Monday, December 28, 2009

Spectrum inventory and reallocation snowball keeps growing...

Recently on the 9AM Talk Net mailing list Kristen K6WX noted an AP article "Cell phone mania forces scramble for more airwaves". This article came out on the same day Mashable reported that AT&T has stopped selling the iPhone in New York City; presumably because AT&T is finding that their network can't handle the data traffic. The AP article reports that the CTIA is asking the FCC for an additional 500 MHz of spectrum to handle current and anticipated capacity needs.

FCC chairman Genachowsky began talking about a looming spectrum crisis back in November, so it's not a surprise to me that a month later AT&T is shutting off iPhone sales in one of the most densely populated and highly-mobile cities in the USA; what better way to build populist outrage which will encourage Congress to support bills such as John Kerry's SB 649 "Radio Spectrum Inventory Act" and Henry Waxman's companion HR 3125? I wrote about SB 649, and how it potentially threatens amateur radio, back in March 2009.

Another recent development from the FCC is an effort which would terminate most or all over-the-air (OTA) broadcast television. Theoretically; if the FCC could migrate all OTA TV to cable, wired broadband, or some sort of multiplexed digital wireless system this would free up 300 MHz of spectrum. CTIA is asking the FCC for 500 MHz of spectrum, so the FCC would still need to locate 200 MHz of additional spectrum. It's unlikely that any amateur bands below 1 GHz would serve the cellular industry's needs, but consider our allocations above 1 GHz:
  • 1240 - 1300 MHz = 60 MHz
  • 2300 - 2310 MHz = 10 MHz
  • 2390 - 2450 MHz = 60 MHz (In reality; 10 MHz see [a])
  • 3300 - 3500 MHz = 200 MHz
  • 5650 - 5925 MHz = 275 MHz (In reality; 0 MHz see [b])
[a] It's unlikely that the FCC would disturb the lucrative Wi-Fi business, so I presume that 2400 - 2483.5 MHz will be off-limits i.e. this leaves 10 MHz available for reallocation.

[b] This band overlaps with the UNII 5.7 GHz band's channels 128 - 165; so again the Wi-Fi (802.11a) industry will likely trump any CTIA interests.

Thus I'm going on record today with my prediction that 3300 - 3500 MHz is the band likely threatened by SB649/HR3125 or future variants. Of course it could be argued "So what?" and you'd be right; in all honesty how many hams are active in the 3300 - 3500 MHz band? A few guys in the 50 MHz And Up Club? 200 MHz of spectrum will bring in a LOT of money in a spectrum auction.

And the FCC will need that money, because apparently the FCC is planning to pay the NAB and TV broadcasters (who never paid for, and thus don't actually own, their spectrum) about $12 billion to shut down OTA television and migrate to the aforementioned cable, wired broadband, or multiplexed digital wireless system.

An additional $9 billion would be spent (think "DTV Converter Box Coupon" program -- on steroids) to migrate households to the new system. So in the end; the FCC wants to spend $21 billion dollars to ensure that the cellular industry has room to grow. Good thing Congress recently raised the debt ceiling to $12.4 trillion, eh?

I suppose that in the long run this makes sense; the tax revenues from adding more mobile phone subscribers is potentially huge; especially if the IRS succeeds in making it harder for taxpayers to count mobile phone expenses as a deduction. What frosts me is the idea that the NAB, who didn't pay for their spectrum to begin with, stands to reap a $12B windfall. Good work if you can get it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

NIST will re-test P25 radio under high-noise scenarios in 2010

A while back (July 2008) I discussed a report from the International Association of Fire Chiefs on NIST/NTIA testing of digital vocoder performance in high-noise environments such as firegrounds.

NIST has announced that they'll be re-testing in 2010 with new DVSI vocoders. Urgent Communications reports that next year’s tests will be similar to the previous tests, in that the same noise environments will be explored. Key differences include the use of a mask with an internal microphone, use of radio reference systems to avoid manufacturer settings and the addition of "radio-channel impairments" that are designed to emulate the impact of a firefighter receiving a weaker signal when entering a building. This latter aspect (effects the so-called "digital-cliff" in low signal or degraded propagation environments) was a key component missing from the 2008 tests and I'm glad to see it being included on this round.

I'm still not sure about the wisdom of using proprietary vocoders (DVSI) for radio systems. We have enough interoperability challenges as it is; do we really want to tie next-gen radio systems to licensing from a single manufacturer? The digital radio world really needs to come up with a viable open-source vocoder.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

An example of why amateur radio is failing to attract young people

I follow various hams on Twitter and in blogs. Some because they're friends, some because they're part of my local radio community, and some just because I like what they have to say. There's another smaller group I follow, which is people I tend to not agree with. In the same way that conservatives will listen to NPR and watch CNN as a way to better understand and counter the liberal/socialist viewpoint, reading these people's tweets and blogs helps me understand why amateur radio continues to slide into obscurity.

Mike WA4D's "MEWCOMM" blog and Twitter commentary is one which I typically don't agree with. His position on matters relating to amateur radio are highly representative of a mindset which pervades the hobby, and which I believe is ultimately counter-productive to the hobby's evolution. I will use Mike's writings as proxies for opinions held by others, so apologies to Mike in advance; this is not intended to be a personal attack at you. To be fair; I like and agree strongly with Mike's perspectives on politics and foreign policy, but his judgmental attitude towards no-code hams (i.e. those who have not learned Morse Code or "CW" in the parlance) happens to be a perfect example of why amateur radio is failing to attract young people into the hobby. A sampling of Mike's comments include:
  • People who don't know how CW "are not real hams".
  • Removal of the CW testing requirement was equivalent to "affirmative action" or a "back door".
  • CW defines the "soul of the hobby" and "defines what a real ham is in the 21st century".
In 2006 the FCC was in the process of implementing WRC-03 recommendations which would later eliminate CW testing as a requirement for amateur radio licensing. I filed comments with the FCC during the comment period in support of this decision, in which I asked "Is the true measure of technical prowess the ability to understand what amounts to a language?" Indeed; my experience is that hams who know code are no better or worse operators or technologists than hams who don't know code. Some of the smartest hams I know -- hams who have contributed real value in the application of computing technology to radio -- are Extra-class hams who never learned Morse Code. My opinion? These people, and the technology they're developing, will truly define amateur radio in the 21st century.

Mike recently wrote that no-code hams "know not of the 'thrill of recognition'", which I infer to mean that they're not real hams because they're never experienced the "satori" moment of completing their first Morse Code contact. Having experienced the "thrill of recognition" for CW and other modes I can say that while the satori moment for CW is indeed exciting, it's no stronger or more "real" than the satori moment I had when I made a 10,000+ mile contact using JT65A on HF at 50 watts of power into a hand-made antenna cobbled from $2.00 worth of spare parts and wire. I remember both experiences equally well, and yet the JT65A contact is more memorable (and a source of greater pride for me) because I did it using a new (at the time) mode on jury-rigged hardware. But following Mike's logic I guess this wasn't a real accomplishment because it involved use of a computer, and at the time I didn't know how to send & receive CW..?

Amateur radio is a "big tent" hobby which offers something for everyone. If the hobby were healthy, growing, and not in danger of obsolescence I would say "Live and let live" and be done with it. But opinions such as "people who don't know or use CW are not real hams" are too prevalent among a majority of hams, with the end result being that bright young people who might want to explore amateur radio's application to computers and digital communication are scared away by older hams who insist on defining "real radio" in terms that they can understand.

The danger is that, as older hams pass on and are not replaced by younger hams, we will reach a point where the government decides that amateur radio spectrum can be put to better use. ARRL or not, the ham population will be too small to defend our allocation, and combined with decreasing relevance and value to emergency communications we will eventually lose our spectrum. Proficiency in CW and adherence to traditions will not solve this problem and help us keep our spectrum. The only solution is to open our minds, embrace change, and get over this self-defeating need to hold up 100+ year old technology as the gold standard against which new technology must compare.

The crux of the problem is that the prevailing majority has defined amateur radio and its reverence of traditions as an immutable core. This is horribly wrong and ultimately self-defeating. We should instead be seeking ways that encourage the applying of amateur radio to new technologies, and in doing so continuously finding new relevance and recruiting new hams. "Real hams" are those that are creating innovative technology which applies amateur radio to technology, such as Chris K6DBG's hack that converts a Wi-Fi router into an APRS receiver. Speaking the "language" of Morse Code isn't proof of technical ingenuity, doesn't prove that a ham is innovative or intelligent, and arrogantly judging hams based on their ability (or not) to use CW drives away new recruits and will NOT save our hobby.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Drinking the Kool-Aid

A while back I set up a Twitter account for the Wireless Communications Alliance ( and have, on occasion, tweeted from it about non-WCA events. Not a problem, but I thought it was time to set up a personal account so if you like please follow me via

in reference to: David W6DTW (W6DTW) on Twitter (view on Google Sidewiki)