It Seems to Us: Change


How quickly things can change! By the end of the summer, the meltdown of the financial sector had made our earlier worries seem trivial by comparison. You may have picked up this copy of QST seeking a temporary escape from such concerns, so we won't dwell on this unpleasant subject. The point is simply this: change is inevitable. Predicting change will never be perfect and will often be wildly inaccurate, but adapting to change is necessary for survival.

Clouds can have silver linings. Last year, oil prices seemed destined to make a wide variety of alternative energy sources much more attractive -- good news for technologists, investors, and environmentalists alike. Projects that had languished were dusted off; business plans that previously didn't add up were given another look. Then the financial crisis took center stage, credit dried up, oil plunged back below $50/barrel, and the sense of urgency surrounding alternative energy dissipated as if it were just another bubble.

Yet we know that the global demand for energy is growing. It seems a safe bet, if there is such a thing, that it will continue to grow even faster than the world's population. There may be a question as to timing, but future generations will regard our near-universal reliance on petroleum with as much wonder as we regard our ancestors' reliance on whale oil to light their lamps.

What does this have to do with radio, Amateur Radio in particular? Part of the answer is obvious: we use electrical energy to power our equipment. Sometimes we use alternative energy because, well, there is no alternative. Early radio amateurs did not necessarily enjoy access to commercial power, particularly in rural areas; they had to find other ways to light their filaments. Even today there are large areas of the country that are "off the grid" and always will be.

At home we normally can count on electricity to be available as long as we pay the bill, but we yearn to be more self-reliant. We brag that Amateur Radio works when all else fails, but how many of us can operate indefinitely without some external source of electrical power? Low-power equipment can be operated for many hours from a car battery, but batteries eventually must be recharged or replaced. When a falling tree limb can plunge us back into the 18th century -- when it may take weeks for hurricane, tornado, or ice damage to be repaired -- we ought to have some way of staying on the air and in touch with the outside world.

So, let's keep thinking about alternative energy. Our immediate priorities may have changed since last summer, but someday we'll need it.

Change occurs whenever a new administration takes charge in Washington. While it's too early to gauge results, this administration is committed to science, to stimulating the economy, and to dramatically increasing the production of alternative energy. Turning these commitments into reality takes people, and as this issue was going to press an interesting personnel change was announced: FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein will be moving over to the Department of Agriculture to serve as Administrator for the Rural Utilities Service. Among his responsibilities will be the distribution of $2.5 billion in stimulus grants to increase the availability of broadband in rural areas.

While we are sorry to lose Commissioner Adelstein at the FCC, it is reassuring that someone with knowledge of telecommunications will be in charge of this important and expensive program. Some proponents of broadband over power line (BPL) technology seem to regard the broadband stimulus grants as an opportunity to breathe new life into BPL as a way to deliver broadband service to consumers, at a time when most of the BPL industry has shifted its focus from broadband delivery to power grid management applications. His years at the FCC have taught Commissioner Adelstein that BPL was excessively hyped and that it is clearly uneconomic in sparsely populated areas. We know he is familiar with BPL's interference potential and that he will not forget this as he moves up the street to the USDA. Even so, we will be watching closely as this and other government broadband initiatives take shape.

Other changes are taking place at the FCC. Acting Chairman Michael Copps moved swiftly to improve internal communications and morale at the agency. After a period of years when the most minor decisions had to be cleared through the Chairman's office -- which meant that most of them never were -- the FCC staff once again is empowered to do their jobs. We are already seeing positive results from this clearing of a regrettable bottleneck.

It is not clear how soon President Obama's nominee for FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, will be confirmed by the Senate and sworn into office. Commissioner Adelstein's impending departure means there are two other vacancies to be filled, one by a Democrat and one by a Republican. The new Commissioners will have broad responsibilities and many constituencies, but we will make sure they quickly become familiar with how much the Amateur Radio Service benefits our country -- and how little support we require from the FCC in return.

We want them to understand that the value of Amateur Radio is one small constant in a turbulent, changing world.

David Sumner, K1ZZ
ARRL Chief Executive Officer