Electronic Design

Potential Spectrum Loss, BPL In Ham's Way

People like to talk, which may account for why ham—or amateur—radio is as big as ever, despite the extraordinary success of the Internet. At last count, there were more than 682,000 amateur radio operators in the U.S. and more than 2.5 million worldwide. And most of those those hams are active. A survey by the

American Radio Relay League (ARRL) reveals that over 39% of the hams in the U.S. have increased their activity during the past year, while 31.8% said they have pretty much maintained the same level of activity as they had in previous years. Only 23.3% indicated a decrease in broadcast time.

But the big story is the possible loss of spectrum. To maintain what they have, the ARRL has initiated legislation known as the Amateur Radio Spectrum Protection Act, or H.R. 713. Introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, it's aimed at ensuring the availability of spectrum to amateur radio operators. It would protect existing amateur radio spectrum against relocations to, or sharing with, other services unless the FCC provides "equivalent replacement spectrum" elsewhere.

Currently pending before the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee, the bill has a bipartisan collection of 52 cosponsors. The ARRL testified before the subcommittee in support of the legislation in June. However, the ARRL doesn't expect any activity on this bill until the next session of Congress.

A Senate counterpart bill, S. 537, is still pending in the Senate Communications Subcommittee. This bill has eight co-sponsors, including Communications Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT). But the Senate isn't likely to consider spectrum-related legislation until sometime next year.

Another tough issue for ham radio operators now is BPL, or broadband over power lines. Proponents, mainly electric power utilities, are testing BPL systems in several markets and want the FCC to relax radiation limits. The ARRL says that BPL would make an impact not only on hams, but also public-safety VHF and other mobile systems. According to the ARRL, the BPL crowd has failed in its recent comments to the FCC to substantiate its claim that the technology won't cause widespread interference.

"Unfounded assurances that BPL won't cause interference are no substitute for real-world measurements," the ARRL declared, "and the FCC should rely on documented test results and an impact of interference potential based on scientific, not marketing, criteria."

In what may be the first BPL system of its type in the U.S., the city of Manassas, Va. (a suburb of Washington, D.C.), has approved the citywide rollout of a BPL system beginning the end of this year. The city council unanimously approved a 10-year franchise to startup Prospect Street Broadband to offer high-speed Internet service to the entire community over municipal power lines. The ARRL is challenging the system based on its potential for RF interference. ARRL's CEO, David Sumner, informed Manassas city officials by fax that tests conducted by ARRL technical personnel have shown that the system planned for Manassas causes harmful interference to the amateur radio service. At the time this column was written, the city had not responded. Manassas is expected to gain $4.5 million in revenue over the life of the BPL contract.

The ARRL also is taking an active role in homeland security. The organization was awarded another year of funding from the Corporation for National and Community Service to train more amateur radio operators in emergency communications. The two-year grant for nearly $180,000 will provide free training for about 1700 additional hams who register for ARRL's online Emergency Communications Level 1 Course. Last year, the ARRL helped train 1699 volunteers under the program.

Then there's the Morse Code question. After nearly a century of monitoring telegraph distress calls, including those from the Titanic after her collision with an iceberg in 1912, the U.S. Coast Guard turned off its Morse Code equipment in 1995. But hams are still hanging in there, and so is the FCC, which recently invited public comment on a second round of seven Morse-related petitions for rulemaking.

Petitions suggest a range of solutions to maintain a certain level of skill in Morse Code as a requirement for a ham license. As one ham commented to the Commission, Morse Code is "an art form and a language," adding that it's "the purest, most accurate, efficient, reliable, and economical form of radio communications ever devised." This is all probably true. But people still like to talk.

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