Engineers need to preserve amateur radio growth and transparency

Article By : Theodore S. Rappaport

Engineers need to weigh in on proposed rule changes on ham radio at the FCC, according to one of the world’s leading wireless researchers.

As a veteran educator and research center director, I’ve had the thrill of seeing more than 10 generations of students obtain electrical and computer engineering degrees and pursue technical careers around the world. A common trait I’ve seen in these students has been an appreciation for the engineering process built on integrity, the open exchange of ideas, and accuracy in solving problems.

These values echo the engineer’s creed, which calls us to:

  • Give the utmost of performance
  • Participate in none but honest enterprise
  • Live and work according to the laws of man and the highest standards of professional conduct
  • Place service before profit, the honor and standing of the profession before personal advantage, and the public welfare above all other considerations.

Many of the students I’ve had the pleasure of working with became interested in the hobby of amateur radio, also called ham radio. The same hobby led me to pursue a career in electrical engineering.

I have always believed that the ham radio hobby has been a vital part of the cultivation of engineering talent around the world. Past great hams who were licensed as teenagers include Frederick Terman, the Stanford Dean who founded Silicon Valley; Edwin Armstrong, the inventor of FM and superheterodyne; Arthur Collins, the man who created Collins Radio (later Rockwell Collins); and even Joe Walsh, a guitarist in The Eagles rock band. There are hundreds of thousands of others.

The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) recently reported the number of American ham radio operators has seen anemic 1% annual growth over the past decade with fewer numbers of young hams entering the hobby. Concurrent with this poor attraction of youth, ARRL placed a large emphasis on emergency communications, and tacitly approved and at times outright endorsed the widespread use of effectively encrypted data on the HF bands that travel around the world via the ionosphere.

The FCC has always been clear throughout its Part 97 rules that all ham radio transmitted signals must be unobscured and “out in the open,” so other hams and the public may listen in. Especially in emergencies, the FCC has been crystal clear in stating that others need to hear what is happening, so they can alert authorities. The social contract of ham radio is that in exchange for the valuable use of spectrum all may participate and learn with the understanding that business use, privacy, and other commercial means are prohibited.

To rectify this ongoing problem of effective encryption in amateur radio, and to open up the airwaves so that computer enthusiasts may intercept and experiment and learn from all transmissions, the FCC recently published a rule-making proposal, RM-11831. The rule aims to reiterate the need to keep all data communications open for all to intercept, and encourages the use of open-source software or publicly available decoders, while keeping email relay stations in their allocated sub-bands.

Many who are improperly using HF radio for free private email are spreading false information about the proposal and its effects. The proposal would not end emailing or emergency communications in amateur radio, it would just open up the messages, so all can hear as required by the FCC and for the good of the general public.

The rancor and misinformation by the vocal minority that wants to keep obscured messages in the amateur radio HF bands is a clear indication of the degradation of the hobby, and the urgency for amateur radio to return to its engineering roots of open transmissions. This is a vital prerequisite to attract young hams, who can participate in the hobby and grow up with a culture and values comparable to the engineer’s creed.

To preserve the basic tenets of amateur radio, I see an urgent need for the engineering community to write to the FCC, to file comments in favor of RM-11831, and to support the concept of all ham radio data being open for reception by the public. The FCC is taking comments until April 25.

Thus far, a vocal minority has been unopposed in trying to turn the amateur radio hobby into a secure email system for boaters and RVers, rather than a hobby that is open, transparent, and steeped in the values that lead youth to pursue careers in engineering. Engineers need to pay it forward and support open source and transparency in ham radio. Please write the FCC and Congress today and urge support for RM-11831 and for all transmissions in amateur radio to be open for intercept, even for emergencies, so that the public may learn and participate in the exciting hobby of ham radio. Nothing less will attract future engineers and create a culture of transparency, learning, and growth that was once the hallmark of the hobby.

Theodore (Ted) Rappaport holds positions as a professor of electrical engineering, computer science, and radiology at New York University. He is the founding director of NYU WIRELESS, an academic research center that spans the three fields and was responsible for proving to the world that millimeter waves would work for 5G.

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