An FHH attorney explains why he sometimes works in opposition to ARRL and individual amateurs.

[Blogmeister’s Note: A post last year by our colleague, Mitchell Lazarus, has attracted considerable recent comment from folks sympathetic to amateur radio. To help further dialog among differing points of view, we present Mitchell’s response. The views here are, of course, Mitchell’s own, not necessarily shared by other FHH lawyers or clients of the firm.]

A recent Reddit posting on an amateur radio “subreddit” called me a “lawyer hostile to amateur radio.” Other comments directed both to my blog piece linked on Reddit and to other of my blog postings take a similar view (or worse). So have some amateur websites over the years.

My response: the charge of “hostility” is unwarranted and contrary to the facts.

I have great respect for the work of amateurs, particularly in emergency communications and in advancing radio technology over the decades. I have enjoyed long friendships with amateur licensees, including (I hope) some reading this post. I have blogged in support of amateur positions.

But, yes, I have crossed swords with some amateurs.

Part of my job involves seeking FCC approval for new radio technologies. The process can include proposing a frequency band for a new kind of device, and then working with the manufacturer to minimize the risk of interference to incumbents in the band. This is not only good spectrum citizenship, but it also recognizes that the FCC will disallow a technology it thinks will cause undue interference.

Because amateur radio has so many allocations scattered through the usable spectrum, it can be hard to avoid them altogether. But we try. When amateur representatives mounted a full-bore opposition to Broadband-over-Power-Line, most overlooked that one BPL company – my client – had configured its technology to avoid all amateur bands. (ARRL noticed and praised this frequency choice.) Many other devices whose FCC approvals I worked on likewise have no in-band amateur-band emissions. Often this was deliberate, and sometimes required redesign of the device. (You’ll have to take my word for this, as client confidentiality bars my giving specific examples.)

Occasionally, though, the technical requirements of a device plus limitations in other bands make it impossible to avoid amateur frequencies. In those cases the client and I work hard to minimize any risk of interference. (I am trained as an electrical engineer as well as a lawyer.) In a few of these matters, I have checked in with ARRL senior management to alert them in advance to our plans and to listen to their concerns.

All of the amateur bands, like nearly all usable spectrum, are shared with others. And all spectrum users have a responsibility to work with and accommodate their sharing partners. Over the years I have sat down with the Department of Defense and its military branches, FAA, NASA, satellite operators, broadcasters, the GPS industry, radio astronomers, microwave operators, public safety representatives … a large cross-section of the spectrum community. Goodwill on both sides, plus good engineering, usually yields a solution that everyone can live with.

In my own experience, though, those representing amateur interests have rarely been receptive to this kind of discussion. My past efforts to negotiate conditions for spectrum usage in amateur bands mostly failed, and I mostly stopped trying years ago. Even ARRL usually seems more inclined to fight than talk. Proposed non-amateur uses of amateur frequencies are routinely, and apparently unthinkingly, deemed objectionable, no matter how harmless the incursion and no matter how important the application.

I can recall only one exception: some years ago, when I requested an FCC waiver for a public safety radar device in a radar band that also had an amateur secondary allocation, no one opposed.

A more typical case: A client manufactures a small, throwable surveillance robot – think of a Red Bull can with a wheel on each end – that navigates under remote control and sends back video to the operator. Military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan relied on it for checking the interiors of buildings before entry, among other uses. Thinking the device might also be helpful to local police and fire personnel, the company obtained an FCC experimental license and lent out units to a few cities and towns for trial. The device was a big hit, particularly valuable in situations involving hostages or barricaded shooters. One officer told the FCC, “We don’t feel comfortable without this thing now.”

In looking for a frequency band for domestic use, the company faced severe constraints. Adequate building penetration – essential for the application – requires frequencies below about 500 MHz. (Tests with a 915 MHz prototype showed dismal results.) The need for a reasonably efficient antenna of reasonable length sets a lower bound on frequency. In the end, the only workable region turned out to be in part of the 420-450 MHz military radar band, which also has a secondary amateur allocation. The company asked the FCC for a waiver to operate in the band.

ARRL and many individual amateurs objected to the waiver on interference grounds.

Does the device cause interference? Top output power for any model is 323 milliwatts. The FCC limits licensing to police, firefighters, and critical infrastructure security personnel. Most cities with any units at all have only one or two of them. Typical usage might be once or twice a month, never for much longer than an hour (due to battery limitations) and most operation is close to the ground. Interference into a given amateur receiver at a given time is not impossible, but any reasoned analysis would conclude it’s extremely unlikely.

The manufacturer nevertheless offered, and the FCC imposed, a requirement that the device protect from interference, and accept interference from, all licensees including amateurs. The manufacturer also agreed to an ARRL request for a label that says, “This device may not interfere with Federal or non-federal stations operating in the 420-450 MHz band and must accept any interference received.”

Still, ARRL and its supporters treated the device as a major interference threat. In various combinations of parties they opposed the waiver, sought reconsideration of the waiver after its grant, challenged the company’s equipment authorization, petitioned to block scores of police-department licenses, and then sought reconsideration of the license grants after issue. None of their dozens of pleadings contained any allegation of actual interference. One party offered calculations that predicted harmful interference at a range of 400 km and to the International Space Station, with a minimum altitude of 330 km – from 316 milliwatts, which is impossible. (To his credit, the individual later withdrew his objections.)

I have no objection to amateurs’ defending their interests. My problem, rather, is with those who showed no willingness to balance the low likelihood of interference against the benefits of a device that many police departments said would reduce their officers’ risk of sudden death. The amateurs in the proceeding insisted, in effect, that any energy emitted in the amateur bands is bad; nothing else need be considered. That view might have been reasonable decades ago, when uncongested spectrum was still plentiful. Today, I expect more from a technically sophisticated, public spirited community.

My blog post linked in the Reddit entry raises a parallel issue. It told about a Mr. Ruben Lopez in Pomona Park, Florida whose well pump emitted RF in the 160 meter amateur band (1800-2000 kHz). Someone reported Mr. Lopez to the FCC, which issued an official citation and threatened him with six-digit fines. I noted that Mr. Lopez appeared to be an innocent offender, and suggested that perhaps the affected amateurs might have found a way to leave him alone.

Responsive posts on Reddit and my law firm’s blog site again take the absolute view: emissions in an amateur band cannot be tolerated. Some would blame the well pump manufacturer, although there may be no way to reach the manufacturer other than through Mr. Lopez; and to enforce against the manufacturer would be a long and difficult business – all the more so if the pump is not recently installed. Some commenters supposed that the amateur experiencing interference would have tried to contact Mr. Lopez directly, and gone to the FCC only as a last resort. That is surmise; we just don’t know. If the fix is inexpensive, as one commenter suggests, the affected amateur – who probably knows a lot more about radio technology than Mr. Lopez – might have offered to take care of it. But frankly, if a stranger came to my door to say my well pump was interfering with his radio and I had a federal obligation to repair it to the stranger’s satisfaction … I would lock the door and call the police.

This is a crowded and complicated world. Sometimes we all have to bend a little to let others squeeze by. Personally I have no hostility toward amateur radio. But I do resist knee-jerk opposition that overlooks the interests of everybody else. Given the chance, I would far rather work with amateurs on spectrum matters than against them.