Not Getting It

ARRL announced today that they have filed comments with the FCC requesting a dismissal of the Petition for Declaratory Ruling filed by New York University (NYU) regarding digital encoding and encryption.  This petition basically claims that proprietary and closed protocols like PACTOR violate current FCC rules, an opinion I’ve had for several years.  I think the AMBI vocoder used in D-STAR and other digital voice modes falls into the same category as well as it’s not openly documented, like the rules require.  Due to the lack of documentation and openness, such encoding is de facto encryption, which is prohibited.

ARRL’s filing has me smacking my head.  Rather than openly addressing the issue of protocols in amateur radio that are closed and proprietary, they attack the language proposed by the Petition.  Furthermore, they pull CW into this, stating,

The proposed prohibition arguably could include, presumably unintentionally, CW (Morse Code), which is a longstanding means of encoding transmissions. The very fact that messages sent in CW are “encoded” by any definition of the term starkly demonstrates the problem with this proposal.

I’m not sure if ARRL is intentionally being obtuse or just doesn’t understand the crux of the issue with “un-openly” documented digital protocols.  CW, while technically encoding, is 100% openly documented, and has been for a century or more.  It doesn’t require proprietary hardware, software, or algorithms to decode.  PACTOR until most recently could only be decrypted with proprietary hardware.  AMBI and others continue to be closed protocols.  That’s the problem, not semantics over the proposed language in the petition snagging CW as encoding, and encryption.

A few weeks ago I started writing comments to file with the FCC, but I quite honestly lost interest.  I don’t have a horse in this race, other than wanting to see amateur radio continue on well into the future.  I’m just disappointed ARRL doesn’t get what the real problem is, doesn’t make an effort to correct it, and fails to even acknowledge that closed digital protocols are antithetical to the openness and historical foundation of amateur radio.

This article originally appeared on Radio Artisan.

6 thoughts on “Not Getting It

  1. That is a truly bizarre statement you quote from the ARRL about CW. Very odd to see that argument. I hope it was written by a non-ham lawyer, or not in context.

  2. The full ARRL FCC filing is here: http://www.arrl.org/files/media/News/ARRL%2016-239%2012-02-2019.pdf . Here’s the full paragraph:

    “The proposed language would, for example, prohibit all “encoded messages.” This
    terminology itself would prohibit the use of digital modes in the Amateur Radio services as
    explicitly approved by the countries of the world at WRC-2003. The proposed prohibition
    arguably could include, presumably unintentionally, CW (Morse Code), which is a longstanding
    means of encoding transmissions. The very fact that messages sent in CW are “encoded” by any
    definition of the term starkly demonstrates the problem with this proposal. Adding the word
    “effectively” would make the definition even more vague by including all encoded messages
    plus an additional set of undefined messages. The extent of this proposed additional set of
    messages is unknown because the application of “effectively” is unknown and cannot be
    determined on the face of the proposal”

    ARRL is playing legalese word games here, which distracts from the core problem the NYU petition is addressing.

    This paragraph is interesting:

    “Similarly, it is unclear and undetermined what the Petitioner may mean by “effectively
    encrypted.” “Encrypted itself is a “yes” or “no” binary proposition. The meaning either is
    hidden from all but the intended recipient(s), or it isn’t. A message cannot be considered
    “encrypted” if the means to enable a non-recipient to understand the message are generally
    available”

    FCC rules are silent regarding the means of decoding messages to be “generally available” as ARRL states, and only state that the characteristics of protocols need to be publicly documented, a rule that various commercial proprietary digital protocols violate today, in my opinion. ARRL is purposely using a technical definition of encryption here, not the real life side effects of using closed, proprietary commercial digital protocols which effectively achieve encryption. If anything, ARRL should counter that the language should be changed to allow protocols where the means to decode them are commercially or otherwise available. But they won’t awaken that sleeping dog.

  3. This seems to an intersection of technology and Amateur radio.

    The AMBI chip is a Vocoder, and which runs with proprietary codec. The codec is used in a variety of modes both inside and outside of Amateur service. If this was an isolated issue with the use of the codec I can see the point of view on the encryption issue. The fact that radios and adapter boards and reverse engineering can decode the codec makes the argument moot.

    PACTOR is a also not an open mode, but is readily decoded through modems and Raspberry Pi adapter boards.

    While the closed codecs ‘could’ be considered encryption, the fact that the codecs are and have been readily reverse engineered and products are available to decode the modes. It would seem this Petition is a kin to claiming a encryption violation in Amateur radio because the operators are speaking a language other than English.

  4. John, what if a new proprietary commercial mode is released and comes into use in amateur radio, one that has no reverse-engineered open implementation? Is it in violation of the rules, until someone reverse engineers it?

    There’s an issue with your language analogy. All languages in use today (ignoring perhaps some obscure languages that may be in use deep in the Amazon rainforest) are documented and can readily be translated, without reverse engineering and guesswork. A more apt analogy is someone creating a new language that no one speaks, there’s no published detailed documentation on the language, and people are using it on the air.

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