Is Ham Radio a Hobby, a Utility…or Both? A Battle Over Spectrum Heats Up

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By Julianne Pepitone

Some think automated radio emails are mucking up the spectrum reserved for amateur radio, while others say these new offerings provide a useful service

Like many amateur radio fans his age, Ron Kolarik, 71, still recalls the “pure magic” of his first ham experience nearly 60 years ago. Lately, though, encrypted messages have begun to infiltrate the amateur bands in ways that he says are antithetical to the spirit of this beloved hobby.

So Kolarik filed a petition, RM-11831 [PDF], to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposing a rule change to “Reduce Interference and Add Transparency to Digital Data Communications.” And as the proposal makes its way through the FCC’s process, it has stirred up heated debate that goes straight to the heart of what ham radio is, and ought to be.

The core questions: Should amateur radio—and its precious spectrum—be protected purely as a hobby, or is it a utility that delivers data traffic? Or is it both? And who gets to decide?

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Since Kolarik filed his petition in late 2018, this debate has engulfed the ham world. Fierce defenders of both sides have filed passionate letters and comments to the FCC arguing their cases.

On one side is Kolarik in Nebraska. In his view, it’s all rather simple: “Transparency is a core part of ham radio,” he says. “And yet, you can find tons of traffic from automatic[ally controlled digital] stations that are extremely difficult to identify, if you can identify them at all, and they cause interference.”

The automatically controlled digital stations (ACDS) Kolarik refers to can serve to power services like Winlink, a “global radio email” system.

Overseen and operated by licensed volunteers around the globe, Winlink is funded and guided by the Amateur Radio Safety Foundation, Inc. (ARSFI). The service uses amateur and government radio frequencies around the globe to send email messages by radio. Users initiate the transmission through an Internet connection, or go Internet-free and use smart-network radio relays.

On Winlink’s website, the service says it provides its licensed users the ability to send email with attachments, plus messages about their positions, and weather and information bulletins. Representatives of the service say it also allows users to participate in emergency and disaster relief communications.

But Kolarik’s petition argues two points: First, because such messages “are not readily and freely able to be decoded,” the FCC should require all digital codes to use protocols that “can be monitored in entirety by third parties with freely available, open-source software.” Secondly, he wants the rule change to reduce the interference that he says services like Winlink can create between amateur-to-amateur stations—by relegating the often-unattended automatic stations to operate solely on narrower sub-bands.

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Loring Kutchins, the president of ARSFI, says he believes Kolarik’s petition is “well intentioned in its basis. But the fundamental conflict is between people who believe amateur radio is about hobby, not about utility. But nowhere do the FCC rules use the word ‘hobby.’”

Image of Loring Kutchins holding a microphone connected to a transmitter.
Photo: Loring Kutchins

The divide between hobbyists and utilitarians seems to come down to age, in Kutchins’ opinion.

“Younger people who have come along tend to see amateur radio as a service, as it’s defined by FCC rules, which outline the purpose of amateur radio—especially as it relates to emergency operations,” he says.

In short, Kutchins says, his view boils down to abiding by the FCC rules as currently written: “Why is email inappropriate for amateur radio? Why should utilitarian purposes not be part of amateur radio?”

While Kolarik’s petition touches on some of those questions, an ex parte letter [PDF] by professor Theodore Rappaport, who leads the NYU Wireless research center at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, makes particularly strong statements against services like Winlink.“Transparency is a core part of ham radio.” —Ron Kolarik

Rappaport’s letter calls Kolarik’s proposed rule change vital to “safeguard the national security of the United States,” and key to attracting young people to ham radio. He also accuses services like Winlink of being used to flout various FCC rules. For example, he wrote these services are used “often by boat owners to avoid other readily available commercial means for sending private email (a violation of numerous FCC rules which explicitly prohibit bypassing other commercial means and prohibit pecuniary interest).”

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Kutchins, however, doesn’t think Rappaport’s passion is genuine. He fired back in his own letter [PDF] to the FCC: “Theodore Rappaport and the opponents he informs offer an emotional, layman’s conjecture in their assertions that hard-to-monitor, advanced digital protocols used in the amateur radio service will encourage crime, terrorism, and are a threat to national security,” Kutchins wrote. “They clearly do not know or appreciate what monitoring and inspection routinely occurs, and are thus not qualified to judge.”

In an interview, Kutchins says Winlink has system operators who monitor traffic for illegal activity, and though every group has bad actors, he argues that “people on Rappaport’s side have gone through and picked out anything that could be a violation, rather than use the amateur radio principle that we’re supposed to be self-regulating. We call each other out when somebody does something wrong: Inform the violator and educate how you think they have violated the rules.”“Why is email inappropriate for amateur radio? Why should utilitarian purposes not be part of amateur radio?” —Loring Kutchins

Further, Kutchins says, any licensee can read any message sent through a U.S. station on amateur radio frequencies in plain text via a message viewer that is open and available online, and he adds that Winlink has a reporting program established at the FCC’s request.

But Rappaport says his chief “concern is that the proliferation of illegal, effectively encrypted data will turn the hobby of ham radio into a mean-spirited, non-technical dummied-down mosh pit of signals that eventually becomes a high-frequency Internet access point in the sky.”

Image of NYU professor Ted Rappaport, N9NB, operating from his front porch in Riner, Virginia.
Photo: Gordon Garrett, K1GG

His fear is “that many applications and transmissions will be closed and controlled by a tiny group of individuals who do not share the vision or incentive for providing transparency of all activities—or technology—in amateur radio. How will that attract youth and help the STEM effort in America?”

The battle continues in letters and comments to the FCC about the proposal. It could be months before the agency completes all of its comment periods and other processes and ultimately decides whether to codify the proposal or strike it down.

In the meantime, back in Lincoln, Nebraska, Kolarik says he’s simply focused on the future of his cherished hobby. He’s heartened by young ham fans who commented on the proposal, like 15-year-old Bryant Rascoll, an Extra Class amateur radio licensee in Alabama who wrote in support of RM-11831 about protecting “our precious spectrum.”

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“I don’t want to see amateur radio turn into essentially a smartphone for sending email—today’s kid has that and more there in his pocket,” Kolarik says. “But if they can turn on a machine and talk to someone thousands of miles away, without the worry of interference, they will feel that magic that I did too, years ago.”

7 comments

  1. Win link is essentially a money making scheme for the associated vendors of Pactor related equipment. It is in fact a closed system that is highly network oriented which allows messages to take convoluted paths which can make it very easy to use it for nefarious purposes. In Phone or code communications where operators are directly involved, such as NTS and other traffic like routing, there are monitors at every juncture and the ability of many to discern what is happening. It’s that level of self policing that is an important part of how Amateur radio operators operate.

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  2. Kolarik’s comments is a prime example of aging dinosaurs not accepting that the only constant is change. He is why the hobby is dying. Winlink is nothing special. It’s just another digital mode, with the protocol widely understood and published. Anyone can use it. Kolarik is an exemplary of grouchy old hams scaring away younger folks such as myself. If anything, it’s these digital modes that breathe new life into the hobby. But if Kolarik wants to keep it the good, ol’ white boys club…

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  3. Poppycock. This argument is over. We already demonstrated in experiments over hundreds of miles that anyone can read WINLINK transmissions if they have a sufficient Signal. These type arguments as presented in this article are merely provocations trying to stir up unwarranted trouble. Their arguments fell apart when we read the emails and demonstrated that other systems were producing compressed messages that no one had ever read. There is still an outstanding challenge for someone to read a compressed message from the FLDG.I. series of software; no one has read it. Just because you’re technically unable to understand simple code does not mean something is encrypted!

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  4. I appreciate the tone of this article. The thrust appears to be an attempt to provide an unbiased examination of the facts. To that end, there were some things in the article that were not accurately portrayed and I would like to address them.

    First, Winlink transmissions are digital transmissions, not encrypted messages. This is an important distinction. Winlink messages can be read in the clear using simple, open-source programs that are readily available. Transmissions are not encrypted; messages are. Encryption is a cypher that is applied to a message prior to transmission rendering it unreadable to all but those who have an encryption key. The fact that all of the content of a Winlink message is readable means that no encryption has been applied to the message. As such, Winlink is just one of a number of digital signals allowed in the amateur spectrum. No digital signal transmitted in the amateur spectrum that can be read by ear. All require a computer and software to read the message. The argument applied against Winlink could be applied against virtually all non-voice/ CW transmissions. Doing so would move the radio art backwards, not forwards.

    A second (and vitally important) element that must be considered is the basis and purpose of the amateur radio service. Part 97.1 states: “The rules and regulations in this part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following principles: (a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary, non-commercial communications service particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.” Amateur radio, as defined by the FCC, is at its foundation a public service. It is a training ground in the radio art and in provides a reservoir of skilled operators and technicians to that end. Amateur radio cannot be divorced from emergency communications.

    As one serving in emergency communications, I can attest that the amateur radio service as a valuable asset for passing message traffic. In this arena, Winlink takes on a singular role as the go-to service for accurately passing message traffic. In several recent disaster responses, the FCC has issued temporary permission for amateurs supporting disaster relief to use Pactor 4 speeds in order to facilitate the passage of message traffic through the amateur radio service. If we were to lose this capability, one of the main missions of the amateur radio service– emergency communications– would suffer irreparable harm. I would suspect that, if this were to happen, we should expect to see a continual loss of radio spectrum. It is amateur radio’s ability to provide public service and emergency communications that is protecting the spectrum for amateur use as a hobby, not the other way around.

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  5. I’d like to make several points. First, what’s wrong with amateur radio being used for emergency service? The people in Puerto Rico certainly appreciated the effort after Hurricane Maria. As have survivors of other major disasters. Should we say to them after the next major hurricane “Sorry, but amateur radio is strictly for hobby use, so we can’t help’? Amateur radio has been used as a contingency communication method in disasters since its inception. Contrary to the argument that this is “using up precious spectrum space” it’s one of the main reasons the spectrum space hasn’t been taken from amateur radio for other purposes.

    Who decides that a particular amateur radio mode like Winlink is or isn’t for hobby use? If a ham chats with a friend about the weather, we say that’s hobby use. Isn’t it just as much hobby use if the ham sends a Winlink message to a friend discussing the weather? How does a transmission mode determine hobby/non-hobby use?

    The argument that Winlink is encrypted and can’t be monitored has been proven false more than once. In fact, a video recording was presented to both the ARRL board and the FCC showing a Winlink transmission being intercepted and copied by a third party. Dr. Rappaport could repeat the test himself if he really wanted to determine if Winlink is encrypted.

    If Dr. Rappaport were truly interested in “attracting young people to ham radio” he would recognize that digital modes like Winlink are the future. Every communication segment has gone to pure digital except amateur radio. I love SSB phone chats, but that seems archaic to young people who were brought up on digital communication.

    Phil, W4PHS

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  6. Winlink is the first actually useful ham protocol I have discovered in 30+ years. In times of disaster, I don’t need to communicate with other hams- I need to communicate with my family- who are not hams, across the continent and beyond. And by disaster, I’m talking about hurricane Irma in 2017 that took out communications and power throughout Florida- where I live. If I had known about Winlink then, I certainly would have used it. Frankly, I’m extremely upset at ignorant hams that blast their SSB communications across the limited frequency band where Winlink is relegated to, while the rest of the band is widely open. It is those hams that don’t recognize the importance of something like Winlink to the ham community as well as the public.

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