The FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is soliciting comments on a Petition for Declaratory Ruling filed on behalf of New York University (NYU) seeking to clarify that Section 97.113(a)(4) of the Amateur Service rules prohibits the transmission of “effectively encrypted or encoded messages, including messages that cannot be readily decoded over-the-air for true meaning.” Comments are due by December 2, with reply comments (comments on comments already filed) due on December 17. The FCC has requested that all filings refer to WT Docket No. 16-239, which grew out of an ARRL Petition for Rule Making seeking elimination of symbol rate limitations on the amateur bands and is unrelated to the wider encryption issue.
“For years, certain amateur licensees have violated Section 97.113(a)(4) by relying on an interpretation that contravenes the two bedrock principles — openness and transparency — that have enabled amateur radio licensees to self-regulate the Amateur Radio Service bands effectively,” the NYU Petition asserts. “This interpretation has restricted Amateur Radio Service licensees’ efforts to effectively self-police the amateur bands, thus enabling the continued violation of many other amateur rules. Accordingly, the Commission should eliminate the lingering uncertainty regarding Section 97.113(a)(4)’s meaning and clarify that the rule prohibits the transmission of effectively encrypted or encoded messages, including messages that cannot be readily decoded over-the-air for true meaning.”
NYU explained its rationale for involvement in an amateur radio regulatory matter in a July 2019 ex parte filing from the university’s legal counsel. “As a major center of radio engineering research and scholarship and on whose faculty sat telegraph and Morse code pioneer Samuel Morse, NYU is committed to fostering innovation in, and attracting new entrants to, the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM),” the letter to FCC Secretary Marlene Dortch, signed by Ari Q. Fitzgerald of Hogan Lovells US LLP, said. “We can think of no better way for the FCC to promote these goals than to stand up for transparency and openness in amateur radio.”
NYU Electrical Engineering Professor Ted Rappaport, N9NB, filed the petition on the university’s behalf along with Michael J. Marcus, N3JMM. The petition reflects Rappaport’s view that Winlink amateur radio email software is “an example of a system that has contravened the Commission’s requirements.” He included PACTOR 2, PACTOR 3, PACTOR 4, WINMOR, ARDOP, and VARA in this category as well.
“For years, certain amateur licensees have skirted these requirements, sending and receiving communications over amateur bands using communications modes that incorporate dynamic compression techniques and, by extension, effectively encrypt or encode the communications,” the Petition contends. “These amateur licensees combine dynamic compression with automatic repeat request (ARQ), which allows only two linked stations to complete a transmission without error.”
A footnote in the Petition says the efficacy and availability of recently announced software to decode Winlink communications when sent using different PACTOR modes is “unclear” as it applies to existing PACTOR-capable modems. “If any bits or letters are missed or corrupted during the reception — as would be expected under HF propagation — the message cannot be realistically decoded,” the footnote asserts. SCS, the company that created PACTOR, recently unveiled its PMON software that it says offers the ability to monitor the content of PACTOR 1, 2, and 3 transmissions over the air.
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