Wireless Broadband Takes on Shortwave Radio

Opinion: The law we all want to break is the law that says wireless mesh technology should not interfere with shortwave amateur radio.

The scene: An enterprising U.K. businessman sets up a taxi service and a shortwave radio station to communicate with his drivers. A rival instantly sets up a pirate station on the same frequency, jamming the taxi calls with rock music.

Youre a wireless policeman: What do you do here?

Naturally, the taxi service reported this to their local police. The police responded that there was "nothing they could do."

Strictly speaking, they were quite correct—in much the same way that an illiterate person might bail out of reading a technical document to a jury. They could do nothing because they were incompetent: The law is quite clear on the fact that jamming a licensed radio operator is illegal. But the local force had no way of understanding that law, or of enforcing it.

Making something illegal is, apparently, a pretty standard, civilized reaction to perceived anti-social behavior. "There ought to be a law against it!" we cry indignantly. The trouble is, for these laws to work, the people who want to break them have to agree that they should not do so.

OK, the law we all want to break is the law saying that we shouldnt interfere with shortwave radio.

Both Europe and America have instituted a new way of distributing broadband using power cables—and we all want broadband. The trouble is that the technology works best if it uses frequency bands around 30 MHz which, "by an unhappy coincidence," remarked the New Scientist, "is the radio band which travels best around the world." At that frequency, you bounce off the ionosphere and can send a signal huge distances.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read about a national U.S. wireless broadband service.

The technique of using mains to carry digital signals has been tested many times. There was one incident where academics testing it were on the point of announcing the triumphant success of their new technology, when their colleagues (or maybe, rivals?) at another institution sent them a message "congratulating" them on managing to bounce a signal off the moon.

And indeed, on checking, it turned out that the street-side wiring carrying this high-speed digital signal was radiating very efficiently. While the moon was overhead, the echo could be heard over most of the hemisphere.

The ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League) in the United States and the International Amateur Radio Union are both trying to lobby against the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and the EC (European Commission) proposals for such technology due to its potential interference with shortwave radio.

Next page: Hams versus broadband?