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.
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.
: Hams Vs. Broadband?”> “Radio amateurs are not opposed to broadband services. On the contrary, they tend to be early adopters of new technology. However, there are ways to deliver broadband that do not pollute the radio spectrum as Broadband over Power Line [BPL] does,” the ARRL says in an educational article about the subject.
And Hilary Claytonsmith in the U.K., speaking on behalf of the International Amateur Radio Union, pointed out the life-saving value that shortwave radio has, citing the ability to set up instant comm-links to tsunami-affected regions after the disaster in southeast Asia.
But it isnt all that clear-cut. The problem with shortwave radio is that it is an anachronism. Its use goes clear against all of the trends of wireless in the past couple of decades.
Initially, advances in radio communications were achieved by getting a signal to travel farther. When I was a boy, DXers (long-distance amateur radio operators) used to boast about their farthest contacts. Legends tell of an amateur in London linking up with a “radio ham” in the Falklands when Galtieri invaded, keeping Her Majestys government informed when all other links were down. And there are hundreds of such tales, most of them probably true.
But since the creation of cellular radio networks, the technology has focused on reducing, not increasing, the range of radios. Restrict your radio to the power needed to reach the next cell mast, and suddenly a thousand people can use the same frequency, where before only one could operate.
Today, if I need to reach an area devoid of broadband, using a car battery and a shortwave transceiver isnt the only way of doing it—but it is definitely a cheap solution. That is, compared with hiring bandwidth on a satellite link, its cheap.
: How to Tackle the Problem”> But the cellular approach can be tackled in many ways. In a decade, privately operated parasitic networks (as academics used to call them) will be very widespread.
Transceivers with solar power will talk to each other and to satellite private stations in their area. Anybody who needs to communicate out of area will either hop from one node to the next or jump into the Internet and out again at the destination.
The amateurs are certainly correct in saying that they can reach around the world. They are also right to point out that the law favors their technology. But the problem is simple: When one DX amateur is using a 30 MHz band to talk around the world, nobody else on that signal path can use that frequency.
It may be, ethically, that it is wrong to deprive amateurs of their technology. The question is: Who will take up the cudgels on their behalf?
In the case of the U.K. taxi firm, there was a happy ending. The pirate jammer was hunted down by the regulator, the Office of Communications, which took legal action to close them down.
But the same system wont work if youre trying to enforce the rights of someone in Singapore who wants to DX to someone in Alaska. Too many people live in too many countries along the signal path, and no single authority exists to coordinate the detection, prosecution and conviction of wireless trespassers.
From one point of view, you could argue that it doesnt matter. You might suggest that the world is changing; you might point out that communications will work better when we have hundreds, or even thousands, of neighborhood meshes, all solar powered, all linked into the Internet backbone.
Equally, you might notice that 99 percent of todays wireless engineers learned their trade as radio amateurs, and you might say that the ionosphere should be left there for the scientists of the future.
My take: It doesnt matter. We dont have the power to enforce regulations on an unwilling world population. If the spectrum becomes useful to a sufficiently large number of transgressors of existing law, then the existing law will lapse, however many statute books it is written into.
Or, alternatively, you could say that if you want the worlds amateur wireless network to function properly, youll have to find something to give the worlds broadband users that makes them happy to stay off the grass. Otherwise, it would be easier to stamp out ivory poaching or cocaine growing than to stop interference. And we all know how successful those efforts have been …
Read Guy Kewneys other recent columns about trends in mobile and wireless technology.