radio operators and someone with a lot of financial and political power, because that's a conflict we have a very good chance of losing.  Basically speaking, amateur radio continues within the larger scheme of radio at sufferance; it's in our best interest not to create too much trouble.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A07, T1B07, T1C02, T1D04, T1D09, T1D10, and T1D12.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Certificate of Successful Completion of an Examination

I left this topic out of my previous post because it wold have lengthened it considerably and made it too dense for a single post that was already getting overly long and dense anyway.  The document that a VE team gives to someone who has successfully completed a licensing exam is called a Certificate of Successful Completion of an Examination, which is such a hideously long phrase that everyone simply calls them CSCEs.  There are an inordinately large number of rules and, more importantly (at least to the person seeking a license), exam questions related to these documents, which used to be much more important than they are today.  I would hazard to say that the amount of testing related to these documents more reflects their historical importance than their (much smaller) current importance.  The reduction of importance is the consequence of two things: the simplification of the licensing system (which I talk about more here) and the deployment of ULS (which I discuss to some degree here).

At the time the VE system was introduced, there were five levels of license and every license required the successful completion of at least two exam elements (at least one theory element and one Morse code element).  The CSCE is the answer to the situation in which one passes some, but not all, of the elements required to qualify for a given license.  Instead of having to retake all these elements, the partially-successful examinee is given a document, a "certificate of successful completion of an examination", that certifies that he or she successfully completed an examination.  This document is good for 365 days (note that that's 365 days, not one year; if a leap day intervenes the document is good for one year less one day) and, if presented at an exam session at a date not more than 365 days in the future, will result in the examinee being given credit for that previous successful pass without retaking the exam.  This meant that if you should flub the theory test but pass the code, test, or vice versa, your day (and testing fee) wasn't a complete waste; you cold go home, bone up on whatever you missed, and try again without having to go through the whole process from scratch.  The CSCE is issued to any examinee who passes any element, whether or not the examinee qualified for a new license or upgrade at that session.

CSCEs also served two other purposes (one of which still obtains).  First, a CSCE which attests the successful completion of all the elements required for an upgrade of an already-licensed amateur entitles the bearer to operate with the privileges of that new class for up 365 days (or until the FCC either issues an upgraded license or notifies the licensee that the upgrade is being declined for some reason).  Before ULS, this was a big deal: it could take a month or more for an upgrade to post to the FCC system and for the FCC to mail back confirmation of the upgrade.  Waiting months to use newly-earned privileges was deemed unacceptable.  However, upgrades post now in typically under a week, and so the window in which a newly upgraded ham has to use the upgrade-indicating call sign suffixes (/KT for a recently upgraded Technician, /AG for a recently upgraded General, and /AE for a recently upgraded Extra, required whenever one is using frequencies that are available to the operator by virtue of the upgrade and the upgrade has not yet been processed by the FCC) is now typically quite short. 

The other purpose that CSCEs used to serve was as evidence of the pseudo-upgrade from Technician to Technician Plus.  A CSCE for the 5 word per minute Morse code element (regardless of date; the CSCE could even predate the Technician license) combined with a Technician license entitled the holder to Novice privileges on HF.  This was the sole exception to the 365 day rule for CSCEs; such a CSCE was good for the life of the underlying license.  This is partially because the FCC didn't (at first) treat this as an upgrade and so no record of the completion would be sent to the FCC.  Fortunately, this all went away in 2007, when the Technician Plus license was folded back into the Technician license and Morse code competency testing became a thing of the past.

We still issue CSCEs for successful examinations, of course, and they still have the purpose of authorizing an upgraded licensee's newly-earned privileges during the short period it takes the FCC to process the upgrade.  And in the unlikely event that someone were to pass, say, Element 3 but fail Element 2, we can still issue a CSCE for just Element 3.  However, that's extremely unlikely to happen; VEs are discouraged from allowing examinees from taking elements out of order, mainly because it doesn't make a lot of sense.  One can only wonder if we'll be simplifying this process in the future, or if the NCVEC will be reducing the number of questions related to this process on the exams in the next round of revisions.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A05, G1D01, G1D03, G1D06, G1D08, and G1D09.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Volunteer Examiner System

Prior to 1982, examinations for amateur radio licenses were conducted by the FCC directly; candidates had to travel to an FCC office (which might not be that close) at times set by the FCC (which might not be that convenient) and take the test in front of an FCC examiner in a government office.  (In some cases it was possible to obtain an introductory license through a field examination, but such licenses were probationary, typically nonrenewable, and in some cases not upgradeable, meaning the licensee would have to retake the same test when they sought to upgrade.)  With the election of Ronald Reagan came cost-cutting measures throughout the entire federal government; one of these consequences was that the FCC was forced to  consider eliminating the amateur radio program because it could no longer afford to foot the bill for conducting examinations of amateur radio licensees.

Enter Senator Barry Goldwater.  Senator Goldwater (formerly K7UGA) had been an avid ham for years at this time, and was also a very influentual member of Congress.  He authored and pushed through the law that established the Volunteer Examination (VE) system for amateur radio licensing, in so doing sparing amateur radio from what would otherwise been almost certain death at the hands of Reagan's "pay-as-you-go" funding approach for federal agencies.  From the FCC's standpoint, the VE system took nearly all the expense of the testing system away from the FCC.  Exams would be conducted by volunteer teams organized and supervised by FCC-approved Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (VECs).  The examinations to be used would also be developed by the coordinators, subject to approval by the FCC.  The FCC's expense was reduced to the very minimal effort of supervising the VECs.  The Goldwater bill also extended the normal license term to ten years and made all licenses renewable (prior to that time, most licenses were for five year terms, and Novice licenses were nonrenewable), which also reduced FCC expense (the longer the term, the less paperwork the FCC has to process).  As an extra bonus, the testing process got a lot easier for most hams; now exams would be held at times and places that were convenient for the VE teams and the examinees, not at times that were consistent with govenrment business hours.  Our team holds ten regular sessions a year, on the first Friday of each month (except July and January) at 7:30pm, one additional session at the end of our annual training classes, and special sessions as the need arises.

Each volunteer examiner team consists of at least three Volunteer Examiners (VEs) each accredited by a Volunteer Examiner Coordinator (VEC).  To be a volunteer examiner, an individual must be a currently licensed amateur radio operator at least 18 years of age whose license has never been suspended or revoked.  An individual may be accredited by more than one VEC (many VEs are accredited by multiple VECs, although personally I'm only accredited with the ARRL/VEC), but all VEs at a given session must be accredited by the coordinator that is sponsoring that session.  There is no requirement that VEs be citizens, but non-citizen amateurs do have to hold a US-granted license; it's not enough to be permitted to operate as an alien amateur radio operator under a reciprocity agreement.

The VEs administering an exam must be of a license class greater than the license that the exam being administered would qualify the candidate for, except that an Extra VE may administer any element (since there is no license class greater than Extra).   In specific, the three examiners giving an exam for Element 2, the test which qualifies one for the Technician license, must all be of General class or higher.   Under the current system there is no class below Technician for which a new license can be earned, and so there is no point in having Technician VEs.  Before the elimination of the Novice license, it was possible to get the Novice license, and only the Novice license, at a VE session attended by only two Technician-class or higher VEs, but those days are behind us now.  Some (but not all) VECs will only accredit Extras; in any case, most VEs are Extras.

One of the really nice features of the VE system is that a VE team can hold a testing session at literally any place or time as long as there are three VEs available to be in the same place at the same time, all accredited by the same VEC (and not a "close relative" of the examinee, and, yes, the FCC has a precise definition of "close relative").  This means, for example, that we can administer a test in the home of someone who is unable to travel due to disability; this goes a long way toward making the hobby accessible to people with disabilities.  It also means that a session can be held at a convention or other event where interest is discovered, even on relatively short notice. 

While the questions and answers used on the exams are provided by the NCVEC, the final determination of the correctness of any examinee's answer rests with the VEs.  There was a question on the old Extra pool (removed in the 2008 revision) that had the same answer for both answers A and C in the question bank, with only A being considered correct, although obviously C is as well.  The VE team would be within its discretion to consider C correct as well.  In the event this discretion is abused (or for any other reason that the FCC finds reasonable), the FCC may order any licensee to be retested either by the FCC itself or by such VEs as the FCC may direct; failure to comply with such an order will result in the cancellation of the license. (This power has not often been used.)

The test to become a VE (at least as managed by the ARRL/VEC) is not very difficult, and it's not uncommon for Extras to decide to take this "next step" in the service to the hobby.  The club I'm a member of (the DuPage Amateur Radio Club) has a great supply of VEs, and we routinely have more VEs at our sessions than we do examinees.  However, I've heard that in other parts of the land, VEs can be hard to find.  For those of you who have reached the "pinnacle" of Extra, why not take the time to fill out a relatively simple form, answer a few questions, and earn your very own VE badge?  (You don't have to be a ARRL member, and the rules regulating VECs prohibit the fees collected by the ARRL/VEC from flowing back to the ARRL general fund, so if you should happen to not support the ARRL, understand that you aren't funding them by participating in the ARRL/VEC or by taking an ARRL/VEC coordinated exam.)

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A04, T1A06, T1D06, G1D07, G1D10, G1D11, G1D12, G1D13, E1E04, E1E05, E1E06, E1E07, E1E12, E1E17, and E1E20.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Incentive Licensing System

In the United States, at least, the amateur licensing system has always incorporated multiple classes of license.  A full history of the system is beyond the scope of what I want to write for this article.  For most of the last few decades the FCC's approach has been to use increased privileges as an "incentive" to upgrade, giving rise to the name "incentive licensing system".

Prior to April 15, 2000, there were six license classes that could be earned in the incentive licensing system.  These were Novice, Technician, Technician Plus, General, Advanced, and Extra.  It's not entirely possible to arrange these in terms of increasing privileges, because Novice and Technician (both considered "entry level" licenses) had different, incompatible privileges: Novices had limited HF privileges but relatively few VHF and UHF privileges, while Technicians had no HF privileges at all but full privileges above 50 MHz.  The Technician Plus license had exactly the combination of the Novice and Technician licenses and was earned either by upgrading from Novice or upgrading from Technician.  The General, Advanced, and Extra licenses all granted steadily increasing privileges.  The big step then, as now, was from the introductory licenses of Novice, Technician, and Technician Plus to the broader General license, which gave access to almost all of HF; the only operating privileges gained with the Advanced and Extra licenses were access to small slivers of reserved spectrum in certain HF bands.  (There are other privileges gained by virtue of holding Advanced or Extra licenses, but those relate mainly to reciprocal operation, the Volunteer Examiner system, and access to shorter call signs, all topics that I will cover in later posts.)

In 2000, the FCC semi-eliminated the Novice and Advanced licenses.  Existing holders of these licenses would retain their licenses and the privileges associated therewith, but no new licenses would be granted in these classes.  That reduced the number of license classes that one could obtain to three (or four if you count the "Technician Plus" license endorsement).  The 2000 revision also eliminated all Morse code tests other than the 5 word per minute test, which remained required for all licenses except Technician. 

Subsequently, in 2007, the FCC eliminated the Morse Code requirement from the licensing system.  This effectively upgraded all Technicians to the "Technician Plus" license (thereby granting all Technicians at least limited access to HF) and finally made the license privilege grants strictly increasing with increasing license class.  As a result, there are only three licenses that one can earn at this time: the entry-level Technician license (with full VHF+ privileges, and very limited HF privileges), the mainline General license (with the same VHF+ privileges as Technicians and a wide variety of HF privileges excluding only a few slivers of spectrum in four of the contesting bands), and the "elite" Amateur Extra license (with the widest range of privileges available to any amateur).

The historical status of the Novice license still shows up in a few other places; there are a few privileges that are granted to all amateurs holding a "Technician-class or higher" license, which seems strange in the current context but is necessary because there's still some 10,000 Novice licensees hanging around.  The main privileges granted to Technicians but withheld from Novices, other than full and unrestricted use of the VHF and higher bands, are the privileges of operating the various "special operation" stations (auxiliary, beacon, and repeater).  Novices are permitted to operate stations in the amateur satellite service (space, ground, or telecommand), but the very limited VHF privileges of Novices make it difficult to actually do this.  For example, a Novice would not be able to communicate with the ISS using amateur radio (under his own privileges) because a Novice has no privileges on 2 meters or 70 centimeters.  (By the way, this is something I learned writing this post.  I learned, while studying for my exams, that one had to be at least a Technician to work ISS, but didn't learn the reason at the time.  I had mistakenly thought that Novices couldn't operate stations in the amateur satellite service.  That would be wrong; I had the right answer but for the wrong reason.  Novices may indeed operate stations in the amateur satellite services, but are very limited in doing so by their really rather limited frequency privileges.)

There has been a great deal of criticism of the FCC's approach to licensing.  For example, Technicians are authorized 1500 watts on just about all amateur bands above 50 MHz, including the microwave bands, and so a Technician could legally build a "catcooker" by constructing a 1500 watt microwave transmitter.  While this is true, it doesn't appear to be a serious problem; there is not a rash of cats being inadvertently cooked by newly-minted amateur licensees running around with ill-considered microwave transmitters.  Another common complaint is that the step from General to Extra is much larger than the step from Technician to General, but the privileges gained from Technician to General are much larger than the gain from General to Extra.  This is true.  There's not much of an response to be had to this, either; unless you're a contester, the Extra license doesn't give you a whole lot beyond the General.  Still, enough people go for the Extra (myself included), so there must be something to it.

Many countries restrict power levels, modes of operation, and choice of equipment for introductory licensees.  For example, Basic licensees in Canada are limited to (in general) one-quarter the power of Advanced licensees, and in both the UK and Australia Foundation licensees are restricted to using transmitters that have been commercially manufactured (as opposed to homebrewed).  While similar proposals have been made from time to time in the United States, none of them has caught root.  This is, perhaps, a consequence of the Technician license having been originally intended for experimenters who would have been expected to build their own equipment. 

I'm personally not that thrilled with the incentive licensing system as it stands now, but at the same time I've yet to see a proposal to replace it with anything that would be better.  There's not enough evidence that it's currently broken, so I supose it's not really worth fixing.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A03, T2C03, and T7B04.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Why do we have amateur radio?

The reasons why people become hams are myriad, and a full understanding of that is probably beyond the scope of this post; if you want to read more on this, perhaps see this older post of mine. But that's not what I'm going to talk about here. Rather, I'm going to talk about why the government continues to let us play with radios, when countless other entities are continuously clamoring for more spectrum.

The FCC recognizes five purposes to the amateur radio service (and the NCVEC expects you to know at least three of them for the Technician test):

  1. Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.
  2. Continuation and extension of the amateur's proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.
  3. Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communications and technical phases of the art.
  4. Expansion of the existing reservoir within the amateur radio service of trained operators, technicians, and electronics experts.
  5. Continuation and extension of the amateur's unique ability to enhance international goodwill.
It's occasionally difficult to explain how the routine activities of most hams fit into any of these five categories. VHF repeater ragchewing, for example, doesn't seem to fit well into any of these; at best it's got something to with the reservoir of trained operators, but if you've ever listened to a group of VHF ragchewers, you'd be hard-pressed to consider them "trained operators". And one thing amateur radio is absolutely not intended to be is a routine substitute for cell phones or email or any other such service. Amateur radio services are not intended to be used for passing messages for the general public, except when no other alternatives are available; this is why ARES and other emergency communications groups often use the motto "When all else fails..."

Far too often hams seem to forget that their license is granted to them by the government on the condition that they use it, at least some of the time, in the furtherance of these purposes; at the very least, we should not act contrary to these purposes in our amateur radio activities. If for no other reason than that if we don't at least make an effort to reflect the government's interests in amateur radio, it'll get harder and harder to justify our special privileges with them.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A02 and T1A08.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How long does it take to get an amateur radio license?

This question is one that we get asked quite frequently at VE sessions, typically by people who've just successfully completed their examination for Element 2, thereby earning their first amateur radio license.  (And actually in those cases it's "How long before I get my license", but anyway.)  Most of them are pleasantly surprised to find out that the answer (for us, at least) is "typically about five or six days".  We're an ARRL/VEC VE team, so we submit our results back to Newington by priority mail, which tends to result in them hitting the FCC database (ULS) about three business days later, and as we test on Friday evening that usually means the resulting licenses clear ULS on Wednesday or Thursday.  Some VE teams, notably Laurel VEC, submit results electronically, which results in new licenses making it onto ULS sometimes within 24 hours.  How's that for instant gratification?

Of course, this question comes up because (as anyone who has recently studied for the Technician license knows), one is not permitted to go on the air until one's license actually appears in the "ULS consolidated licensee database" (unless one qualifies for a reciprocal operating grant as an alien); until this happens, one is not technically an "amateur radio operator".  However, it's rare indeed that the study guides that most people use to prepare for the exams tell them how long it takes for this to happen. 

This is another area where US hams have it good.  Very few countries have turnaround this quick; more typical waits range from a week or so (most of Europe) to months or even years.  I know a guy in India who tested nine months ago who has yet to receive his license; he didn't even find out that he passed until two months after the test.  We tell you if you passed or not immediately (the FCC regs on the VE program mandate this). 

I haven't talked about how long it takes to learn what you need to know to get the license.  That's because that's really a function of the student.  Some people can learn this stuff in a few hours; others will take a bit longer.  There's a group that's been doing one-day classes for years with a pretty high success rate.  I personally spent about a month in preparation for the tests, but I took all three elements at one time and I'd say that most of my study time was spent on the material for the (much harder) Element 4 test for the Extra license.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A01, T1C01, and T1D05.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Do I have to coordinate my repeater?

The title of this post was a search that hit my blog recently.  Now, in order to discuss the topic, I'm going to make a couple of assumptions: first, that the individual in question is interested in American practice (since the IP address in question geolocates to Alabama, I'd say that's a safe bet), and that the repeater in question is an amateur repeater, rather than a commercial one.  (I'll touch on the situations in the commercial services, and in other countries, at the end of the post).

My immediate reaction to the question is, of course, "If you don't know the answer to that question, you shouldn't be running a repeater."  That is, I suppose, a bit harsh of me.  Part 97 is pretty unclear about coordination.  Frequency coordinators are only mentioned twice in Part 97, once in the definitions, in §97.3(a)(22), and once in §97.205, which specifies the special rules that apply to the operation of repeaters.  All §205(c) says is that if one repeater interferes with another repeater, the operators of both stations are primarily and equally responsible for resolving the interference, unless one of them is coordinated and the other is not, in which case the uncoordinated station's operator is primarily responsible for resolving the interference.  That doesn't equate to mandating coordination.  In fact, Part 97 nowhere mandates coordination, and so that's the answer to the question: assuming you're in the United States and you're talking about an amateur radio repeater, you do not have to coordinate your repeater.  Unless you're in an area with lots of repeaters, there's a good chance that not coordinating your repeater will turn out to be no big deal; just pick a frequency nobody is using for anything at the moment and have fun.

Of course, if there are a lot of repeaters in your area there might not be any frequencies that nobody is using.  And even if there aren't, if the local repeater coordinator council is run by a bunch of annoying busybodies (as many of them are), they might arrange for your uncoordinated repeater to "interfere" with a coordinated repeater just to teach you a lesson.  People are, after all, people, and politics are often at their worst when the stakes are the lowest.  Not coordinating a repeater that's intended to serve a large area or large number of amateurs is probably not a good idea, for a lot of different reasons.  But if you're just putting up a small repeater to cover you and a few guys down the street, it's probably not worth the hassle.  And many coordination bodies have gotten way too big for their britches; I think some of them miss the days when coordination was mandatory.

Of course, repeatars in the commercial services have to be coordinated, but then again virtually all uses of commercial frequencies have to be preapproved by a frequency coordinator of some sort.  And the "permissive coordination" practice that US amateurs enjoy is pretty unusual; most other countries have some form of mandatory coordination, either through their regulatory agency directly or through a coordinating body assigned by the regulator.  American hams really have it pretty easy, in comparison.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wiktionary and the USPTO

A few months back (my web reading backlog is ginormous, really) I ran across a mention that the USPTO had denied a trademark application for a Twitter-related trademark on the basis that "tweet" is "merely-descriptive" on the basis of a Wiktionary entry defining "tweet".  Twitter's own application for "tweet" was (as of July) still outstanding.  Now, wouldn't it be funny if one of Twitter's own marketers was behind the editing of that Wiktionary article?

Of course, brand creators always walk a fine line in trademark, lest their descriptive term become "generic".  I still think it's very touchy for the USPTO to be using Wiktionary as evidence of "mere descriptiveness", however, especially since Wiktionary is just as much at risk to being edited by anyone at all as Wikipedia is, a situation which has led to Wikipedia being essentially banned from the federal courts.  Not to menion the New Jersey court that held that Wikipedia's volatile nature means it doesn't meet the evidentiary standard for judicially noticable facts.  I don't see how the trademark examination process is so distinguishable that these precedents should not apply there as well.