The Role of Amateur Radio in the New Century
Dale N. Hatfield (W0IFO)
Chief, Office on Engineering and Technology
Federal Communications Commission
AMRAD's 25th Anniversary Dinner
Falls Church, VA
June 17, 2000
Thank you very much for the nice introduction.
I am very pleased to be able to speak to you this evening on the topic of the role of amateur radio in the new century. I am very pleased to be here for a number of reasons.
First, I am very pleased because it is both your 25th anniversary and your first anniversary dinner held in the new century. That seems like a particularly good time to reflect on the future of the amateur radio service and I am flattered that you have asked me to do so.
Second, I am very pleased because I have especially fond thoughts about the service because of the pivotal role that amateur radio and individual amateur operators -- hams -- played in my own career. As I will explain in more detail in a moment, I would not be in my current position if it had not been for the help of some hams back when I was a teenager about 50 years ago.
Third, I regard it as a particular honor to be asked to address an amateur radio group that emphasizes experimentation and the more technical aspects of amateur radio. Again, as I will indicate in more detail in a few minutes, I believe that experimentation and contributions to the state of the art in the radio field are a major part of the justification for maintaining spectrum allocations for the service in the face of increased demands by commercial and other interests.
I would like to divide the remainder of my remarks into five parts.
Before I continue, I need to add the standard disclaimer that my remarks here this evening represent my own views and they may not necessarily reflect the views of the Commission, any individual Commissioner, or any other staff member.
Background in Amateur Radio
My own involvement in amateur radio began in my early teens, when my father bought me a used Hallicrafters S-38B shortwave receiver. He and his brother -- my uncle -- had tinkered with crystal sets when they were kids and he somehow sensed that I might find radio interesting as well. I connected that receiver to piece of antenna wire hung out of my bedroom window and soon I heard a ham radio operator in Morocco calling CQ in the 20 meter amateur band. From that moment I was hooked on radio communications.
Two local hams who lived near me -- this was in Dayton, Ohio in the early 1950s -- helped me get my first license (WN8NGG) and helped me build my first transmitter. These two hams were electrical engineers that were employed at Wright-Patterson Airforce Base near Dayton. It was their interest that led me into electrical engineering as a vocation and ultimately to a job at the government's old Central Radio Propagation Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. I won't bore you with the details, but that first, entry-level job eventually led me to the position I hold today. Accordingly, I will forever be in the debt of those two hams who so unselfishly supported my passion for radio.
Role of the Office of Engineering and Technology
As most of you may know, the FCC is organized into Bureaus and Offices. Generally speaking, the bureaus -- the Common Carrier Bureau, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, the Mass Media Bureau, the Cable Services Bureau, and the International Bureau -- have the "line" or operating responsibility in terms of the Commission's regulation of particular segments of the telecommunications industry. For example, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau -- under the excellent leadership of my colleague, Tom Sugrue -- has the responsibility for the Amateur Radio Service. The offices -- such as the Office of the General Counsel and the Office of Plans and Policy -- provide support and advice to the operating bureaus and to the five member Commission itself.
Reflecting that rough division, the office that I now head, the Office of Engineering and Technology, provides technical advice to other bureaus and offices and to the Chairman and other Commissioners. In addition, however, our office has the responsibility for administering specific parts of the Commission's rules, namely, Parts 2, 5, 15, and 18. Part 2 of the rules contains the Table of Frequency Allocations. That is, while the individual bureaus have primary responsibility for developing and recommending specific service rules, we, in OET, have the responsibility for general allocation matters. We also issue experimental licenses under Part 5 of the Commission's rules. In addition, we administer Part 15 of the Commission's rules dealing with unlicensed devices as well as Part 18, which deals with certain industrial, scientific and medical equipment. Finally, we are responsible for the Commission's equipment authorization program. Much of that work is done at our laboratory facilities in Laurel, Maryland.
Growing Demand for Spectrum
The management of the radio spectrum resource is an extremely important part of telecommunications policy and regulation. As you all know so well, radio spectrum is an increasingly scarce natural resource. We simply do not have enough spectrum to give everyone all they want. This increasing demand is being propelled by a host of developments:
Hence, the allocation of spectrum for particular uses and the development of specific technical and service rules governing those allocations is a crucial determinant of telecommunications industry structure and performance. Even more importantly, it is critical to the performance of our public institutions that are devoted to certain scientific pursuits, such as radio astronomy, to the safety of life and property, and to the national defense.
As the office at the Commission that has primary responsibility for spectrum allocation matters, we, in OET, are in a particularly good spot to judge -- first hand -- the increasing demand for spectrum. Our office is generally the first place people stop when they are seeking new spectrum. Hardly a week goes by without someone stopping in my office or filing a petition asking that spectrum be allocated for some new service or that additional spectrum be allocated to an existing service. While increased efficiency in the use of spectrum -- through the use of digital compression techniques, more efficient modulation and greater frequency reuse, for example -- can offset some of this increased demand, increased scarcity is a very real concern. This scarcity is exemplified by increasingly contentious debates over spectrum sharing arrangements and by the amounts bid in auctions for radio licenses. The $35 billion bid in the recent Third Generation Cellular auctions in the United Kingdom provides very clear evidence of the increasing value of spectrum.
Our Chairman -- FCC Chairman, Bill Kennard -- has recently called attention to the potential for a "spectrum drought", especially in the valuable range below about 3 GHz. Under the leadership of the Chairman, and with solid support of Commissioner Susan Ness -- who has always been intensely interested in spectrum issues, we have put forth a number of proposals and undertaken a number of initiatives that would allow more uses and users of this national and international resource. One of these initiatives relates to Software Defined Radios -- a topic which I will return to briefly near the end of my remarks. The point that I want to emphasize here, however, is that, in thinking about the role of Amateur Radio in the new century, we must think about it in the context of increasing pressure on the underlying spectrum resource.
Future of the Amateur Service
Turning now to the future, it seems to me that given the increased pressure on the underlying resource from commercial and other non-commercial uses -- the key issue for the amateur service is maintaining access to an adequate amount of spectrum. Let me make it absolutely clear that, in raising the spectrum issue, I am not suggesting that there is any immediate threat to existing amateur allocations. I am simply pointing out the reality of the situation. The rapidly growing demand for spectrum coupled with the increased visibility of its economic value due to auctions makes it almost inevitable that amateurs will be under a certain amount of pressure to justify their "free" use of this precious resource.
In the past, the amateur service has justified its spectrum allocations by, among other ways, (1) engaging in experimentation that has advanced the radio state-of-the-art, (2) providing emergency communications in times of natural or man-made disasters, (3) providing trained radio operators in times of national emergencies, (4) encouraging international cooperation and goodwill by allowing direct communications between and among people on an international basis and (5) as in my case, providing an important educational outlet for people interested in the more technical aspects of radio communications. While the relative importance of some of these ways has obviously changed because of marketplace, technological and other developments, they remain valid today. The important thing is that they actually be carried out. Or, to use a bit of slang, it seems to me that it will be even more important for all segments of the amateur community to "walk the walk" not just "talk the talk."
Another potentially important area deals with how efficiently one uses the spectrum. We could probably discuss at some length the proper measure of spectrum efficiency but for our purposes here this evening it might be simply the number of simultaneous conversations that can be accommodated in a given amount of spectrum in a particular geographic area. In the commercial sectors, where organizations pay for their use of the spectrum, there is a significant economic incentive to use the resource efficiently to spread costs over as many users as possible while maintaining good quality service. That is, there is a strong incentive to develop and adopt more spectrally efficient technology. For example, by adopting various digital techniques, commercial mobile radio service providers (e.g., cellular and PCS) have been able to dramatically increase their capacity compared to the original analog technology. Similarly, when the broadcast industry has completed its transition to digital television, we will be able to reclaim a substantial amount of spectrum for other uses.
I recognize that, in the past, hams have also adopted more spectrally efficient technologies for example, by migrating from double-sideband amplitude modulation to single-sideband modulation and, more recently, by shifting to more efficient modulation for text TTY modes. I would urge you to continue shifting towards more spectrally efficient communications techniques especially digital techniques. Such a shift has a number of benefits:
So looking to the future of the amateur radio service in the new century, I would urge you to continue your traditional role in public service by being prepared for and providing communications in times of emergencies, conducting experiments, providing training in radio communications, and encouraging international comity. But I would also urge you to focus particular attention -- for the reasons I just mentioned -- on experimentation with digital techniques that are capable of squeezing more "bits per second per Hertz of bandwidth" out of the increasingly valuable radio spectrum resource.
Software Defined Radios
I am rapidly running out of time but before I close I would like to talk about one additional topic that, as it turns out, may help enable some of the experimentation with digital techniques that I just advocated. The topic, as I mentioned at the outset of my remarks, is Software Defined Radios. Software defined radios -- or software radios or software programmable radios as they are sometimes called -- can be described as radios that are implemented in digital signal processors with functions defined in software. In other words the signals are generated in -- or converted to -- the digital format and the necessary processing -- for example, modulation and demodulation -- is done in software on a common platform.
From what I have been told, such radios could have a host of advantages:
Indeed, if we can solve some of the difficult regulatory issues involved, it is even possible to envision Software Defined Radios as a means of facilitating a new era of amateur experimentation. One intriguing possibility is that it could enable hams without skills and/or interest in hardware construction to build and experiment with new systems by writing new code. It might also allow the rapid sharing of new modulation techniques and receiver designs through electronic publication of the implementing software. This could stimulate a whole new generation of amateur innovation that not only includes the more spectrally efficient systems I mentioned earlier, but also radios that could adapt to their environment as well.
In many ways, Software Defined Radios represent a final merger of the radio communications and computer fields. Viewed from that perspective, this technological development even has the potential of attracting back to the hobby some of the people who have shifted their interest to computer technology. Because of this potential to advance the service in fundamental ways, I would urge amateur groups to participate actively in our proceeding.
Let me conclude by saying that I believe that the future of the amateur service is a bright one. It is one where technological advances such as Software Defined Radios can enable the ham community to continue its proud tradition of innovation while demonstrating its commitment to the efficient use of the spectrum resource. Certainly your organization AMRAD is in a particular good position to encourage the experimentation that will lead to such innovations and I strongly commend you for your leadership efforts in that direction in the past.
Thank you very much.