BY RICH MOSESON,* W2VU
After a century-long exile, hams in the United States finally have the federal government's permission to operate on wavelengths above 200 meters, as the FCC opened the long-anticipated 630-meter and 2200-meter bands to general amateur use (see News Update on page 10). And while there is definitely reason to rejoice, there is also cause for concern in the broader view of things, both in how amateurs are viewed by the wider technology community and in how the FCC is putting less and less priority on the rights of license-holders. The dictionary defines a disrupter as someone who causes chaos or turmoil. In modern business parlance, a disrupter is seen more positively, as an innovator, someone who challenges the status quo. This means, of course, that disrupters are perceived as threats by those who wish to preserve the status quo.
We hams have always been disrupters. And we have always been perceived as threats by certain elements of the technology community (even though we frequently have been responsible for advancing the state of the art in the telecommunications industry). Back in the early part of the 20th century, amateurs were perceived as such a threat by the commercial wireless industry that it persuaded Congress, in the Radio Act of 1912, to restrict amateurs to wavelengths shorter than 200 meters (about 1500 kHz) and keep us far away from the "important" frequencies in the neighborhood of 600 meters (about 500 kHz) where most commercial ship-to-shore communications took place.
Despite the migration of commercial communication systems over the past 25 years to higher frequencies and to satellites, we hams have continued until very recently to be barred from experimenting and communicating on the frequencies below the AM broadcast band. The first crack in that wall came ten years ago, when the 2007 World Radio communication Convention (WRC-07) allowed amateur use of 135.7-137.8 kHz (2200 meters); followed five years later by WRC-12 permitting hams to use 472-479 kHz (630 meters). Here in the U.S., it took another five years before the FCC opened these bands to amateur use on September 15 of this year. We should definitely celebrate this, but let's look at the reality of these new allocations. They are, in a word, minuscule. The 2200-meter band has a total bandwidth of 2.1 kHz. One single-sideband voice signal is wider than the entire band. The 630-meter band is much bigger in comparison. It covers a whopping 7 kHz!
But because hams continue to be seen by some as disrupters (in the negative sense), there are "terms and conditions" that go along with our tiny new bands, and that's because these frequencies are used in some places by electric utilities for "power line communications" (PLC) to control the power grid. Despite the fact that hams in other countries, and amateurs here in the U.S. operating under Part 5 experimental licenses for the past five years, have used these bands extensively without a single instance of interference to a PLC system, our use of these frequencies is severely restricted.
Power (measured in Effective Isotropic Radiated Power, or EIRP, at the antenna) is limited to either 5 watts or 1 watt, depending on band and location; and approval (or at least lack of objection) by the electric power industry is required before operations are permitted. A whole new layer of bureaucracy was created in order to make sure we wouldn't disrupt (there's that word again) anything in the 9 kHz of new spectrum space made available to us. Think about that – these two new "bands" combined have a total bandwidth of just over 9 kHz – and in order to use them, we need to jump through hoops that are not required on any other amateur allocations. That's how much of a threat we are still perceived to be.
Yet, precisely because we are disrupters (read that as "innovators" this time), some number of us will jump through those hoops, will get on the air and will continue the work of the DX hams and US experimental stations in designing small-buteffective antennas and learning more about the already-amazing DX possibilities on these new bands. (And we will continue to keep you updated through our quarterly MF/LF column and occasional additional feature articles.)
A Hidden Danger
Part of the FCC's ruling on these new bands continues a trend that ought to be at least somewhat alarming to all FCC licenseholders. It is the latest instance of a licensed service (amateur radio) being subordinated to a non-licensed service (PLC). It is particularly rife in our microwave bands, several of which are shared with unlicensed WiFi channels. Technically, as licensed users, we have priority, but in reality we don't. Generally, there is no direct interference, but the presence of multiple WiFi signals raises the noise floor, making amateur communication slower and more difficult.
In addition, hams on certain UHF/microwave bands must accept interference from unlicensed industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) equipment; we are essentially secondary to the non-licensed Intelligent Transportation System in the 5.9-GHz band, and amateur privileges on 76-77 GHz are suspended "until such time that the Commission may determine that amateur station transmissions in this segment will not pose a safety threat to (unlicensed) vehicle radar systems operating in this segment."
It's not just hams, either. In revised Part 95 rules that took effect in late September, licensed users of the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) now have to share eight of their 16 channels with unlicensed Family Radio Service (FRS) users, and GMRS stations using those channels are now limited to 5 watts of power (used to be 50) and signal bandwidths of 12.5 kHz (used to be 20), all to accommodate coexistence with FRS. (See July 2017 CQ, p. 26, for more on the new Part 95 rules.)
The Communications Act of 1934 contains the basic requirement that "No person shall use or operate any apparatus for the transmission of energy or communications or signals by radio … (except) with a license in that behalf granted under the provisions of this chapter." (47 USC §301) The FCC, in Part 15 of its rules, provides for certain types of stations in certain circumstances to operate without a license. But the underlying assumption has always been that licensed users will have priority over unlicensed users. This assumption has been slowly eroding in recent years, and the FCC's rules on 630 and 2200 meters add to that erosion. This is a trend that should be of concern to all licensed services.
What's Old is New Again
Back in 1968, CQ published The Amateur Radio DX Handbook, by Don Miller, W9WNV, a renowned DXer, DXpeditioner and somewhat of a disrupter himself. The book quickly established itself as the "DXer's Bible," offering tips and techniques for successful DXing, along with a ton of additional, very helpful, information (such as great circle bearings from a host of locations and basic QSO exchanges in a variety of different languages). While the book has been out of print for decades, we continue to get requests for it, and, we found out recently, so does Don. So, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the book's original publication (OK, a few months early), we have published a reproduction of Don's book – unchanged from the original. The book had just come in from the printer as I was writing this and I took a quick look through it. While there were obviously some dated elements, I was amazed at how much of it is still very relevant today, from propagation (Don was well ahead of his time in that department) to DXing techniques and a "DX Barometer" to estimate what part of a pileup you're likely to be in, depending on your location and equipment. Don's clear and easy-to-follow writing style, as well as his expertise in the art and science of DXing, make this new/old book a valuable addition to any current or prospective DXer's library. It'd make a great stocking-stuffer!
Speaking of holidays, all the best to you and your family for a very Happy Thanksgiving, and we hope you can make some time over the holiday weekend to exchange greetings with a few thousand of your closest friends during the CQWW CW Contest. – 73, W2VU