How To Save VHF and UHF Bands in the New World of Wireless

Here in the US, proposed legislation HR 607 recently made headlines as the latest amateur radio band threat, with a bid to reallocate the 70 cm band in the next ten years.  ARRL is opposing the legislation on the basis that it would reallocate currently non-commercial spectrum to commercial interests.

On the surface ARRL’s claim is valid.  But eventually this approach is going to fall on deaf ears at the FCC and in Congress.    Commercial interests holding bands is not inherently evil.  But in this current “pro-business” climate, the value of resources are increasing being judged more by revenue potential than benefits to a subset of citizens.  Sadly, the “bang-to-buck” ratio that the FCC is getting by continuing to allow amateur radio to use this prime real estate band is abysmal.  While the 70 cm band does have numerous repeaters across the US, it seems that in many areas the band is just dead or serves as a life support system for 2m repeater links or cross band repeaters that would otherwise be dead if it weren’t for 2 meters.  Even worse, the 2 meter repeaters being linked are often dead as well, other than weekly ARES/RACES nets and the occasional kerchunker.

Since amateur radio can’t generate revenue from spectrum, the default benefit of amateur radio having the spectrum is public service.  But when public service is used as a justification for keeping a band allocated to amateur radio, that argument can be easily turned around against amateur radio in the situation of 440 and HR 607.  If the band is used for true public service in amateur radio perhaps only one or two times per year per one hundred square miles, and a competing use such as a mobile network in which the general public and public safety agencies can use it continually and use every last hertz, the amateur radio public service argument falls apart.  The public overwhelming gets more service from the band in the hands of mobile wireless carriers than amateur radio.

What’s the solution?  While mobile wireless networks are spectrum hogs, such technologies today can squeeze 2 or 3 bits per spectrum hertz of data transmission with complex modulation techniques, extensive frequency reuse, and “smart” antennas.  Amateur radio needs to upgrade its technology to squeeze more information into the spectrum and use it to transmit information of value.  Amateur radio needs to give up on classic single-carrier FM analog repeaters as a mainstay of VHF and UHF communications and migrate to wideband spread-spectrum digital modes and repeaters that carry both voice and data.  To some extent this needs to mimic mobile wireless networks, but in an affordable lower tech and “open software” manner. Initially D-STAR comes to mind, but it’s like climbing a tree to get to the moon.  It’s still a narrowband mode that can carry only a meager amount of data and lacks the complexity needed in its protocol for technological growth.

The new technology needs to be paired with a decentralized and open messaging system that connects with the Internet and is inter-operable directly with existing messaging standards.  This would enable the creation of a true resilient 21st century messaging network, one that would come closer to having the capacity and speed necessary to provide public service benefits in the event of a disaster that would cripple mobile wireless and landline networks.

ARRL and other organizations worldwide need to develop a plan for such a technology and network, get support from manufacturers for low cost hardware, and build a development community around it.  There needs to be a road map to show regulatory agencies where we’re going, not where we have been.  This is what will save our valuable bands in the new world of wireless.

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