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Emergency Ham Network – Is it Legal?

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I have been doing my due diligence on the legality of operating the imagined Emergency Ham Network (EHN). The short answer is yes if there is an emergency and probably if there is not.

Since all licensed radio operators have passed examinations, we all know we are governed by part 97 of the relevant FCC regulations. This document clearly sets out what we can and cannot do as licensed operators. It is dangerous to just pick out and quote specific sub-sections or regulations because it is important to understand the context by reading the whole document with any supporting documents. However, since we all don't have time and much of it will not be critical to the operation of the EHN I have drawn up a brief summery of what I believe to be the relevant issues.

First I cannot stop myself reminding everybody of the basic purpose allowing the existence of Ham Radio.

Section 97.1 subsections 1-5:

  • Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.
  • Continuation and extension of the amateur's proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.
  • Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communication and technical phases of the art.
  • Expansion of the existing reservoir within the amateur radio service of trained operators, technicians, and electronics experts.
  • Continuation and extension of the amateur's unique ability to enhance international goodwill.

Emergency communications is the first item, that use is further clarified in section 97.403 – Safety of life and protection of property.

  • No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station of any means of radiocommunication at its disposal to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property when normal communication systems are not available.

The remaining subsections of our purpose are not called out specifically but are the reason we have the use of the spectrum and communication modes.

When it comes to quantifying a modern digital network withing section 97 I believe there is a need for a little imagination and analysis of current operating practices. I think this is because the term digital or digital station does not appear in the formal definitions section (section 97.3) but it does define the term digital code as a type of modulation.

Is there any mention of a digital station in part 97?

Yes, confusingly the term digital station occurs just once in section 97.221 - Automatically Controlled Digital Station. This section discusses limitations for specific frequencies but delivers a hard blow in sub-section C part 2 which states:

  • No transmission from the automatically controlled station occupies a bandwidth of more than 500 Hz.

A bandwidth of 500Hz makes sense on the HF bands which is where the term digital code seems most at home. Since I cannot find what is meant by a "digital station" I am worried that it could be applied to aspects of the EHN. The currently operating AREDN Mesh Network clearly uses more than 500Hz and appears to be an automatically controlled station. Section 97.221 also makes it clear it does not apply to an auxiliary station, a beacon station, a repeater station, an earth station, a space station, or a space telecommand station. Note they list auxiliary station and repeater station separately suggesting they are different.

Two more terms that could be used to describe the EHN come up, the first is

  • Auxiliary Station - An amateur station, other than in a message forwarding system, that is transmitting communications point-to-point within a system of cooperating amateur stations.

This sounds a bit like a network, although I suspect it is really referring to stations passing messages or repeaters. This fact is further qualified by the ARRL in their Auxiliary Station FAQ but they only use voice as an example with one reference to using DTMF tones for control. The use case examples do not have references and so I could not validate their context and they do not consider repeaters as a separate item to auxiliary stations. It is quite possible that this section could indeed cover a system of cooperating digital nodes communicating through a digital link.

The second term is

  • Message forwarding system. - A group of amateur stations participating in a voluntary, cooperative, interactive arrangement where communications are sent from the control operator of an originating station to the control operator of one or more destination stations by one or more forwarding stations.

I cannot find any explanation as to what defines communications or interactive arrangement, but it would seem that digital packets and computer control could well qualify provided we meet the control operator requirements.

In conclusion, in an emergency radio operators can take extraordinary measures to help save lives or property but keeping in mind we would need to justify those measures after the fact and may be held accountable if we were reckless.

In normal times if we quietly ignore section 97.221, we can operate either as an auxiliary station or part of a message forwarding system depending on if our data is for control or of substance.

My next blog will look at the license rules for the different bands, modulation type, power and types of messages.

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Thursday, 29 September 2022