Zero Bias – A CQ Editorial
80 Meters, the ARRL and the FCC's "Error"
BY RICH MOSESON,* W2VU
Eighty meters … if there is such thing as an iconic ham band, 80 would be it. Consider the image: The intrepid amateur, alone in his shack in the middl of the night, uncomfortable headphones cover- ing his ears as he listens through the static for a barely audible signal from halfway around the world. Where's he listening? On 80, no doubt.
Eighty meters has been a ham band for as long as there have been ham bands. From radio's earliest days, it's been a workhorse band for regional communications during the day and DX after dark. So, when somebody — anybody — starts talking about changing the rules on who can do what and where on 80 meters, it catches our attention. Especially when that somebody is the ARRL, and especially when the reasoning behind the proposal makes one go, "Huh?"
At the beginning of this year, the ARRL submitted a petition to the FCC (RM-11759) for rule changes "to facil- itate high-frequency data communications." It basically asked the Commission to change the boundary between the 80-meter CW/data band and the 75-meter phone band from its current 3600 kHz to 3650 kHz in order to provide more space for digital mode communications1. The net effect will be to expand the CW/data band by 50 kHz and shrink the phone band by that same 50 kHz, although the League says its proposal will not "take any- thing away from anyone."
At first glance, this seems like a very reasonable topic for the ham community to discuss. After all, digital modes are hot and growing in popularity; CW is gaining adher- ents as well; and the current CW/data subband on 80 covers just 3500 to 3600 kHz, or one-fifth of the total band. On the other hand, the phone portion of the band gets the remaining four-fifths, from 3600-4000 kHz.
If the ARRL had presented this as justification for its request, we probably wouldn't have given it much more than a passing glance. But instead, the League is cast- ing its proposal as trying to correct an imagined injus- tice, and that has gotten our curiosity aroused.
You don't have to be an old-old-timer to remember that the 75-meter phone band didn't always start at 3600 kHz. In fact, until 2006, it started at 3750 kHz, just above the top end of the Novice CW band. And that is where the story of this petition begins. Back in the early 2000s, after the FCC reduced the number of amateur license classes from six to three and stopped issuing new Novice licenses, the ARRL petitioned the Commission to "refarm" (read: "eliminate") the HF Novice bands and replace them with expanded phone bands. The thinking at the time was that the CW/RTTY/data segments of the HF bands were underused while the phone segments were overcrowded, thus dissuading Technicians from upgrading to General or Extra and getting on HF, and ultimately leading them to drop out of ham radio com- pletely. The ARRL asked the FCC to expand the 75- and 40-meter phone bands by 25 kHz each, and to make larger portions of the 75-, 40-, and 15-meter phone bands available to General Class licensees. That basic proposal carried over to the FCC's Notice of Proposed Rule Making, or NPRM.
In the end, the FCC basically adopted the League's proposals, except that on 75/80 meters, it went much further, expanding the phone band by 150 kHz and lim- iting the CW/data portion of 80 meters to the bottom 100 kHz of the band (3500-3600 kHz). The Report and Order explained that many commenters felt the over- crowding of the 75-meter phone band was so great that a 25-kHz expansion would not be enough to make a real difference.
"Based on the record in this proceeding," the FCC wrote, "we are persuaded that we should authorize more spectrum in the 80-meter band for voice communica- tions than was proposed in the NPRM," based on com- menters' assertions that "the NPRM proposal … would still not meet the demand for voice communications spectrum …" and that the 80-meter CW subband "is grossly underused and represents a huge waste in spec- trum." Therefore, the Commission decided to move the bottom of the phone band to 3600 kHz rather than 3725 kHz as originally proposed, specifically stating that the larger phone band "will result in a more equitable divi- sion of spectrum between users of narrowband and wideband modes."
The ARRL now calls this decision an "error" and seeks in its petition to "simply (restore) that which was dis- rupted in 2006 in error." This was not an error. Rather, it was a carefully considered decision that differed — significantly — from the ARRL's proposal and the pro- posal in the NPRM. But let's remember how the rule making process works, and why.
The FCC does not rule by fiat. A proposal is made, either by the Commission itself or by an outside person or organization, such as the ARRL. Initial comments are solicited, and based on those, the Commission staff decides whether to proceed with the matter, and if so, tweaks the proposal into a Notice of Proposed Rule Making. The key word here is proposed.
The proposed changes are then opened for public comment, after which the staff reviews the comments and further refines the proposals before drafting a final recommendation for a vote by the FCC commissioners. It is very common for a final Report and Order to differ significantly from a Notice of Proposed Rule Making, based primarily on public input. It is the democratic process at work.
The FCC certainly makes mistakes, and corrects them when they are pointed out. But a decision that differs from one's original proposal — especially when accom- panied by a detailed explanation of the Commission's reasoning — is not a mistake. Yet, that is how the ARRL is presenting the FCC's 2006 decision in its 2016 peti- tion to "restore balance" among modes by backtracking on a change that it proposed specifically to shift that bal- ance by expanding HF phone bands.
Furthermore, the ARRL's 2016 comments state that Advanced and General Class licensees lost, respec- tively, 75 and 100 kHz of spectrum space on 75/80 as a result of the 2006 changes. In the original Report and Order, the FCC said that "no operating privileges were being removed from incumbent licensees." Who's right? We reviewed our own notes made when the 2006 Report and Order was issued. Here's what we had about 80/75:
"75m Extra Phone: + 150 kHz; 75m Advanced Phone: + 75 kHz; 75m General Phone: + 50 kHz; 80m Novice/Tech Plus CW: + 25 kHz." So it was certainly our perception at the time — along with the FCC's — that everyone came out a winner here. It is disingenuous for the ARRL to now try to stand that on its head and claim that everyone except Extras somehow lost privileges.
It seems that the ARRL's arguments are somewhat of a smokescreen, trying to distract the amateur public from dis- cussing and debating something else. But what? About the only possibility we can find is this: In its new petition, the ARRL said "the most substantial adverse effect" of the Commission's 2006 expansion of the 75-meter phone band to 3600 kHz was the dislocation of the previously designated band segment at 3620-3635 kHz for automatically controlled digital stations, or ACDS. What's an ACDS? It's kind of like a packet digipeater on HF, these days mostly used by Winlink for relaying emails that often have either started out or end up on the Internet. The ARRL has been promoting ACDS on HF for years, despite the fact that it has always been controversial and has never really caught on in the broader amateur community, even among fans of digital modes.
The only actual error in the 2006 FCC decision was that it neglected to designate a new band segment on 80 for ACDS. That error was quickly rectified once it was pointed out. However, the ARRL was not happy with the new subband at 3585-3600 kHz, claiming now that it "resulted in a sudden and severe dislocation" of CW traffic nets that had been operating in that frequency range. Really? None of the members of those nets had tuning dials on their radios? Sure, it might have caused some brief inconvenience, but the nets all had other frequency options available, so pick a new frequency and spin that big knob on the front of the radio. And with all due respect, just how much traffic are those CW traffic nets handling these days, anyway?
All in all, the ARRL's proposal is not that radical and proba- bly will result in minimal "sudden and severe dislocation" of any SSB nets that may meet in the 3600-3650 range. But why not simply base this petition on the indisputable facts that both CW and digital mode popularity have grown significantly in the past decade, and that the demand for spectrum for these modes is now much greater than it was in 2006? Those are very valid reasons for requesting a review of the band plan and would let the discussion be based on reality rather than some fabricated error of ten years ago.
We have come to expect candidates for public office to "spin" and twist their words so they can sound like they're address- ing an issue when they're really ducking it; and to try to distract voters with hyperbole to keep them from focusing on matters they'd rather keep out of the spotlight. We expect it from politi- cians, but not from the ARRL. If you have a valid proposal with solid reasons to support it, then set those out and let's have a discussion based on reality, including the pluses and minuses of automatically controlled digital stations, rather than trying to confuse matters with made-up errors. We get enough flim-flam from our politicians.
1. The proposal would also grant digital mode privileges on HF to Technicians and Novices, something we enthusiastically support.