July 14, 2005

AMATEUR RADIO: A VOICE IN THE STORM

Guest opinion submitted by Idaho Senator Mike Crapo

Communication has taken many forms: beacon fires alerting assassins to Agamemnonâ??s return to Mycenae; a lone Athenian runner covering 150 miles in two days to request help from Sparta; Genghis Khanâ??s invention of the â??Pony Express;â?? Morse Code, the telegraph, telephone, radio, television; and now the Internet and increasing types of wireless communications. Perhaps most striking are the massive and complex changes that communication has undergone in the past century. It boggles the mind to consider that 100 years ago, radio experimentation was in its infancy, and now we have the ability to send digital information via electromagnetic waves across the world or into outer space. Yet, as anyone knows who has had a cell call dropped or simply experienced radio interference while driving, the invisible waves that carry our vastly-increased communications load are not limitless. Years ago, the federal government deemed it appropriate to regulate usage of electromagnetic spectrum to ensure that those who use particular portions of spectrum have the right to do so free of interference. It is a scarce but renewable natural resource. Therefore, regulation is necessary in order to create â??highest and best useâ?? allocations for radio frequencies. The need for national regulation is further reinforced by the fact that spectrum is a national asset bound by international rules and regulations. It is impossible to â??ownâ?? frequencies, but the federal government has determined that a system of allocation and auction will produce a climate in which the â??highest and best use of spectrum domestically and internationallyâ?? can prosper in terms of innovation, efficiency, and rapid deployment. In an era of increasing demand for spectrum, there is a small but vital group of users whose allocations must be preserved. One of the pioneers of modern communications was amateur radio. Amateur radio operators explored ionospheric propogation for world wide radio, developed early mobile gear for automobiles and aircraft, created the first civilian communications satellite, developed early linked repeaters, established wireless Local Area Networks (LAN), developed the use of frequencies well beyond high frequency bands, and created new antenna configurations. Today, amateur radio still serves a vital purpose, especially in our post-9/11 world. Acting as volunteers, amateur radio operators provide assistance in numerous disaster relief efforts from the terror attacks in New York and Washington, to floods in Texas, hurricanes in Florida, earthquakes in Seattle and California, and fires in the West, and in my home state of Idaho. Amateur radio operators assist in search and rescue efforts and even place calls to Santa Claus on behalf of terminally-ill children! Many of the 650,000 operators in the United States take part in emergency preparedness exercises. In the era of modern communications, we tend to forget that cell phone usage is dependent upon the viability of communications towers. Any smart military invasion strategy includes eliminating communications, and cell towers are primary targets. When the World Trade Center collapsed along with the cell tower atop the building, mobile phones were rendered useless in the area. Amateur radio operators stepped in and, from as far away as California, provided communication lifelines for rescue workers and aid agencies. A number of amateur radio operatorsâ?? organizations have Memorandums of Understanding with the National Weather Service, FEMA, National Communications System, the Associated Public Safety Communications Officers, Inc., and the American National Red Cross.Since 1982, this vital and reliable communication information source has lost 107 MHz (the equivalent of 18 television channels, and 145 MHz is in danger of being re-allocated. The 1997 Balanced Budget Act authorized spectrum auctions, but amateur radio operators cannot participate in such auctions. In light of increasing numbers of new technologies requiring spectrum bandwidth and the ensuing competition by sources with larger financial resources, bandwidth allocations must be preserved. The Amateur Radio Spectrum Protection Act will ensure the success of this vital link in our security communications infrastructure while continuing to encourage the innovation and creativity that is the historical hallmark of this field. The Act requires replacement of any amateur radio spectrum that is reallocated by the Federal Communications Commission or National Telecommunications and Information Administration. It maintains spectrum allocation flexibility by only requiring that the basic amount of spectrum allocated to amateur radio operators be maintained. Together with my colleagues Senators Akaka, Bond, Baucus and Burns, I look forward to working toward this bipartisan solution to the problem of lost spectrum for amateur radio operators. -First Published in "The Hill" on July 13, 2005