Spectrum Wars: The Right To Bear Radio

“I am writing to ask you to join me in defending something that is absolutely essential for the future of Amateur radio: our access to the radio spectrum.” – David Sumner, K1ZZ (Chief Executive Officer, ARRL)

There is a war raging right now at this very moment. A war you won’t read about in the daily news or on your Facebook newsfeed. It is a conflict that will not make the evening news on your television. It is not a battle fought with arms or ammunition but with money, policies and legislation. This war, like every other modern conflict, is a war over natural resources. No, it is not over water, or arable land, neither is it for oil or natural gas nor minerals or timber. It is over a natural resource that is very misunderstood, often overlooked and taken for granted, radio.  Americans love their “rights” and “freedoms” and any one of them can list off their rights at the drop of a hat: freedom of speech, right to peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of press, and, all too often thrown around in American politics, their right to bear arms. Whilst there is no “Right to Bear Radio” in the Bill of Rights, and access to radio is considered a privilege to American citizens and not a right, it is a privilege that, if informed on the subject, Americans would fight to defend; at least I’d like to think so.

Whether the reader is aware or not, there is a huge revolution in mobile broadband communications taking place throughout the world right now, and it appears to be centred here in the United States. Most people I meet day to day are totally unaware that the iPhone/Samsung smart-phones on their hips and the tablets they’re reading their favourite books on are radio transceivers; these devices have their own access to and allocation in a larger electromagnetic spectrum. The electromagnetic spectrum is quite large, but like all things in the universe it is finite, and the bands used for effective radio communication are limited and becoming more and more so with every passing year.

With growing populations there is a huge call for more spectrum for commercial mobile broadband services. The American consumers demand faster, more reliable internet connections and clearer and higher definition audio and video. They demand stronger Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections for their smart-phones, tablets and laptops wherever they may go. There are companies that make billions of dollars a year by meeting these demands. There are politicians and lobbyists who see wireless broadband companies as a resource for employment and economic growth. Everyone wants a world without wires! Well this world without wires and all this wireless technology, which the American consumer believes is “new” has existed for decades and they’ve had access to it through outlets like Amateur radio all along. Corporations have been buying up and taking away America’s access to free radio communications and selling it back to them as “smart” technology and “HD internet” for a minimum of $100 a month, more than most Americans can afford.

Now there are some good things to say about this mobile broadband revolution. We all enjoy some of the benefits day to day. I am after all typing this up on a MacBook Pro and watching reruns of Cheers via a Netflix application on my iPad both from Apple one of the leaders in this mobile broadband revolution. As previously stated, however, the radio spectrum is a limited resource. Mobile broadband works fantastically between the frequencies of 400MHz to 6GHz and these frequencies are already allocated for a wide array of uses, including something near and dear to my heart, Amateur radio. How do you make room for tens of millions of new wireless devices? This is an extremely difficult task and very complex problem that plagues thousands of spectrum management specialists around the world. The scarier thing is now the United States Congress is getting involved, a group infamous for making many wrong decisions over the years, are hardly qualified for spectrum management and allocating. In the not so distant future it has been predicted there will be more different types of “smart” devices than species of mammals.

The Amateur Radio Service’s access to the radio spectrum is threatened on many fronts not just by the mobile broadband revolution. The 70cm Band (420MHz-450MHz) is already being shared with military radar amongst other systems. On the 33cm Band (902MHz-928MHz) the FCC has given consent for a new commercial precision location system and a variety of other uses including unlicensed “Part 15” devices. The 23cm Band (1.240GHz-1.3GHz) has to contend for its place against upgraded air traffic control radars from the FAA and increased use by radionavigation satellite networks. Our 13cm Band (2.3GHz-2.450GHz) and 9cm Band (3.3GHz-3.5GHz) are earmarked for mobile broadband in most of the world with portions of the 13cm Band already heavily used by unlicensed Wi-Fi. The 9cm is on the lips of the broadband companies and proponents as part of the “spectrum superhighway” from 2.7GHz to 3.7GHz.

The Amateur Radio Service is not the only group feeling the strains of this spectrum war. Broadcasters, public safety agencies, and even the almighty Pentagon are being forced to give up certain access to the radio spectrum or at the very least share their respective bands. Amateur radio has successfully shared the radio spectrum with the aviation, maritime and military bands for decades but sharing with commercial services appears to be impossible. With the size and financial and political strength of the broadband corporations it is not an easy fight. The Amateur Radio Service has faced big challenges in the past and won, but I fear the loss of our UHF, SHF and EHF frequency bands to new iPhones, high-speed Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices.

Amateur radio is responsible for many of the innovations in radio technology both past and present and has done more for the world of electronics and radio communications in the United States and the world than any of the big corporate money machines billing you for your internet access as you read this. The ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League), the national association for Amateur radio in the United States, is fighting the fight for all of us licensed radio Amateurs and needs our support. If you are a licensed Amateur and not a member of the ARRL I encourage you to become a member, there are many benefits to membership and one of those is the protection of your radio rights. For those of you not involved in Amateur radio but feel moved to help support Amateur radio in the United States please contact the ARRL. I also encourage my fellow Amateurs to get on the bands, quiet bands can be considered dead and unnecessary bands making it all that much easier for someone to snatch them away from us. Thank you for reading. – Packie, KY3I

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