By David Sumner, K1ZZ
ARRL Chief Executive Officer
December 01, 2009
For the final time this year, we again take up the issue of the appropriate use of Amateur Radio: the extent to which radio amateurs may (and should) provide communications on behalf of others, particularly their employers.
The Amateur Radio Service has a well-deserved reputation for taking the FCC rules seriously, so it is not surprising that the subject of "pecuniary interest" has attracted a lot of attention and discussion. The relevant rules have not changed since 1993, but recent years have seen growing interest in the use of Amateur Radio as an alternative, supplemental, or backup communications medium by commercial, non-profit and government entities. When those rules changes were adopted, that was not the expectation.
In 1993 the FCC concluded that, while it is important to avoid exploitation of the amateur service, "[t]he capabilities of modern mobile communication services have all but eliminated the incentive to use the amateur service instead of those services." The Commission found that the rules then in effect "hamper amateur operators from serving the public as well as diminish the value of the amateur service in satisfying personal communication needs." Accordingly, the rules were amended to give amateur licensees greater flexibility. The FCC declined the ARRL's request for anecdotal examples of permitted and prohibited communications, preferring to "rely on the amateur service's traditions of self-regulation and cooperation between licensees, the cornerstone of the amateur service, to determine whether specific communications should be transmitted on amateur service frequencies."
In September 1993 we editorialized that the rules changes "remove the ambiguities that have plagued public-service communications for the past two decades and have generated endless hair-splitting discussions about whether particular communications were permitted." That proved to be the case for a decade and a half until -- in the aftermath of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina -- Amateur Radio came to be viewed as a communications solution by a growing number of businesses and other organizations. On this page in April we noted that "there are limits to what an amateur can do on behalf of his or her employer" but did not go into detail since the rules seemed rather clear, as did the FCC's desire not to answer questions about exactly what is permitted and what is not.
By the time of the July 2009 meeting of the ARRL Board of Directors, the FCC had been asked enough questions by amateurs -- and had given answers that apparently were unexpected -- that quite a controversy was developing about the appropriate uses of Amateur Radio. As explained on this page in September, an ad-hoc committee was put to work to develop suggested guidelines. The committee delivered the guidelines and recommendations for further ARRL action to the ARRL Executive Committee, which made some edits and scheduled a conference call of Board members to discuss the nine-page document. By subsequent mail vote the Board adopted the guidelines and recommendations and approved the release of the document, which was put on the ARRL Web site on September 25 (see www.arrl.org/news/files/ARRL_AppropriateUseGuidelines.pdf).
The main purpose of the document, entitled Commercialization of Amateur Radio: The Rules, The Risks, The Issues, is to educate amateurs and the organizations we serve about what the FCC rules permit us to do and to assist amateurs in making reasoned decisions about the appropriateness of services we may offer to organizations in our communities. While there are only two narrow exceptions to the "no communications on behalf of an employer" rule, neither of which applies to disaster relief, the guidelines note that "paid emergency personnel who are licensed amateurs and who find themselves needing to use Amateur Radio in disaster relief operations can rely on the Commission's statements that they may do so." However, this applies only to actual disaster relief operations and not to training exercises or drills.
On the subject of what communications are appropriate for volunteers to provide on behalf of businesses and other organizations, the guidelines note that such communications by volunteers are legal as long as they are not conducted on a regular basis and otherwise comply with the rules. Organizations that envision using Amateur Radio volunteers on a regular basis should be referred instead to other radio services and communications systems. A good rule of thumb for other requests is, "Who benefits?" If the public is the principal beneficiary, then the basis and purpose of the Amateur Radio Service is being fulfilled. If the entity itself and not the general public is the principal beneficiary, then the use of other services should be encouraged.
In introducing the guidelines, ARRL First Vice President Kay Craigie, N3KN -- who chaired the ad-hoc committee -- observed that they "are not intended to be the last word on the subject, and surely will not be." Little more than three weeks later the FCC fulfilled that prophecy by issuing a Public Notice, DA 09-2259, to emphasize that the rules prohibiting communications on behalf of an employer apply to emergency preparedness and disaster drills. The Public Notice entertains waiver requests from government entities (and only government entities) conducting such drills. The requests must be in writing and must include the information listed in the article on page 59 of this issue. Use the following address: Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, FCC, 445 12th St SW, Washington, DC 20554, Attn: Scot Stone. The government entity may send a copy of its request by e-mail to Scot.Stone@fcc.gov, but we have been advised that this is not a substitute for submission of the waiver request on paper.
We understand there are petitions for rulemaking being drafted to address perceived shortcomings in the existing rules. The ARRL Board has taken no position on possible rules changes, but the subject is likely to occupy the Board's attention between now and its January 2010 meeting. As always, your own Division Director (see page 15) will be interested in your thoughts.