My Last Post Ever Regarding ARRL?

In the past I’ve been a strong proponent of ARRL.  I often mentally tied the past and future success or failure of amateur radio to the organization.  I’ve come to the conclusion that this just isn’t the case, and in my evolving opinion the organization is becoming less relevant as time goes on.  The elected leadership hierarchy to me seems archaic.  I tend to doubt the slate of new blood “change” candidates which got elected will change much, as long as the majority of ARRL leadership, and to some extent the general population of amateurs in the US, continues to have the demographic makeup that it does.  My life membership has essentially become a good deal on a perpetual magazine subscription, assuming that I don’t get hit by a bus anytime soon.  I’m convinced it’s non-centralized grass roots efforts from individuals that are going to make or break amateur radio in the coming decades.

So, one of my 2019 “amateur radio resolutions” is to stop worrying and pontificating about ARRL, and be that individual that leads my own grass root effort.

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Yet Another ARRL Opinion

For the first time in my amateur radio career, I’m beginning to look upon ARRL unfavorably.  About 15 years ago after I acquired a lifetime subscription, my grandfather chastised me saying I’d eventually grow tired of the League and would regret my subscription.  I’m sad to say I think that day may have come.

Over the years I’ve defended ARRL, in both in person conversations and online.  ARRL attracts a lot of haters, often unfairly, for wrong reasons.  For example, I’ve witnessed many hams hate ARRL, claiming they don’t like CW and worked to eliminate it, despite ARRL supporting code testing for Extra licensing in their FCC comments filings years ago, and offering daily code bulletins and practice over the air.  Despite ARRL’s faults and shortcomings, amateur radio would not be where it is today, and perhaps not even exist, if it wasn’t for ARRL.

With the recent Code of Conduct and censure incident and the proposed voting and membership changes, I’m left with the impression of an organization that is closed, secretive, adverse to dissent, and focused on self-preservation.  The Force of 50 debacle points to an organization eager to project to the public a disaster response “photo-op” image that neither the organization or the amateur radio service supports or deserves.  Over the years I’ve personally seen other examples that support these two impressions but never dwelled on them as ARRL garnered my utmost respect as I felt that the League, despite its flaws, in general was taking amateur radio in the right direction.  I no longer have that confidence in the organization.

While I could end my diatribe with the paragraph above, I really want to explore or ask, what is the solution to “fixing” ARRL?  ARRL does a great job with publications and education, contesting, and lobbying the FCC.  Does the large and seemingly complicated hierarchal governance structure really serve a purpose today?  It appears that structure is geared more towards emergency communications initiatives than an effective membership feedback vehicle or advancing the radio art.  Is this structure the problem and ARRL needs to be transformed into more of a flat, responsive, grass-roots kind of organization?

This article was originally published at Radio Artisan.

Irony

The FCC issued Report and Order 17-33 which creates two new bands for amateur radio, 472-479 kHz (630 meters) and 135.7-137.8 kHz (2,200 meters).  As ARRL reported, it is a “big win” for amateur radio.  I’ve been waiting in anticipation for the 630 meter band as it’s an old yet new frontier for us.  With old Sol taking a bit of a nap for the past few years and perhaps for years or decades to come, lower frequencies are where we’re going to have to play for more fun.

There are a few caveats in using these bands.  The FCC is requiring radio amateurs be at least 1 km from electric power transmission lines using Power Line Carrier (PLC) systems on those bands.  PLC is a technology that uses low frequency signals on power lines to perform signaling and control functions, and often meter reading.  Amateurs will have to notify the Utilities Technology Council (UTC) of station location prior to operating on 630 and 2200 meters.  The UTC maintains an industry database for PLC operations.

Those who were around to experience the Broadband over Powerline (BPL) brouhaha around 2003 to 2005 may recall the UTC organization.  At the time BPL was billed by proponents as the next big thing in broadband Internet.  Amateur radio operators and ARRL argued vigorously against BPL, citing engineering and evidence that the HF signals on the power lines radiated into the ether and interfered with HF radio operations.  The FCC turned a blind eye to the issue.  Luckily market forces took out BPL as a viable broadband solution due to increasing bandwidth needs and numerous failed trials which uncovered its technical difficulties and business problems.  PLC and BPL are cousins, with PLC operating below 500 khz and HF BPL operating from 1.8 to 30 Mhz.

The UTC, several electric utilities, and a handful of BPL equipment vendors at the time claimed that BPL didn’t interfere with HF radio operations.  The explanations and claims baffled those of us experienced in wireless and RF engineering as it’s a fact that an unshielded conductor tens of wavelengths long, conducting RF signals, will radiate energy.  The math and science supported this and measurements in the field provided real life evidence.

The UTC notes the following about PLC operation:

“This Activity is established as provided for in the FCC Rules and Regulations, Part 90.35(g) (47 C.F.R. ‘ 90.35(g)) relative to PLC operation in the 10-490 kHz band, and the NTIA Manual of Regulations and Procedures for Federal Radio Frequency Management, in Part 8.3, under the heading “Notifications in the Band 10-490 kHz,” (see 47 C.F.R., Chapter III). Electric utilities are allowed to use power line carrier (PLC) transmitters and receivers for control signals and information transmission in the 10-490 kHz band without obtaining a license from the [FCC]. However, PLC users are not protected from interference from licensed radio transmitters.”

Part 90.35(g) states that PLC operates under Part 15.  With the distance separation and notification requirement for amateurs, the FCC has granted an unlicensed incidental radiating non-wireless service protection from a licensed wireless service.  This was essentially the case with BPL in the early 2000s with an unworkable process for resolving interference issues, and interference complaints from amateurs living in trial site areas languishing for months with no action.

With this latest frequency allocation to amateur radio and requirements for protecting PLC operations, the tables are turned.  It’s the electric utility industry, that once claimed power lines wouldn’t interact with wireless spectrum, that could potentially experience interference.  Undoubtedly many FCC staffers involved in BPL in the past are no longer at the agency and the electric utility industry has forgotten about the BPL fiasco and fail to realize the irony of needing to protect PLC from wireless.

All this being said, I’m not attempting to downplay or criticize the allocation of the two new bands.  I think it’s wonderful and I applaud ARRL’s success.  However, I hope amateurs wishing to enjoy these bands aren’t prevented in doing so.  While it’s unlikely a large number of amateurs will be excluded from operating due to PLC on high voltage transmission lines, PLC systems are used in meter reading applications in neighborhood power distribution systems.  Hopefully the majority of systems do not operate in the new 630 and 2200 meter amateur bands and we can peacefully coexist, unlike what occurred with BPL.

Software

The brouhaha du jour in amateur radio is the Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD) blacklisting scandal, for lack of a better term.  For those who haven’t read about this, you can get details over on Reddit here, here, and here.  The TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read) version of this is that HRD has been blacklisting customers who wrote negative reviews of their software.  The blacklisting manifested itself as denied support or disabled software.  As if that wasn’t enough, there are nasty tweets, threats of lawsuits, other bad stories about customer support, and even an excuse that the lack of judgement was caused by a prime employee suffering from diabetes and misadjusted prescriptions.  I’m not going to rehash the whole drama as you can follow the various links to get the lowdown.  (The one ham site that goes by three letters has 60 pages and counting of crowdbashing, and for once, rightfully so).

While the HRD allegations are pretty heinous, this sort of bad behavior in the amateur radio software world isn’t new or unique.  I’ve experienced it from various individuals and camps. I encountered a freeware logging software forum with a toxic culture where people openly and privately ridiculed others seeking support, and the software author condoned the culture with his silence.  Another freeware software suite has an openly arrogant software creator, with an ego the size of the moon.  He claimed his development process was essentially infallible, despite his user interface having flaws that a novice software development student could easily identify.  A freeware contest logging development team refused to give me any assistance in the workings of a protocol their software supports.  I was told I should go buy a commercial device that supported the protocol rather than attempting to write code to emulate it, because the device was cheap and they didn’t support homebrew endeavors.

For some reason, too many amateur radio software authors think offering free software to the community affords them the privilege of being arrogant to users.  How this apparent culture was created within a company profiting financially from sale and support of software, like HRD, is puzzling.  However, the HRD story illustrates in spades the problem of “free-as-in-beer” software.  HRD was originally offered by its creator as freeware.  Several years ago the source code was purchased by a commercial interest and it’s been commercially licensed software ever since.  If the project would have been open sourced rather than sold, support and development of the product would not have been dependent on one entity.  While freeware authors appear to be benefitting the amateur radio community, in the long term their refusal to open source their creations is detrimental to amateur radio as the community is left with software that gets sold, unsupported, or at the mercy of the whims or incompetencies of a single party.

This article was originally posted on Radio Artisan.

The Sub-Hobby

 

It’s often been said that amateur radio is a hobby consisting of many sub-hobbies.  This is true when you consider the different modes we use (like RTTY, CW, PSK), technical endeavors like equipment design and building, special operating techniques like satellite and moonbounce, different bands each with their own characteristics and fans like LF, HF, VHF/UHF, and microwave, and activity based sub-hobbies like contesting and DXing.  It’s multidimensional and there is often overlap between the various sub-hobbies.

Unfortunately there’s a detrimental sub-hobby that’s been around a long time, perhaps as far back as when there was spark and a new mode called CW was emerging.  It’s complaining about what everyone else is doing or how they’re doing it.

I was reminded of this on an unnamed social networking site that starts with the letter F and rhymes with the word crook.  Perhaps you’ve been there.  A poster in an amateur radio group couldn’t make sense out of people sending and receiving CW using computers, and quipped that operating this way was taking the “radio out of radio”.  Never mind that you can’t do this sort of operating without a radio.  The most vocal complainers in amateur radio tend to rant about amateurs who don’t operate CW, so it was ironic that this complaint was about people actually operating CW but not in a way that the poster and others like to do it.  As expected, the discussion was lively with many people lamenting over this operating method, and a lesser few defending it.

Any time I look an amateur radio activity, I ask a few basic questions:

  1. Is someone getting enjoyment out of it?
  2. Is it not harming anyone else and not detracting from anyone’s enjoyment of the hobby?
  3. Does it positively reflect amateur radio, both within the amateur radio community and the general public, or at least not reflect negatively on the hobby?
  4. Is it spectrally and resource efficient, and reasonable from an engineering perspective?
  5. Is it consistent with the spirit and nature of amateur radio?

If you can answer YES to all of these questions, I see no reason to complain about the activity.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years about amateur radio, it’s that if you’re more concerned about what others are doing, and not what you’re doing, and having fun doing it, it’s a sure fire way to be unhappy in amateur radio.

BFDs

Some things are BFDs and some things just aren’t.  What are BFDs?  Well, son, this video might help you out.  BFDs would include passing healthcare legislation, your first kiss, discovering plutonium, or your parachute not opening.  There are two news items in amateur radio right now that, despite all the hubbub, aren’t BFDs.

Remote operation from anywhere is now allowed for DXCC awards.  ARRL will now allow contacts from remotely-operated stations to be submitted for DXCC awards, regardless of where the control point is located.  This seems to be a BFD for many people because of instead of buying a multi-giga dollar megastation, which was the previously accepted way to buy your way to DXCC, today with modern technology and better living through chemistry you can rent a megastation with a credit card and operate it with your favorite computing device from the comfort of your meager home station, hotel room, or police station drunk tank.  Why is it not a BFD?  Remote operation contacts were allowed for DXCC credit before, the only thing that has changed is where the control point is allowed.  The contact is still made over the air.  This isn’t like Echolink computer-to-computer contacts.  The remote station must be located within your home DXCC entity.  If you still want to get your DXCC the old fashioned way, you can.  DXCC is about personal achievement, and how you got it is a BFD to you, not anyone else.

The FCC will no longer issue paper licenses.  Why is this not a BFD?  There are several reasons.  The online ULS record is considered your official credential.  If you want a paper license, you can go to the ULS, download a PDF, and print it out.  One can also request the FCC send them a paper copy.  What is BFD is that the FCC will save $304K a year with this change.

That Frequency

We’ve all come across that frequency.  You know the one I mean.  People on there all hours of the day and night saying and doing nasty things.  It’s been going on for a long time and no one in any regulatory agency seems to do anything about it.  There are websites devoted to that frequency and the people who are on it.  People post things on Facebook and those two websites here in the US about it all the time.  New radio amateurs ask about it and wonder what it’s about.  Old ones complain about it or get outraged.  Some amateurs laugh about it.  Various people theorize about the mental health of the participants on that frequency.  Some waste hours of their lives listening to it, many trying to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.  Some people have wasted months and years out of their pathetic, useless lives making that frequency what it is.

Here’s the kicker.  There are no good guys on this frequency.  None.  Not one of them.  Especially not the ones who claim they are against the bad guys and are merely trying to make the frequency better by contending with the so-called bad guys.  Even you, listening there.  Perhaps you just listen, or maybe you decide to fire up your linear amp and drop a carrier in there for a while, perhaps to punish them, maybe just to stir the pot, or give yourself a chuckle.  Acknowledge it.  You’ve done it.

No government agency is going to fix that frequency, or perhaps better worded, fix or punish those people on that frequency.  You’re not going to stop what’s been going on, not directly, at least.  Here’s what you, me, and everyone with a brain can do to fix this problem: stop listening to it, stop talking about it, don’t even acknowledge it.  From this day forward, that frequency doesn’t exist.  If you see someone posting about that frequency on a social media website or an amateur radio forum, you say we don’t talk about that.  If someone mentions it on the air in a QSO, in a roundtable, or on a net, talk about something else, like the weather.  That frequency is what it is because we listen to it and we talk about it.  We have the power to make it whither and die.

Incentives and Licensing

Jeff Davis, KE9V, wrote in his weekly letter, Quintessence, about something we’ve all heard on the air, the roundtable discussing and lamenting about those who are not real hams.  He posits this is one unintended consequence of incentive licensing, where new amateurs tend to stay on repeaters and not upgrade to acquire HF band privileges, creating this us and them mentality.  Newbies will always be on repeaters and the real hams are on HF.

Incentive licensing was introduced in 1964 by the ARRL and FCC.  I got my ticket as a teenager in 1984, but I don’t recall hearing the term incentive licensing or angst about it until perhaps ten years ago.  It never really occurred to me that there was something before incentive licensing in amateur radio.  It was always what I knew amateur radio to be, even when I was a budding radio artisan in the 70s.  License classes were an integral part of amateur radio, much like color television is in every living room today.

The original motivation behind incentive licensing was to get amateurs to increase their knowledge and skill.  While in theory it makes sense, in practice I don’t think it’s been very effective.  Today you can find Extras who are, well, quite simply, numbskulls.  While the exams can test for specific isolated technical tidbits, they never were able to test for operating skills, uncover deep understanding of topics, or examine practical skills like soldering a connnector.  Some would argue the CW exam tested for operating skill, but in reality it didn’t.  It tested operators copying CW for a certain period of time but didn’t really test whether they could copy weak signals, send code, or have a QSO.  It certainly didn’t test whether they were proficient operators or good and wholesome people.  A review of FCC enforcement actions and on air monitoring in which violators and LIDs most often are code tested Extras provides empirical evidence that exams and incentive licensing aren’t always effective at determining good operators or weeding out those guys.

Over the years I’ve found that license class has little to do with the technical proficiency of amateurs.  The biggest factor I’ve found has been professional experience and formal education.  The most technically astute amateurs are, ironically, professionals in telecommunications, electronics, and engineering.  Often these folks have access to equipment and resources that let them expand their knowledge, and amateur radio is a secondary technical endeavor.  The best of these folks seed the rest of the amateur radio community with technical know how.

Personally I’ve found passing amateur radio exams to be trivial.  While I’m a telecommunications professional with some schooling in electronics, I’ve thought tests were fairly easy to pass with just simple question memorization and very little, if any, technical study.  I’m not saying I didn’t know the material.  I could draw a bipolar transistor amplifier circuit from memory and do the calculations on a whiteboard or explain modulation.  Passing a test was merely an inconvenient formality.  Advancing my knowledge and skills in amateur radio has never been driven by a test or advancing in license class, like the original intent of incentive licensing.  It certainly wasn’t driven by getting an extra 20 kHz of space on 20 meters at the time.  Increasing knowledge has been triggered by my interests.  I really got into CW when I saw others using it and saw how quickly and efficiently QSOs could be had, not because I had to pass a 20 WPM test.  I took up rig building when I saw others making simple rigs from 2N2222s and it seemed cool.  I’m exploring satellites now because I find relaying a radio signal through a little box orbiting the Earth intriguing.

If incentive licensing isn’t really motivating amateurs to learn more and increase their skills, what purpose does it serve, other than supporting a needless hierarchy, one implemented back when post-war middle-agers and old codgers were bucking free love and turn on, tune in, drop out?  I think incentive licensing in the US has outlived its usefulness, and it’s perhaps time to eliminate it — one test and license class to rule them all.  What is the worst that could happen, someone new won’t be destined for that local repeater and its accompanying unfair stereotypes, and will instead make a QSO on HF, perhaps get interested in CW, build a rig, and then work through satellites or do moonbounce…and become… the proverbial real ham?  

Callbook Wars

Last year QRZ.com made accusations that callsign database sites HamQTH.com and QRZCQ.com stole QRZ callbook data, citing planted fake callsigns in the QRZ database appearing in their databases.  Both HamQTH and QRZCQ denied the claims.  QRZ appears to have recently upped the ante, having contacted at least one software developer, N3FJP, requesting him to remove HamQTH support from his logging program, claiming “Programs that facilitate the use of HamQTH.com are, in legal terms, are participating in “contributory infringement.”  HamQTH on Facebook continues to deny copying QRZ data, though it’s been noted that the site accepts publicly submitted data, so the possibility of QRZ lifted data exists.  HamQTH founder, Petr, OK2CQR, in a Facebook post quoted from a private email exchange QRZ founder Fred AA7BQ, “Your service does not offer anything to the amateur radio community that isn’t available elsewhere, which makes you a parasite, enjoying the benefits of the hard work of others.”  The comment struck me as ironic as Petr has no advertising on the HamQTH website and he also contributes to the community the free CQRLog logging program, which is open source software.  To people who know what Petr has done, he is hardly a parasite.  QRZ, on the other hand, generates revenue by hosting content others write.

Several times I have run comparison queries between QRZ and HamQTH and have yet to find any unique QRZ data in HamQTH query results.  I’m not saying QRZ data doesn’t exist in HamQTH, it’s just that I haven’t found it and I haven’t seen evidence that the copying, if it occurred, is prevalent.  On the Facebook thread it was mentioned that email addresses have appeared in HamQTH profiles that may have come from QRZ.

After the claims by QRZ last year, the QRZ callbook listings for HamQTH founder OK2CQR (1) and QRZCQ founder DO5SSB disappeared.  DK5TX claims his QRZ profile was repeated edited without his knowledge when he linked to his HamQTH profile page.  (OK2CQR’s QRZ callbook entry reappeared a few days ago.)

While I should be concerned about copyright infringement, I have difficulty siding with QRZ in this dispute.  The information in QRZ is mostly information in the public domain and user contributed profile information was created by users, not QRZ personnel, though they created the system to store it and charge for XML access.  Email addresses of active radio amateurs can be easily harvested on the Internet by anyone and collected in a database.  Furthermore, I find the alleged QRZ manipulation of database data in retaliation disturbing.  As I indirectly attempted to illustrate in this satire piece earlier this year, QRZ is considered the de facto amateur radio callbook these days, and essentially has a monopoly.  QRZ’s dominant position dates back to the times when government agency radio amateur database data was difficult to acquire and process, before the Internet became mainstream and online query tools to government data became commonplace.  With this monopoly comes a responsibility, beyond generating paychecks for employees, but a responsibility to the community.  In my opinion it’s time to get this data in more open databases, and on sites that are not concerned with web clicks and revenue or those that host forums with often vitriolic exchanges that do not reflect well on amateur radio.

(1) http://hamqth.com/news.php, Posting from 20 June 2012

Freeware

Ham Radio Deluxe has announced that the final free version of HRD will be removed from their servers September 1, 2013.  After the HRD freeware product was sold by its author, it was converted to a commercial software product.  The current owner, W4PC, has stated that the freeware 5.x version will continue to be free, however they will no longer host the files for download and there will be no further development on the 5.x version.  Others may host the files for download free of charge.

I hate to keep sounding like a broken record, but the situation with HRD, and in particular with the 5.x freeware version, illustrates just why freeware is a problematic software model and ultimately a technological dead end for a hobby like amateur radio.  Luckily with HRD, development is continuing with the commercial product.

Do you use other freeware amateur radio programs?  Ask your favorite program authors if they would consider open sourcing their software.  If they don’t, ask them why not and what do they have to lose.