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It Seems to Us: Keeping the "Amateur" in Amateur Radio

02/24/2009

Radio amateurs do what we do because we love to do it. We are, by international regulation, “interested in radio technique purely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest.” Even if we are employed in a radio-related field, when we are on the air in the ham bands we are not pursuing financial gain for ourselves or our employers.

The “no pecuniary interest” principle has been reflected in the FCC regulations in different ways over the years. In 1928 the Federal Radio Commission — the predecessor of the FCC — adopted revised rules that prohibited amateurs from handling “any form of commercial correspondence.” After months of discussion and debate, the ARRL obtained a clarification that relieved amateurs of any obligation to determine whether the messages they were handling were of a commercial nature and established the principle that amateurs could handle messages “…regardless of the source or text, provided that no pecuniary or other consideration is directly or indirectly paid or promised.”

More than 40 years later, the FCC at the time of President Nixon suddenly found a reason to reinterpret the rules so as to prohibit amateur communications on behalf of any non-amateur organization. It was immediately apparent that this went too far in discouraging public service communications, so in 1972 the misinterpreted rule was dropped and new rules were adopted prohibiting third party traffic consisting of business communication or involving material compensation of any kind to anyone.

For the next two decades there were seemingly endless debates about what was and was not permitted. For example, in the days before ubiquitous cell phones, amateur repeater autopatches were the most effective means of summoning aid for disabled motorists — but under a literal application of the rules you couldn’t use one to call a tow truck unless there was an immediate threat to life or property. It would be nice to be able to say that common sense prevailed in such situations, but in fact there was a lot of pointless wrangling.

Finally in 1993, at the ARRL’s urging the FCC adopted new rules that dropped the “no business communication” language and simply prohibited communication on behalf of an amateur’s employer or in which the amateur has a pecuniary interest.

In adopting these rules the FCC made it clear that it didn’t want to answer questions about whether specific communications were permitted. In the words of the Report and Order in PR Docket No. 92-136, “…any amateur-to-amateur communication is permitted unless specifically prohibited, or unless transmitted for compensation, or unless done for the pecuniary benefit of the station control operator or his or her employer.” It boils down to a simple four-part test:

1. Is it expressly prohibited in the rules (music, obscenity, etc)?

2. Is it transmitted for compensation?

3. Does the control operator have a pecuniary  interest, that is, could he or she benefit financially?

4. Does the control operator’s employer have a pecuniary interest?

If the answer in each case is “no” then the communication is acceptable to the FCC with one additional caveat: To guard against the systematic use of Amateur Radio for non-amateur purposes, there is a prohibition on “communications, on a regular basis, which could reasonably be furnished alternatively through other radio services.”

By now you may be wondering why this is a timely topic in 2009 if the rules have not changed since 1993. The reason is that growing numbers of employers and non-amateur organizations are recognizing the value of Amateur Radio as an emergency communications resource and are encouraging their employees and members to obtain amateur licenses. This is a welcome trend, one that we do not wish to discourage in any way. We can never have enough trained and disciplined amateur operators who have equipped themselves, and are willing, to provide public service communications in time of need. That said, there are limits to what an amateur can do on behalf of his or her employer. There are also limits on the extent to which Amateur Radio can be used for the purposes for which other radio services were created.

If you have just entered Amateur Radio with the desire to be of service, welcome! You have joined a community with a well-earned reputation for being able to communicate when other communications systems have failed. Of course, there is nothing inherently superior about Amateur Radio equipment; it’s not hardware, but rather knowhow, that gives us our edge. We look forward to sharing that knowhow so you can help write the next chapter in the proud history of Amateur Radio public service communications. We also look forward to learning from you and with you as together we explore new radio technologies and put new tools to work.

We are radio amateurs. That’s what we do — because we love to do it.

David Sumner, K1ZZ
ARRL Chief Executive Officer



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