fcc-1Just when things were terminally boring on the amateur radio regulatory front, the ARRL reports that “The FCC is inviting public comments on a proposal from a Massachusetts ham to amend the Part 97 Amateur Service rules to permit the encryption of certain amateur communications during emergency operations or related training exercises.” The FCC is seeking comments on the Petition for Rulemaking RM-11699, submitted by Don Rolph (AB1PH). My email and twitter feed started filling up with passionate pleas to either support this petition or to kill it.

This idea has been around for a while but I don’t recall the FCC considering action on it. The issue is that “messages encoded for the purpose of obscuring their meaning” are prohibited by Part 97 rules for the Amateur Radio Service. (Actually, that is not completely true since an exception exists for control of stations in space and radio-controlled models.) This rule has a very important role in enabling the “self policing nature” of the amateur radio service. That is, everyone can listen to the content of all radio communications, allowing improper use of the spectrum to be exposed. (Note to self: file a petition to require encryption when using 14.313 MHz.)

This rule can be a barrier when ham radio Emcomm organizations are providing communications for served agencies (e.g., the Red Cross, fire departments, medical response, law enforcement, etc.) These served agencies do not want sensitive information passed over the radio “in the clear.” Sensitive information includes items such as medical/patient information, location of emergency responders and supplies, damage assessments, door or gate access codes, etc.

A few weeks ago, I volunteered my time to help with communications for the Black Forest wildfire here in Colorado.  So count me as someone that sees emergency communications as a key part of amateur radio. (Gosh, I think Part 97 even mentions this. See Part 97.1a) I also see that the prohibition against encryption is a does get in the way during some incidents.

But I am also worried about opening the door to significant use of encryption on the ham bands. The problem with encrypted messages is that…wait for it…you can’t decode the messages. So how do we maintain that self-policing thing? The fear seems to be that if we open the door at all to encryption, it will enable virtually anyone (amateur license or not) to transmit encrypted messages for unknown and inappropriate purposes.

The challenge is to figure out what limits could be put on encrypted operation to retain the self-policing nature of ham radio while enabling more effective emergency communications. Here are some ideas:

  • Limit the use of encryption to actual emergencies and training exercises. (This is already in RM-11699.)
  • Require that radio transmissions are properly identified “in the clear”, with no encryption. That way if encryption is used on a regular basis, steps can be taken to investigate further. (This may already be assumed by RM-11699 but I did not see an explicit statement.)
  • Require additional information to be sent in the clear with the station ID when sending encrypted messages. For example, the name of the served agency, the nature of the emergency or drill, or anything else that would help a random listener to judge whether it is an appropriate use of encryption.
  • Require archiving of encrypted messages (in unencrypted form) for some period time, available for FCC inspection.
  • [Added 28 June]: Avoid international regulation issues by limiting encrypted messages to US stations only.
  • <insert your idea here>

Still pondering this issue…what do you think?

73, Bob K0NR

Update 1 July 2013: See the article by Bruce Perens K6BP
Update 8 July 2013: See comments by N5FDL
The ARRL says “no”.

Update 18 Sept 2013: The FCC dismisses the petition.