FCC RM-11708, 11759 AND WINLINK - LEGAL OR NOT?

Current Status of RM-11769, RM-11759, RM-11708, WT 16-239,
ARRL HF 75 Meter Phone Reduction and Free Digital EMail Petitions

Note - below information is historical. Please see above link instead.

Based on my reading of the August QST editorial, ARRL is noticing the current opposition to these latest FCC rulemaking proposals. They basically are telling people: "If you do not like what ARRL is doing, VOTE." That is a fair enough retort, really. Of the ARRL membership, only a quarter vote. ARRL members do not even constitute a significant minority of the total US ham community.

This round of petitions by ARRL and James Edwin Whedbee poses a threat to amateur radio like none we have seen since incentive licensing. The space plant "Audrey" from "Little Shop of Horrors" is going: "Feeeeeed me, Seymour..." and it is going to gobble up your amateur HF bands in your lifetime. If you love the hobby, do something now.

The most troubling part of all of this is that the FCC does not seem to be hearing that PacTOR 4 is an "undisclosed code" and therefore in violation of some of the most fundamental principles of Part 97 law. PacTOR, in some of its versions, is a totally proprietary system. SCS (the seller of modems commonly used on Winlink systems) refuses to "disclose" the code. I understand they spent a lot of money on development. That is fine, if they want to use it for SailMail, which is not governed by Part 97 rules for amateur radio, since it is on commercial frequencies. While there are proposed new software systems which will operate on sound card modems such as the Tigertronics unit, it is unclear whether they will be open source and therefore compliant with FCC rules.

The real heartbreak of this is that ARRL is pushing very hard for PacTOR 4 use for Emergency Communications. PacTOR 4 is ALREADY OBSOLETE, before you even open the box. Someone is developing a new possibly open source version that might run on sound cards. And, if FEMA and homeland defense and law enforcement and MARS want a truly interoperable system, ARRL should support STANAG or a similar military system. SCS PacTOR 4 is a single source vendor. Anthing military is multiple sourced, and will not likely go out of use or not be available or go unsupported for repair at a later date. In fact, FEMA grants for STANAG modems for amateur use (or even military surplus sales of older units) might make them more affordable than an SCS PacTOR4 unit.

PacTOR 4 is less than 2.8 KHz. STANAG is less than 3 KHz, in its simplest effective implementation. STANAG is much better for negligible difference in band width.

Here is the research I have done, some of it on both sides of the issue. Read it and make up your own mind. Personally, I think if there is that much smoke out there, there has to be a fire somewhere.


Charles Brabahm N9PVL comments in forum stating his reasons Winlink is Illegal: http://www.eham.net/ehamforum/smf/index.php?topic=10110.0;wap2

  There is absolutely nothing "experimental" about WinLink, which uses a commercial modem to provide HF eMail service that has been available on commercial frequencies for a very long time.

Experimenting is when you try something new, with hopes that it will be beneficial. - Not when you insist upon using something old and inappropriate, ignoring the fact that it is detrimental and flouts the law.

We are specifically prohibited by the federal government in the PART97 regulations from providing, on a regular basis, communications which are available outside of amateur radio. WinLink is identical in almost every respect to SailMail, one of many commercial email over HF services, one which uses the exactly the same equipment and software as WinLink. - The differences between the two being that SailMail costs 20 bucks a month and operates PACTOR III on the channelized commercial spectrum it was designed and intended for, instead of polluting the ham bands and interfering with ham radio operators communications as WinLink does - for free.

The interference issues related to WinLink on HF are partly due to the commercial PACTOR III modem having no provision for detecting any kind of signal except other PACTOR signals, partly due to the WinLink administrator specifying that all automated WinLink servers on HF turn off the little bit of signal detection the modem does have, and partly due to the PACTOR III signal automatically causing itself to spread out wider in reaction to improved band conditions - the exact opposite of good operating practice within amateur radio's shared spectrum. Ham radio QSO's which are fortunate enough not to be overwhelmed by the initial PACTOR III transmissions are then enveloped when the signal widens, without the WinLink server operator's knowledge or intervention.

Because of these factors, PACTOR III interferes with legitimate, legal ham radio communications without operator intervention, simply by being utilized with amateur radios shared spectrum instead of the channelized commercial spectrum that it was designed for.

The WinLink administrator and the operators of the WinLink servers are aware of these issues but operate this inappropriate equipment on ham radio HF frequencies anyway, making the interference they cause every day "willful interference", which is specifically prohibited in the FCC's PART97 regulations that define and protect amateur radio.

These are not just Lids, but Lids who set up an automated system that interferes with legal amateur radio transmissions on HF all day, every day. It is literally impossible to operate the PACTOR III modem legally on the HF amateur radio bands, due to its design and operating characteristics.



Terry Gerdes, AB5K files FCC comments on RM-11708 and why he thinks Winlink operations are Illegal: https://ecfsapi.fcc.gov/file/7521098786.pdf

[...] how are Winlink stations legal on HF? Winlink is either an "automatically controlled digital station" under 97.221, and hence are limited in bandwidth and restricted to the automatic digital sub-band, or they are being remotely controlled by stations under 97.213's telecommand provisions, in which case they can only be controlled by wireline or auxiliary station and the stations remotely controlling Winlink stations never meet the definition of an auxiliary station. Thus current Winlink operations are highly questionable and possibly illegal under current part 97 rules.
NOTE THAT HIS WEBSITE INCLUDES AN EXTENSIVE CHART OF AUTOMATICALLY CONTROLLED DIGITAL STATIONS THAT HE ASSERTS ARE OPERATING ILLEGALLY OUTSIDE THE "ACDS" BAND SEGMENT MANDATED BY THE FCC


The following quotes are from the Winlink website at: https://www.winlink.org/sites/default/files/wl2k_faq_20150314.pdf

Winlink Legal footer (optional) states legality of use:

This message was sent using Winlink, a free radio email system provided by the Amateur Radio Safety Foundation and volunteers worldwide. Replies to this message should be brief using plain text format and any attachments kept small. Commercial use or use of this email system for monetary gain is strictly forbidden. See www.winlink.org/help for additional information.

Instructions on how to delete this disclaimer from Winlink emails are included:

You can completely eliminate the footer if you wish by including in your message a line containing the text: "no-footer" (minus the quotes).

The Winlink page noted below also cautions:

Business Content:

Directly or indirectly enhancing one's pecuniary interest using amateur radio is universally prohibited. Business traffic is any message that is related to an amateur's business or an activity involved in making money or attempting to make money for the amateur. Placing orders to trade stocks are a clear-cut example of disallowed message content. On the other hand, in the US, the FCC has opinioned (sic) that merely ordering items for personal use is not in violation of the rules so long as it is incidental to your activity as an amateur and not to enhance your pecuniary interest.



Whether in actuality this is in practice is up for debate. Using it for routine organizational communications seems hardly "incidental" for the owners of the Bounty Replica instead of using services like Sailmail for legal commercial use come to mind.

You will have to examine the evidence and decide for yourself.


See ARRL comments on Bounty Replica promoting use of Winlink at: http://www.arrl.org/news/robin-walbridge-kd4ohz-missing-at-sea-after-sinking-of-tall-ship-em-bounty-em-ship-s-electrician-dou

We had Winlink on the ship that we used for e-mail and accessing the Internet to post to blogs and to Facebook, and we finally found an e-mail address for the Coast Guard. As a last-ditch effort, we used Winlink to e-mail the Coast Guard for help.

According to the primary source, the Coast Guard hearing, contact via email was made with the Bounty organization on land. The Bounty organization contacted the coast guard. The coast guard monitors radio transmissions 24/7/365. It does not monitor email full time, and on its website specifically says in emergencies DO NOT use email because it will not trigger an immediate response. For a full discussion with exact links and quotes from the Coast Guard hearing, see: /BOUNTYcomments.html on this site. I have noted that the scs-ptc.com website has had major remodeling and removed all reference to the Bounty incident. I referenced that website in other articles about this, and have left the dead links on my pages to demonstrate that they are now at least not using it as a selling point. The whole sad tale of the Bounty Replica Sinking is a potent demonstration of why sailors should NOT rely on Pactor Amateur Radio systems for critical safety. There are other better and ultimately more affordable options:



See FCC RM-11708 comments by a Winlink user, Randal Evans, employing a "bootlegged" amateur call sign: https://ecfsapi.fcc.gov/file/7521315143.pdf

To: FCC - RM-11708

The sailing forms are all encouraging us to file comments in support of RM-11708. This is my first filing and if I mess this up, please see SailNet Forum at: http://www.sailnet.com/forums/general-discussion-sailing-related/111746-us-citizensurged-support-fcc-rm-11708-a.html

I have experienced very dependable service from the amateur radio Internet Winlink system. Its a great service because all of the other available Internet services cost money. Even when I am topside crusing (sic) the system runs automatically below deck publishing my position reports and downloading my email. I use the system for sending position reports, ordering supplies, repairs, chatting with friends and posting to facebook. My only complaint is that it needs to be much faster. I am not a amateur radio operator yet but a friend lets me use his call with a SIDD on the end. I hope to get my own ham call soon.

From what I read on the sailing forums, RM-11708 will allow Winlink eMail to run twice as fast. That is great and I am for that. Some of the technical folks are saying that if RM-11708 is published with no bandwidth we can get even faster Internet and might be able to stream movies on the Winlink Internet. I'm for passing RM-11708 into law with no bandwdith limits.

I heartily encourage you to use the forum link in Randal Evan's comments to see how amateur radio packet is being promoted as an alternative to Sailmail, and to file comments on FCC RM-11708. Is this a legal non commercial use of Winlink or is it a way of dodging a $250 per year fee for Sailmail? Are the Winlink Sysops controlling this kind of use? Are ARRL Official Observers (OOs) monitoring this? Do OOs even possess the technology to do so, or do the inherent characteristics of Pactor even permit it? Some commenters indicate that even snagging the call signs is dicey when attempting to decode the transmissions.


Does Winlink comply with FCC Part 97 rules for Automatically Controlled Digital Stations? Here is their specific answer:

  A580 RMS stations and WL2K users are governed by the rules and regulations of their own country. Winlink 2000 complies with §97.221 for an Automatically controlled digital station:

- For Wider than 500 Hz: 97.221 (b) (b) A station may be automatically controlled while transmitting a RTTY or data emission on the 6 m or shorter wavelength bands, and on the 28.120-28.189 MHz, 24.925-24.930 MHz, 21.090-21.100 MHz, 18.105-18.110 MHz, 14.0950-14.0995 MHz, 14.1005-14.112 MHz, 10.140-10.150 MHz, 7.100-7.105 MHz, or 3.585-3.600 MHz segments. [Editor Note: "data" includes emission type J2D, which includes pactor 3 (3kHz or less).]

- For 500 Hz: 97.221 (c) A station may be automatically controlled while transmitting a RTTY or data emission on any other frequency authorized for such emission types provided that: (1) The station is responding to interrogation by a station under local or remote control; and (2) No transmission from the automatically controlled station occupies a bandwidth of more than 500 Hz. Winlink 2000 complies with §97.109 Station control, for 3rd Party traffic rules:

- (e) No station may be automatically controlled while transmitting third party communications, except a station transmitting a RTTY or data emission. All messages that are retransmitted must originate at a station that is being locally or remotely controlled.

  Quotes above from Winlink website: https://www.winlink.org/sites/default/files/wl2k_faq_20150314.pdf

AB5K Terry Gerdes asserts otherwise in his FCC comments on RM-11708 at: https://ecfsapi.fcc.gov/file/7521098786.pdf


The dispute hinges on the current definition of local control, remote control, and automatic control. But it appears to me from reading the above material that there are already instances of Automatic Control Digital Stations occurring outside the segments allotted for ACDS in the FCC rules. Additionally, some of these stations are alleged to be using wider transmission modes.

I find the definitions are contradictory to what I grew up with. A remote controlled station on any frequency is one linked by methods that allow termination of transmission by some reliable hardware. VHF and UHF repeater systems have such controls, and they are required to identify their station by a means usable by any observer. I do not understand why the FCC has allowed this definition to be "fudged" to allow the implementation of email via HF radio, contrary to such a common sense concept, regardless of bandwidth. FCC RM-11708 seems to promote the use of wider bandwidths by such bogus "remote control" stations OUTSIDE THE ACDS SEGMENT. The FCC has acted against an amateur radio operator, K1MAN, in part for inadequate remote control hardware for a station transmitting on HF. This seems to me to be kind of the same thing.


A Pactor advocate comments on its current use:

  The use of PACTOR for direct communications is rare. The number of PACTOR QSO's has dropped drastically. PACTOR use is up slightly (as measured by traffic volume reports) with most units communicating with Mailboxes (as mentioned). The increase seems to be more questionable content (sail-mail, ham email, etc.) that appears to be more cost avoidance than anything else. Primarily, it bypasses the internet for free. Of interest, is that many store-and-forward mail boxes that handle a lot of traffic are switching away from PACTOR to 'allow' the use of other (cheaper) high speed modes as well.

This quote is from: http://www.pactor.com/

I strongly recommend you read his thoughtful posts as the Pactor mode evolved from its original form. I commend his forthrightness and honesty.

Who is promoting this use of amateur frequencies?


The current cost for a state of the art Pactor 4 modem is high. The use of such modems on commercial services and frequencies is common, to get higher connect speed than the older forms of Pactor. While other countries may allow use of these wider band widths, the US currently does not. That is what the current FCC RM-11708, 11759, 11769 seek to change.

Pactor.com speculates that the cost may come down once an open source system employing non proprietary modem technology is available. Once that cost barrier is removed, use of this technology may accelerate.

While I support the use of ham radio for Emergency Communication in principle, and the ARRL's desire to promote that use, I am alarmed by the other uses this technology have been put to. Interoperability of hams with military and civil authorities responding to emergency situations is a laudable goal. Can the same technology be put to questionable use?

Does the current implementation of Pactor 4 functionally constitute encryption? Can the content or transmitting stations be effectively identified and monitored for compliance with FCC rules?

Does it divert just revenue from legitimate commercial providers, weakening the possible deployment of worthwhile enhancements to their systems? I believe the amateur community needs more forthright answers to these questions before the current rulemakings, RM-11708 and RM-11759 proceed any further. Given the current problems with existing Pactor 4, what could happen with newer developments later?

You will have to examine the evidence, some of which I have collected here, and decide for yourself. I have made up my mind and filed FCC comments based on that opinion I have formed from thoughtful reflection about whether the unregulated proliferation of commercial use of wideband digital transmission on the ham bands is good for the hobby.

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73,
Janis Carson
AB2RA