HJL Responds: This is a subject that has been circulating on the Internet for several months now, and it’s probably time to address it. The problem stems mostly from the DHS and FEMA surrounding the circumstances on 9/11. In the 1970’s, Amateur Radio had reached its peak and had begun the long slow slide to oblivion. While the service provided wonderful opportunities for learning about radio propagation and experimentation with technology, the world itself was starting to become more accepting of this same technology. By the 1990s the personal computer, cell phones, person digital assistants, and gaming platforms were finding acceptance in the average homes. By the 2000s, all of the platforms had merged into the ubiquitous smartphone and the cellular networks had been built out sufficiently that you pretty much had communication capabilities anywhere you wanted within the civilized world.
While the ranks of Ham radio operators began to shrink, organizations like the ARRL began to lobby the FCC for changes to the licensing structure that would make it easier to attain a license. For the FCC, it’s really a numbers game. As its overall numbers shrank, the usage of the frequencies allotted to the Hams lessened, and they were in danger of losing their frequencies to the ever more bandwidth hungry commercial concerns. It doesn’t help that the FCC figured out how to sell the bandwidth at auction, generating revenue in the process. As the licensing restrictions were lessened, the ranks again began to grow, but the unfortunate side affect is that the overall technical knowledge of the ranks of Ham radio operators has been decreasing. It used to be common and desirable to build your own equipment. Indeed, it was often a point of pride that you operated with home-built equipment, no matter how crude or primitive it was. Now, most operators purchase their equipment from established manufacturers.
Where Amateur Radio really shines is during emergencies. As well as the established communications infrastructure works, its one drawback is that it “trunks” the communications in an effort to save resources. This simply means that the paths of communication between locations, like cities, will be fewer than the number of end points in either city. It is unlikely that everyone will pick up their telephone all at once to make a call, so the system works most of the time. Unfortunately, when a crises strikes, that is exactly what happens. All public communications systems are easily overwhelmed at even minor crises. Ham radio, on the other hand, tends to shine at these times. All traffic has to flow through a licensed operator and each operator is capable of making on-the-fly decisions on message priority, connection, and destination. It’s not normally efficient because it’s heavy on the man-power, but in a crises, it performs far better than any trunked and computerized system. The ARRL has always understood this and has pushed this capability as one of the recruiting ideas and as reasons to not loose spectrum to the FCC.
Prior to 9/11, each Ham or club had to come up with their own equipment to participate in this system, and it was mostly haphazard. Post 9/11, FEMA, and later, DHS turned on the money faucet through grants and allowed clubs to obtain funding for major equipment purchases as long as the purpose was for emergency communications (usually connected with ARES or RACES or perhaps just a club that had MOUs with the local government). This has generally benefited all of the parties involved.
- The government is going to spend the money anyway, and the local population can direct it far better than the Federal level.
- The local government gets a qualified, experienced, backup communications capability for very little expenditure on their part.
- The local club gets recognition as a public service and a boost to their membership recruitment as well as good equipment.
- The individual Hams get guidance and training in critical communications skills (which also often includes access to the equipment).
- Amateur Radio keeps its membership up and retains its frequency allotment.
- The FCC sees Hams as relevant rather than a bunch of has-beens.
- The ARRL gets to keep its “800lb Gorilla-on-the-block” status as they act as the intermediary between all the parties, thus keeping their membership up as well.
There are some draw backs to how the system works, but it may just be the way the world is going. Rather than developers of technology, Hams are now becoming more users of technology. The majority of Hams will never use more than the walkie-talkie they use for their local club and the simulated disaster communications. There are other issues as well. Both government and commercial entities have been caught trying to use the Ham bands by getting their employees to obtain licenses. On the flip side, the number of licensees are at an all time high now, and the sheer numbers of people seem to have an effect all its own. The last numbers I heard were that there were more Hams using Morse code now than ever before, even though there is no code requirement.
But what about this claim of FEMA/DHS taking over of Amateur Radio? I don’t think that is very likely. Hams have always been very good at policing their own ranks for inappropriate behavior. Unlike the CB bands, which became unusable in the early 80s, Amateur Radio has been more of a gentleman’s service. That’s not to say you don’t deal with egos or rude people, but there are far fewer of them, and the members tend to work with the FCC to root out the bad apples. Does that mean they are in DHS’ pocket? I seriously doubt that. While most may not ever use the traditional HF bands like Hams of bygone ages, they are still pretty savvy and independent. They have a desire to help their community, and if they can use their hobby and interest to do so, why not. Besides, while the money flows freely from FEMA/DHS, the decisions are still firmly made between the local club and the local government. Would you say that all volunteer firemen or EMTs are in the pocket of FEMA/DHS? The last few years have really just seen the interests of FEMA/DHS and Amateur Radio line up rather nicely, but when their interest diverge, the relationship will as well.