Hams Are Monitored (FCC/OO/VM)

In an older post we mentioned that hams have no expectation of privacy; assume that anything you say over the air is heard (someone is listening). In another post we discussed what can you say as a ham, focusing on what is illegal. Words are not the only problem; there are a number of activities against regulations.

As licensed radio amateurs we are obliged to abide by our governing authority’s rules for ham radio. In the USA that is found in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 47, Part 97 (47 CFR 97) , managed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

FCC Seal1 As with broadcast transmissions (radio, television) the FCC enforces the rules.  Other countries have similar rules and structure so if you are outside of the USA, study up your applicable regulations.

Years ago the US FCC was actively involved in monitoring not only commercial broadcast frequencies, but ham radio bands as well.  There were monitoring stations set up around the country for this purpose.

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They also had mobile vans for locating offenders.  Violators might get a very stern letter or possibly a personal visit.

FCC Warning

It’s one of the reasons we are supposed to keep a copy of our license posted at our station.  A FCC Inspection Fact Sheet gives good information related to home inspection.

Those days are long gone.  The FCC has closed many regional offices and pared back their enforcement staff to a minimum.  However, they are still the ultimate authority for radio in the US and still have teeth.

When the FCC reduced their enforcement resources they partnered with the ARRL to have hams help do much of the monitoring and reporting.  Originally called Official Observers (OOs), they were hams who were qualified and trained by the ARRL as part of the Amateur Auxiliary program.  While there are fewer FCC agents, we are still being monitored for Part 97 violations, primarily by fellow hams.

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The OO scheme was replaced by the Volunteer Monitor (VM) program in January 2020 with a new agreement between the FCC and the ARRL.

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The intent of the VM program is to re-energize enforcement efforts in the Amateur Radio bands.  Its role is to monitor the airwaves and collect evidence that can be used both to correct misconduct or recognize exemplary on-air operation. Cases of flagrant violations will be referred to the FCC by the ARRL for action in accordance with FCC guidelines.

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Note that good behavior is also recognized. Be the ham that gets a favorable postcard from a VM, not for an infraction. 🙂

Bad behavior is what monitors are really trying to weed out.  A cautionary notice may be sent to hams who violate rules.  If the violation continues, the VM system has a streamlined enforcement process with the FCC who can take legal action.

So what are some of the bad practices and violations that VMs are looking for?

While not exhaustive, violations include:

  • Transmitting without a license
  • Operating outside frequencies permitted by license class
  • Operating modes or power outside privileges
  • Willful interference
  • Obscene language
  • Conducting business or making money over the air (for yourself or someone else)
  • Transmitting music
  • Failure to identify properly

An interesting (somewhat dated) list of current FCC enforcement actions is found here.

Finally, the stereotypical monitoring van may still be used.  VMs and federal agents may occasionally have to track down an offending signal using direction finding techniques.

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Other Resources for New Hams

Here at NewHams.info we don’t pretend to be the ultimate authority or only game in town.  While we may have a lock on this website domain name, there are other truly useful and interesting sources with good information for new or prospective ham radio operators and we want to share some of these with you here.


The ARRL produces an audio podcast entitled So Now What?  It is a “bi-weekly podcast geared to those who are just getting started on their Amateur Radio adventure. Whether you’re new to the hobby or looking to get back on the air after an absence, we know that you’ve got lots of questions.”

You can access and/or subscribe on Apple and Android to listen in with mobile phones or you can link to a web stream via Blubrry here.


A page on N0JI’s website is entitled, For New Hams.  It has quite a bit of detail; topics include:

  • First steps
  • Equipment
  • Making contact
  • Service and groups
  • Preparedness
  • Activities
  • Just curious
  • Above and beyond
  • Assistance

eHam.net has an informational page:  Guide to Amateur Radio for New Hams.


St Louis radio club web page:  New Ham Radio User Portal.


Great website with tons of educational material, Ham Radio School: Basics

HRS also has a topic, I Got My License, Now What?


As other related new ham resources come to our attention we will update this post to add links.

QSL

The final courtesy of a radio contact is acknowledgement of the QSO (radio contact).

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QSL is an old brevity code meaning, “I acknowledge receipt”.  Back in the early 1900s when passing messages was a main function of amateur radio (whence the Amateur Radio Relay League or ARRL), the term QSL made a lot of sense.  Today you may hear a ham speak or write QSL to let you know they received something.

The term QSL now more commonly means to confirm a radio contact.  Early on this was done mainly with postcards.

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Some hams still do send out QSL cards, or send them in reply or if requested.  Collecting cards is a fun aspect of ham radio.  Many cards are interesting or unique.

Besides tradition,  a sense of satisfaction, and general fun, QSO confirmation in the form of valid QSL is a basic requirement for most operating awards.  This may not matter to you but many other hams are eager for your QSL, particularly if they are requesting one.

All hams should provide some form of QSL for all contacts except for routine local ones.  Information in the QSL should include the station call signs, date and time (UTC), band/frequency, mode, signal report, and sender’s location details. Good logging is essential for this and a QSL function is often supported by computer logging utilities.

You can determine how to exchange QSLs with a particular station from their QRZ profile if they have one set up (most active hams do).

Details about QSL cards are given further below.  Mailing cards can get expensive.  While the cost of printing the cards is not so bad, postage adds up, particularly when sending internationally.  Bureau (BURO) services to send/receive cards internationally reduces cost somewhat but is still pricey and response time is generally slow (months to years).  Alternate methods of  providing a QSL have arisen out of the need for keeping costs down.

Non-card QSLs are all electronic in nature, exchanged via internet connection in some manner.  We will briefly mention three here.  You can search for others Continue reading

Traffic

New hams listening in on a local net are likely to hear the net control station begin the session by asking for stations with traffic.  Seems like there never is traffic, so what’s that all about?

Traffic is ham-speak for passing messages, usually via regular radio nets.

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Messages are almost always formal, written on a form with bureaucratic detail.

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Even friendly, casual messages (“happy birthday, Aunt Edna”) are typically passed this way.

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Such messages (traffic) resemble the old telegram format.  They go back to the very early days of amateur radio when passing messages was a primary function.  In fact, this is from where the US Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) derives its name.

Nowadays traffic is mainly an emergency communications (EmComm) function, although the occasional casual message is passed on.  Purpose-specific traffic nets meet regularly to pass messages to stay in practice for when they are really needed, like when there is a local or regional communication outage.  Likewise, local nets support traffic to maintain readiness.

The general traffic flow is from an originating station to a local net where the message is Continue reading

ARRL Membership

arrl-logo The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is is the largest membership association of amateur radio enthusiasts in the USA and it represents the interests of hams before federal regulatory bodies, provides technical advice and assistance to amateur radio enthusiasts, supports a number of educational programs and sponsors emergency communications service throughout the country.

The ARRL is the primary representative of amateur radio operators to the US government, lobbying Congress and the Federal Communications Commission on various issues of importance to ham radio.  The ARRL has a significant international membership and influence as well, serving as the secretariat of the International Amateur Radio Union, which performs a similar role internationally, advocating for amateur radio interests before the International Telecommunications Union and the World Administrative Radio Conference.

The ARRL’s underpinnings as Amateur Radio’s witness, partner and forum are defined by five pillars: Public Service, Advocacy, Education, Technology, and Membership.

ARRL’s Vision Statement–  As the national association for Amateur Radio in the United States, ARRL:

  • Supports the awareness and growth of Amateur Radio worldwide;
  • Advocates for meaningful access to radio spectrum;
  • Strives for every member to get involved, get active, and get on the air;
  • Encourages radio experimentation and, through its members, advances radio technology and education; and
  • Organizes and trains volunteers to serve their communities by providing public service and emergency communications.

For all the above reasons it is good to support the ARRL with membership at $49 per year. As a bonus, and for many it is reason alone to be a member, the ARRL publishes the monthly magazine QST.  Each issue is a source of equipment reviews, technical tips, projects, news and many other ham-related topics.

Regular columns address specific interests:

  • Amateur Radio World-  International ham radio news and info
  • Classic/Vintage  Radio- Fun look at older receivers, transmitters and transceivers
  • The Doctor is In-  Authoritative answers to interesting technical questions
  • Eclectic Technology- Discussion on new or unusual technology in ham radio
  • Hands-On Radio- Practical technical discussion of interest to DIY hams
  • Hints & Kinks- Ideas, tips, and related handy suggestions on all things ham
  • How’s DX?-  Long-distance (DX) communication news or issues
  • Public Service- Ham radio for emergency communication and/or events
  • The World Above 50 MHz- Ham radio at VHF and higher frequencies

There’s something for everyone in QST.  A new ham will be exposed to the Continue reading

EmComm Toolbox

Many new hams get involved in emergency communications (EmComm) and it may even be their primary focus or purpose for getting an amateur radio license.  Emergency communications is the first of five basic principles spelled out by the FCC for the existence of the licensed amateur radio service in Part 97:

Section 97.1(a): Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.

In fact, by accepting an FCC operator/primary station license grant under these rules, USA amateurs are obliged to provide emergency communications as needed.  Not that you’ll get thrown in the slammer if you don’t help, but all licensed hams with the equipment and experience should help out in case of disaster or other EmComm situation, and most do so.

Having said all that, I would encourage all hams to join a local or regional EmComm group (such as ARES or RACES in the USA) and train and drill with them to get some experience.  It’s not enough to know how to talk on a repeater or social net; things get more serious in an EmComm situation.

There are more formal radio operating practices and language used in EmComm which is almost always conducted as a directed net.  You need to learn when and how to communicate and with whom and what to say and why things are done a certain way.  Participating in EmComm drills and public service events is important training, as is listening in on EmComm training nets. Taking EmComm courses such as the ARRL’s Introduction to Emergency Communication Course EC-001 is also of great benefit.

To familiarize you with the Who/What/When/Where/Why/How of EmComm, attached here Continue reading

Practical Skills For the Radio Amateur

While not every ham is technically inclined or particularly handy, amateur radio operators tend to be do-it-yourself (DIY) kind of people who often build, install, and fix their gear and other things.  In many ways hams are some of the original “Makers” and experimenters who have actually helped further the art and science of radio and communications technology.

To encourage and further this historic reputation, consider developing in yourself some of the practical skills that ham radio operators are stereotyped to possess.  While the list rightly could be more extensive, we will suggest four basic ones here:

  • Electronic soldering
  • Using a multimeter
  • Stripping and terminating different kinds of wire and cable
  • Drilling and cutting material (fabrication)

We can’t go into details on these here*, so the reader will need to Continue reading

Repeaters

Many new hams get their first radio communications experience on local VHF or UHF amateur bands with an entry-level license.  Often this involves what are known as repeaters.

Repeaters are simply automatically controlled amateur radio stations that simultaneously re-transmit on one frequency what it received on another frequency.

Their purpose is to extend the range of radio communications beyond normal line of sight propagation in the VHF and UHF spectrum, or to enhance local communication in low-lying areas or where there are many obstructions and/or hills.

Repeater Cartoon
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For maximum range and performance, repeaters typically have Continue reading