Consumer Protection, the FCC, and the Internet


The FCC probably will revoke every license in my file after this post.

Here it goes anyway.

I am speaking as someone who spent the first twenty years of his working life in broadcasting.  At one time or another, I’ve held amateur, commercial and experimental licenses issued by the Commission.  I’ve worked in the industries they regulate.  I have seen how changes to rules and acts of Congress change the landscape of the “public good” radio and television are meant to be.

Based on my experience, I cannot see how treating Internet Service Providers as Title II utilities will be any better for the consumer.

The Cable Act of 1992 required cable systems to carry local television broadcast channels.  While it prohibited cable operators from charging broadcasters to carry their signals, this “Consumer Protection” act also allows broadcasters to demand that cable systems pay them to carry their signals.

This is why cable companies kick off major broadcasters from their line up from time to time.  They can’t reach an agreement on how much you, er, the cable company, will pay the broadcaster to carry them.

These rules also are the reason why your cable bill is far more expensive per channel today than it was before Congress protected you.

Local Marketing Agreements, or LMAs, caused another host of problems.  These rules led to ownership consolidation where we now have two or three monopolies running terrestrial radio.  The number of television owner groups have gone down dramatically under these rules as well.  We have the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to thank for this situation.

Broadcasting, as a career, is nearly destroyed unless you’re in sales.  Ask any technical-side employee, like an SNG engineer or MCO, what it’s like today.

Owners treat Chief Engineers, especially at radio stations, like janitors who happen to have computer networking skills.  They are paid accordingly, not as Professional Engineers with a license, but as contract labor with no benefits, no insurance, and on call 24/7 while chained to a pager or a cell phone.

In my opinion, classifying Internet Service Providers as Title II utilities is not good.

Utilities are state-licensed monopolies.  Think of how many water companies you have to choose from, if you don’t see my point.  Licensing means franchise fees, which means taxes that companies will pass on to you.

Will the auction process apply to ISPs now?  The government reaps billions of dollars to reallocate radio spectrum, and the switch to digital television opened up Giga-Hertz of spectrum that could be used for nationwide broadband wireless internet.

The price you pay for a 50 MBps connection will go up.  It just will.

I don’t see this as a Republican or Democrat issue.  To me, it’s watching yet another slow motion train wreck instigated by a group of people who know nothing about the businesses or technologies they regulate.

How to Fix Ham Radio’s Youth Problem


Conventional wisdom holds that young people aren’t interested in ham radio anymore.

I don’t buy it.

I agree that the proliferation of computer technology has given bright young minds another outlet to explore engineering and science. I also know that the technology employed in various aspects of the hobby are state of the art. The communications field is as relevant and as top of mind as it ever has been.

Ham radio just hasn’t figured out how to reconnect with America’s youth.

A Message That Doesn’t Resonate

When we talk to young people about ham radio, what do we say?

We ask what they will do if their cell phone doesn’t work anymore.

We talk about emergency preparedness. Disasters.

In my experience, that message is lost on a generation where everything is accessible anywhere at any time, and self-reliance skills aren’t as developed.

Start in the Classroom

Every day in American classrooms, there are future engineers, technicians, and inventors enrolled in a high school physics class. They study the things ham radio operators study: electricity and circuits. They study the mathematical framework of radio such as ohms law, inductance, and reactance.

Some use oscilloscopes. Others use frequency counters.

When it comes to this aspect of their study, ham radio operators are tremendous resources.  In academic parlance, we’re subject matter experts.  We should get to know and be involved with science teachers.

No, not by setting up a contact with the International Space Station.

We should be part of some scientific experiment.

Perhaps building a loop antenna to receive WSPR signals from all over the world.

Perhaps using a Raspberry Pi as a low-power transmitter.

Maybe get ambitious and build a pico-balloon then track it using APRS for a few weeks.

Or whatever the physics teacher cooks up and wants to try.

When you put the hobby front and center, it sparks the imagination. What better way than help further a young person’s education or career, while introducing someone to the greatest hobby in the world?

Does your club have a connection with the local high school physics teacher?

My Final Credit Union Annual Meeting


My tenure as a member of the Abri Credit Union Board of Directors ends tonight during our annual meeting at Prairie Bluff Golf Course in Romeoville.

It has been a wonderful experience.

I have learned an awful lot in the last nine years. I have a much better understanding of how a financial institution really works. Not the gigantic megacorp bank, but small institutions that serve their communities in ways the Big Boys can not.

When I first joined the board in 2006, Abri Credit Union did not exist. It was the Argonne Credit Union, a traditional credit union that served a closed segment of members related to the Argonne, Fermi, and Idaho National Laboratories. They had assets of about $75-million and had just begun building their new headquarters in Romeoville.

Within a year, Marite Plume, Argonne’s CEO of nearly 15 years, announced her retirement. We conducted a national search for a new CEO, and hit the jackpot with Brian Cedergren, who was Chief Operating Officer at FirstLight Credit Union in Texas.

Cedergren led us through two mergers. The first was the acquisition of Des Plaines Valley Credit Union, which had its origin at Citgo Refinery.

The second merger was with Prairie Trails Credit Union of Joliet. That merger was the largest in Illinois credit union history, worth more than $250-million and representing about 30,000 credit union members.

I was always the dumbest guy at the table. Our Board had PhD members who designed power grids for entire nations. They led teams in cutting edge research in renewable energy and biology. One board member was involved in counter-intelligence. Another was a clinical psychologist.  We had business owners, educators, and accountants.

I am fortunate to work with such smart men and women.   I cherish their friendship, and appreciate their mentor-ship.

Abri will continue to lead the market. They are a great organization. Their staff is second to none, especially Samantha Edler, to name just one.

Thank you for allowing me to sit at the grown ups’ table.

Best of luck to you all.

How to Improve Disaster Relief with Video Remote Interpreting


How prepared are emergency responders when they encounter someone with a functional need such as being deaf or mute?

Our local Red Cross recently hosted a workshop specifically to help emergency managers plan for such a situation. About 100 people attended, representing eight of the nine counties in the Southwest Suburban Chapter.

Jessica Mitchel of FEMA Region 5 delivered the keynote speech. During her speech, Jessica introduced us to an amazing use of technology being used throughout the nation: Video Remote Interpreting (VRI).

VRI provides on-demand remote sign language interpreting in order to facilitate communication between individuals who are in the same location. In a disaster, response teams can use VRI on an table device in order to communicate with someone using American Sign Language (ASL)

Rather than training dozens of employees or volunteers in ASL, VRI provide a number of benefits.

  • Quick, 24-hour access to sign language interpreters
  • Immediate and Effective Communication during an Emergency
  • Certified Interpreters

In a disaster, the service may suffer from the lack of a reliable Internet connection. Communication could be difficult in a noisy or hectic situation as well, but the cost benefits outweigh the expense you have in securing one of the many companies that provide VRI services.

Crossposted on LinkedIn.

Where Are the Geosynchronous Amateur Radio Satellites?


Right now, ham radio satellites circle the Earth about every 90 minutes.

If you are lucky, a satellite will pass directly overhead. When that happens, you have about 10 minutes to use the satellite.

A typical pass, however, gives you two or three times a day with 5-8 minutes of usable time on each pass. It’s crowded up there, with maybe 10-20 seconds for a contact.

Commercial communication satellites, on the other hand, sit in geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO). They appear as a fixed point in the sky to a ground observer, which allows rock solid communication all day long.

GEO satellites bring you HBO, ESPN, and Sirius XM Satellite Radio.

They also provide telephone service to ships at sea as well as military communication worldwide. They are the backbone that enables world-wide communication.

Why is there no geosynchronous satellite for ham radio?

Well, the Qataris plan to launch one in 2016.

Es’hailSat 2 will cover Europe, Africa, and parts of Brazil and Asia. You can talk from Sweden to the tip of Antarctica using only a modest ground station.

But not to North America.

That’s ashamed.

American ham radio operators launched their own satellite 1,580 days after Sputnik.

You would think American hams would have flown a GEO satellite decades ago.

But for Qatar to beat us? Sad.

For North American hams, a GEO satellite would be a game changer.

It would allow tactical UHF communication across the continent with little more than a hand-held radio and a $100 antenna.

What do you say AMSAT-NA? You game?

How LIFO Gave Me Victory Over My Inbox


Last In, First Out, or LIFO. It one way accountants value inventories.

What does this have to do with email? If you’re like me, you use FIFO, or First In, First Out. The newest message sits on top of our inbox, ever being replaced by some newer email.

Over time, older, more important emails get buried and lost. Then, at the most inopportune moment, one resurfaces like a nuclear-powered submarine set to reek havoc on your schedule.

As an experiment, I changed. I placed the oldest message on top.

And my productivity increased dramatically.

Rules of the LIFO Inbox

By telling Outlook to place the oldest email on top, I quickly realized what needed my attention. I also saw there was a lot that could be deleted or archived.

Respond to the Oldest Email First

With your Inbox turned upside down, the oldest message is on top. Act on the oldest first. Those are the Last In and should be First Out. When I did this, I quickly found a few things that had fallen off my radar. I quickly got them back my the work-flow as a result.

Set Reminder Flags and Tasks

For actions requiring follow up, I set a Reminder Flag and leave that message in the Inbox. It will remain at the top of my list, ensuring that it doesn’t get buried by newer email. Once the task is complete, I archive the email.

Archive on Completion

The key to a clean desk is to put completed tasks in a file. Email is the same. If an email doesn’t require any action on my part, I send it to my Inbox Archive using Tools > Organize. If I need to reference the email later, I can search the Inbox Archive. I archive all of my completed email at least once a day. This activity ensures that my Inbox only has items that require my attention.

What do you think? Would LIFO help you get victory over your Inbox?

Hams Discuss the Hobby’s Biggest Weaknesses and Opportunities.


I recently asked a simple question about amateur radio on Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter a few weeks ago.

What is the biggest strength, weakness, opportunity or threat in ham radio now?

Here are some of the answers, and it is great food for thought.

Strength

  • The license itself. It is a gateway to careers in Internet technology, engineering, and scientific experimentation.
  • The ability to communicate totally ad-hoc.
  • The great people in this hobby.

Weakness

  • Lack of protocols, equipment, and applications to transmit data. Digital is encumbered by onerous, ancient rules regarding data modulation, as well as a complete inability to support any form of practical experimentation other than the art of antenna patterns. Add to it, the difficulty to petition the FCC for rules changes.
  • We need to overcome the attitude that ham radio is a post-apocalyptic means of off-the-grid communication, and get back to taking an interest in furthering the state of the art. With SDR (Software Defined Radios), Arduinos and Raspberry Pis, you can still build a low-cost radio in ways that were not available just a handful of years ago.
  • Not providing new people with a step-by-step way (into the hobby). CB was wildly popular, but the ham community turned its back on them. If you want to grow, you have to accept the masses.
  • Most ham equipment is rather expensive compared to consumer electronics. A mid-range laptop costs around $500. The mid-range HF radio is at least double that amount. You can buy the best console game system for less than the cost of a new HF radio station.

Opportunity

  • The biggest opportunity is youth. I don’t buy the attitude that young people are not interested in our hobby. The technology employed in various aspects of the hobby are state of the art. The bright young minds of today are eager for a challenge and the communication fields offer it.
  • The biggest opportunity is advancing the state of the art with the resurgence of kits. The SoftRock ensemble is a great example. It is about $100 and will work with a roadkill computer as its brain.
  • The number of new applications who enter the hobby to experiment with data communication.

Threat

  • Resistance (of current licensed operators) to adopt anything new. A new SSB radio that really only has slightly better filters? They are all over it. DMR? They don’t understand it, so it must be no good or illegal.
  • Cell phones which can do more than most radios except for HF communication.
  • We shouldn’t concentrate on “When your cell phone goes down,” but rather how cool it is to build your own voice or data network.
  • EmComm (Emergency Communication) trying to take over the hobby.

What do you think?