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.


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.

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.

ARRL Is Right

ARRL published an article, ARRL Calls for Timely, Visible, FCC Amateur Radio Enforcement , on April Fool’s Day.  Initially I was expecting it to be an April Fool’s joke, but it’s not.  I think ARRL is spot on.  Despite two recent cases that I can recall where amateurs relinquished their licenses or had significant fines imposed, FCC enforcement has been rather quiet since Riley Hollingsworth retired in 2009.  Remember who took his place?  I had to Google it to remember.  That’s not good.

Are American Amateurs Different?

I’ve noticed two things in recent years, and I’m not sure if it’s just me or I’m really on to something different with American radio amateurs.  The first observation is that there seems to be more “homebrewing” or construction of equipment outside of the US.  This isn’t to say there isn’t homebrewing within the US, far from it.  Obviously there is an active and vibrant QRP community in the US.  But as a general trend, there seems to me to be more equipment construction and “rolling your own” in other countries.  I’ve noticed with the number of inquires and feedback emails I receive for my open source amateur radio hardware projects, foreign amateurs outnumber US amateurs by a ratio of 10 to 1.  Most are in Europe, however I’ve heard from amateurs in India, Japan, Australia, and other countries outside of Europe.  I think US amateurs spend a lot of money on the hobby, but there seems to be more of a buy it and operate mentality where DX amateurs tend to be more frugal and more apt to construct things.

My second observation is that US amateurs seem more down about the future of amateur radio, in general, than foreign counterparts.  US amateurs tend to complain about the state of the hobby, ARRL, the FCC, code tests, incentive licensing, young people, etc.  US amateurs tend to be more negative online.  They’re much more apt to bring up partisan politics in QSOs and online, and they often make mental leaps connecting the perceived decline of amateur radio and the social and political climate in the US.

These are just observations, and I have no scientific data to back this up.  I’m especially curious about what radio amateurs outside of the US observe with those in their countries. Is the US unique in some regard with attitudes about amateur radio?  Do you feel there’s more low-level technical experimentation outside the US?  Is this all just my perception and not reality?

Encryption Is Already Legal, It’s the Intention That’s Not

Fresh from the Unless You’ve Been Living In a Cave, You’ve Heard of This department, there’s been much ado over the FCC Petition for Rulemaking seeking encryption for emergency communications.  I won’t go into the details of the petition as you can read that several places elsewhere.  Technically encryption on amateur radio bands is illegal.  However, in reality the FCC has been letting it happen for years and the ARRL has turned a blind eye to it.  D-STAR uses a proprietary vocoder that takes an analog voice signal and converts it into a data bitstream.  The algorithm isn’t publicly documented and you can’t decrypt it, unless you buy a proprietary chip.

Some may quote § 97.309 (4)(b) which basically says one can transmit an “unspecified digital code” as long as the digital code is not intended to obscure the meaning of the communication.  Presumably the people who created and use D-STAR don’t intend to obscure the meaning of the communication, so perhaps it is within the law.

So, say I create a new digital communication mode.  It features a compression algorithm and I just happen to XOR the data stream with a 10 million bit pseudorandom bitstream to randomize it so a long stream of zeros or ones won’t screw up a modulator.  I document the algorithm and the 10 million bit key on some corner of the Internet.  It’s technically publicly documented, but in practice no one will go to the trouble of attempting to build a decoder.  I’ve achieved encryption in a roundabout way.  Whether my intentions were to obscure the meaning of the communications or make a modulator-friendly bitstream is anyone’s guess.  But with the inaction over the D-STAR vocoder and the wording of § 97.309 (4)(b), intention rules the day.  So while this debate over the petition is being framed in a discussion of encryption, it’s really the intent to obscure communications that’s at the heart of this.

I don’t have a horse in this emcomm race, but I’m not in favor of allowing obscuring messaging.  If the FCC does allow it, others are going to want to use it for their noble causes, like preppers under the guise of “homeland security”.

(D-STAR is a registered trademark of Icom, Inc.)

The Value of Time

Last month, Ernest, AA1IK, wrote about a frustration that we’ve all experienced, an operator on the other end who needlessly sends unnecessary information.  In the particular QSO Ernest described, the other op totally botched a QSO in bad QSB (fading) conditions by repeating his callsign numerous times but sending their call only once or twice.  The barely-uttered callsign was consumed by QSB on each return, propagation closed, game over.

Most radio amateurs understand the value of getting the most signal out and being able to pick signals out of the mud on receive, going to great lengths to improve antenna systems and buying great rigs with good receivers and linear amplifiers to get more signal.  However, it seems many don’t understand basic information transmission and the value of time, or perhaps better stated, the value of airtime.

I see this quite a bit during Field Day.  Operators in search-and-pounce mode will say or send the callsign of the station they’re calling, despite there being only one station on frequency calling CQ.  Stations calling CQ when getting a weak caller will spend forty seconds telling the station they didn’t get their full callsign and list the several possibilities they thought it was.

The practice is even more annoying in emcomm.  Ever hear a station take 120 seconds to tell a SkyWarn net control that it’s raining at their house but otherwise there’s nothing reportable happening?

The amount of information that can be conveyed is a function of the rate of communication (baud rate/wpm), the noise on the channel (signal-to-noise ratio), and the time available to communicate.  Talk faster or send CW at a faster rate and you can send more information in a given amount of time.  If the signal to noise ratio is low, you may need to send or talk slower (perhaps using more phonetics) and you’ll need more time to communicate the same amount of information.  Sending redundant information not needed for “error correction” or information already known by the receiver is a waste of communication channel time.  Those familiar with digital communications will recognize the parallels between digital protocols and algorithms and what I’m describing above.

Phone operators and really any radio amateurs who want to understand efficient radio communication should listen to their local 911 dispatch frequencies.  Airtime is very valuable, and wasting it can result in lost property and lives.  You’ll hear exchanges like this after a page goes out and a unit is responding:

Fire company unit: “County 901.”

County Control: “County.”

Fire company unit: “901 responding.”

County Control: “901 responding, 123 Main Street, dwelling fire.”

Fire company unit: “In route”

County Control: “Nineteen twenty-three”

In this exchange the unit informed county they were responding, they got the information on the call, and county confirmed the whole exchange with the time at the end.  Granted, public safety communications are usually on clear channels with little noise, but can you imagine some of the exchanges we hear on amateur radio in a public safety environment?

CW operators tend to be more efficient by default as the CW mode naturally encourages a level of terseness that’s not intuitive in phone operation.  But some CW operators in weak signal and contest situations have room for improvement, needing to avoid needless callsign repeating, “URs” and “QSLs”.

This lack of understanding by many in amateur radio of the value of airtime and how to use it efficiently is one of my ongoing pet peeves.  To some extent I can understand in this day and age why a radio amateur may not be well versed in complex electronic theory, but communicating efficiently is basic and it doesn’t take much to learn how to do it, people just need to apply some logic, listen, and learn.

Ham Radio Deluxe Rights Sold

The zed is reporting today that the source code and rights to Ham Radio Deluxe have been sold to three radio amateurs, Mike Carper WA9PIE, Randy Gawtry, K0CBH and Rick Ruhl W4PC.  No details are posted right now other than development and support will be continued on the product (emphasis mine).

HRD is arguably one of the best, if not the best amateur radio loggers ever written.  It’s the first amateur radio program I would give straight As for design and usability.

While HRD has always been a free piece of software, it would follow that if someone has paid cash for the source code and rights, they intend on getting a return on that investment.  Considering one of the purchasers runs an amateur radio and communications software company, this is quite plausible.

I find myself sounding a lot like the open source zealots I used to bemoan on Slashdot, but I’m increasingly concerned with closed source software and systems within amateur radio.  I’ve seen freeware closed source software authors and followers who think they have a license to be arrogant to users or use the software to further an agenda or an ego.  Some closed software stagnates over time when the author no longer has the time or interest in maintaining it.  Networks run by closed source software tend to be silo solutions developed in a vacuum, ignoring standards and recreating the wheel.  Open source can prevent all these scenarios and create a design and development “ecosystem.”  Such an ecosystem is quite apparent in the Linux and Arduino communities and for a spell in the 2000s I think we had such an ecosystem in QRP.  I don’t think we’ve ever had a truly great software ecosystem.

There is one positive if HRD goes commercial.  With a revenue stream there will be an incentive to continue development, support users, and maintain it as the fine product that it is.  Perhaps I’m jumping the gun and prematurely assuming it will go commercial, but I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibilities.  I made a contribution to HRD in the past, so I would probably buy the commercial product as it’s just that good.  It’s just unfortunate that HRD couldn’t have been released as an open source project and been freed to evolve in a community based effort.