Tag Archives: ham radio

Two Rare QSLs in One Mailbox

I just received ham radio QSL cards (postcards providing written confirmation of a radio contact) from two rare entities. This is part of a sub-hobby of ham radio called DXing, in which one tries to establish and confirm two-way contact with as many different parts of the world as possible. It’s like stamp collecting combined with social networking, in the nerdiest imaginable way. There’s no money in it, but one can win all sorts of nifty certificates and trophies to display, and of course bragging rights. I’m up to 118 countries, which puts me at about the intermediate level of DXing.

Most DXing conversations, if you can call them that, consist of exchanging just the bare minimum of information for the contact to count: the callsigns of the two stations, plus one additional piece of information, usually a number indicating the quality of the signal each operator is receiving. It doesn’t count for award purposes until you confirm it in writing, though, and that’s where QSL cards come in. These little postcards make hams some of the last good customers of the world’s postal services.

The two cards I just got are from Clipperton Island and Ecuador.

QSLs for TX5K and HC2/RC5A.

QSLs for TX5K and HC2/RC5A.

No, Clipperton Island isn’t technically a country, but for DXing purposes it counts as one. It’s far enough away from its official government (France) that contacting Clipperton is a different technical challenge from contacting the parent country. What makes Clipperton a rare radio contact is that nobody lives there. It’s a little speck of sand in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The only way to contact it is to wait until someone with the appropriate gear and licenses visits, in this case a group of hams who went there for precisely that purpose. They spent thousands of dollars to fly to the nearest airport, charter a boat and crew, and land all of their camping and radio gear on the island, all so they could spend a couple of weeks holed up in sweltering tents contacting other hobbyists around the world. Of course they also had to jump through an epic series of bureaucratic hoops just to be allowed to go there. This delightfully eccentric type of adventure travel is actually quite common – it’s called a DXpedition. I contacted Clipperton on two different frequency bands (17 meters and 15 meters, if you’re curious).

Ecuador is a regular country of course, and isn’t at all hard to reach by radio from here. I’ve contacted Ecuadorian hams several times. What makes HC2/RC5A’s card unusual is the mode and the operator. Elena is a Russian woman who was visiting Ecuador, and she was using Morse code on the air. Women are a rarity in ham radio, and since knowing Morse code hasn’t been a licensing requirement in any country for several years, only a small percentage of hams remain proficient in it. The overlap of those two groups is almost nonexistent. Nonetheless, Elena’s code was excellent and I worked her twice, on two different frequency bands (30 meters and 15 meters). Now I also have the card to prove it.

NEC-4 and Software Security Revisited

Almost a year ago, I tore the folks at Lawrence Livermore National Lab a new one over their security policies for a computer algorithm called NEC-4. The short version is that this is a very useful antenna modeling algorithm developed with government funds, but LLNL keeps it locked behind a seemingly absurd paywall. Students, amateur scientists, and would-be entrepreneurs interested in wireless technology have to pay a steep entry fee if they want access to this highly useful tool, even though it was developed entirely with taxpayers’ money.

Recently, though, I received a note from someone at another research center who explained the situation much better than the LLNL folks do. His name is Jim. Here are some excerpts from our exchange:

I work at JPL, and it costs us substantially more than $300 to distribute export controlled software, just to handle the paperwork. There’s at least 3 people involved: the “software release authority” who deals with all software distribution; the export control record keeping person; and me. One of the first two runs the name/business name through some search databases. Pretty fast, but by the time you’re done, you’ve probably consumed a couple or 3 work hours.

Part of the problem is that even for non-export controlled software, there’s a record keeping requirement imposed by Congress. They want to know how many people are benefiting from using the government developed software so we have to keep records so we can report to some nameless entity who can summarize it in a report that probably never gets read except when someone complains to the IG or when some Congressperson gets interested.

Apparently I was mistaken about the actual costs of distributing this software. I stand corrected: it probably does really cost LLNL a few hundred dollars to provide a copy, solely because the algorithm is covered by US export control laws. More on that in a moment.

Jim also commented on my contention that the “security check” required to obtain the algorithm is meaningless. It seems that I was more or less correct about that:

As for “paying a U.S. person to get the CDROM and forward it,” that’s a pretty clear violation of the export control laws. The person doing this is setting themselves up for pretty severe penalties if the govt got its dander up. Oddly, not much is required in terms of authenticating or verifying that the person you give it to is actually a U.S. Person under the law. Their statement that they are is sufficient. They can lie, and that puts the violation on the recipient, not the sender.

Last I checked, the countries and organizations we need to worry about are universally willing to lie and break our laws, so “put[ting] the violation on the recipient” accomplishes nothing.

In other words, export control laws mean that LLNL has to keep this useful algorithm locked behind a paywall, and has to cite “security” as a justification for that, but it would be much easier for everyone – and no less secure – to make the thing freely available.

There may be a way out of this silliness, though:

In reality, what someone should do is see if they can reclassify it as not export controlled. If you were to seek a determination for NEC-4 today, I doubt it would wind up controlled. It’s unclear to me what parts of it triggered the controls in the first place, but probably it’s the parts with improved models for insulated antennas submerged in lossy dielectric mediums (like seawater) and that probably triggered the export control rating. However, I would think that stuff has been published in the open literature by now.

It sounds like a properly motivated member of Congress could accomplish a lot of good here. Removing NEC-4 from export control and making it freely available would allow amateur experimenters, students, and other interested folks to learn more about antenna modeling and maybe come up with some new ideas. It would also enable the Open Source community to work on the underlying algorithm, possibly improving it. With breakthroughs in wireless communication now producing massive economic benefits, these are topics that could clearly use more brains. I certainly plan to make that argument in a letter to my representatives. If you agree, here’s where you can find your Congressional representative, and here’s the contact information for your Senator.

The NEC-4 Security Scam

A few decades ago, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California developed a computer program called the Numerical Electromagnetic Code, or NEC. This set of algorithms allowed researchers to build computer models of radio antennas so they could make realistic predictions about a given antenna design’s performance. As has happened in many other fields, this computer-aided approach drastically accelerated research and development. Instead of building working prototypes and trying them out on elaborate antenna test ranges, then repeating the whole process dozens of times to arrive at a final product, designers could now test and refine their plans on the computer first, and spot-check the results on the final product. LLNL describes the program this way:

NEC (Numerical Electromagnetic Code), written by Gerald Burke, is a popular antenna modeling code for wire and surface antennas and scatterers. Models can include wires buried in a homogeneous ground, insulated wires and impedance loads. The code is based on the method of moments solution of the electric field integral equation for thin wires and the magnetic field integral equation for closed, conducting surfaces.

Like all good algorithms, NEC has grown over the years. The latest release is version 4.1, and it incorporates a huge array of variables that allow users to model all sorts of antennas over realistic terrain. Whether you’re a cellular phone company, a physicist, or an amateur radio operator, this is a tremendously powerful tool.

Antenna Tower. Image courtesy Razvan Caliman.

Antenna Tower. Image courtesy Razvan Caliman.

As computers became faster, smaller, and cheaper, other programmers extended NEC, porting it to platforms beyond its original mainframe implementation and building user-friendly front-ends for it. Many of these ports and interfaces came from hobbyists who released their code for free, a tradition that continues today – the latest open-source Mac version, for example, is here.

However, if you download one of those excellent open source implementations, or even a commercial antenna design package built on NEC, you may notice a discrepancy in the version number: all of these programs use NEC-2, not the much more sophisticated NEC-4. That’s because LLNL, citing export-control regulations, forbids software developers from including NEC-4 in their products. Instead, anyone who wants to use the more advanced version of the algorithm has to submit an application and pay a fee directly to LLNL. The folks at Livermore will then provide a copy of the NEC-4 code, with the stipulation that the applicant can’t give it to anyone else.

I understand and support the need to keep America’s enemies from exploiting American research, and that’s what export-control laws are supposed to do. But it’s very hard to see how LLNL’s licensing policy accomplishes that. Take a look at the NEC-4 application form (PDF). There’s a lot of legalese telling the applicant that the code comes with no warranty, and that he/she/it is not to redistribute this software. Then there are blanks for the applicant’s information: name, address, phone, email. And that’s it. It’s clear that the most important – probably the only important – part of this form is “attach payment.”

How much? Well, NEC-4 will set you back $300 for an individual or academic institution, $500 for non-U.S. academic institutions, $1,100 for American companies, or $1,500 for non-U.S. companies. Considering that the software was developed on U.S. government grant funding, and that much of the heavy-lifting of interface design and code porting was done by others for free, exactly what is this money for? It’s certainly not for a thorough background check – LLNL isn’t collecting enough information to do one, at least not on the main form for U.S. citizens. You don’t even have to enter your Social Security number.

But wait, there’s a separate “Customer Screening” form (PDF) that non-U.S. entities have to fill out. Let’s take a look at some excerpts from it to see what kind of heavy-duty security screening the foreigners are getting:

Is your facility involved in any of the following activities?

Research on or development, design, manufacture, construction, testing or maintenance of any nuclear explosive device or components or subsystems of such a device? [] Yes [] No

Will the item(s) requested for export be used in the design, development, production or use of missiles? [] Yes [] No

Will the item(s) requested for export be used in the design, development, production, stockpiling, or use of chemical or biological weapons? [] Yes [] No

The rest of the form is in the same vein. I’m pretty sure that even the world’s stupidest terrorist would know not to check “yes” to any of these items. Even if that level of understanding escaped them, or if their mailing address seemed likely to arouse suspicion (e.g. “Hidden Base, Afghanistan”), they could simply find a U.S. citizen willing to fill out the form and forward the CD-ROM, perhaps in exchange for a small bribe.

It’s hard to see how LLNL is accomplishing anything with this silly sham, besides scamming the public out of some money and preventing legitimate users from accessing a useful tool. The cumbersome but pointless licensing process for NEC-4 is actively hindering innovation, as many users who might otherwise be able to contribute to the development of the next generation of antennas can’t afford the extra tax LLNL has chosen to levy on them. Even those who can pay the fee may run up against technical problems, such as the need to compile the code from source. If NEC-4 were available as openly as NEC-2, developers could not only do the compiling for their users, but also improve the code’s integration into antenna modeling packages.

I think it’s high time to channel some of this geek rage toward changing the situation. The first step is to unmask the scam. Who wants to take up a collection to submit a transparently bogus license application (with a valid payment) and blog about the results anonymously, to prove that LLNL isn’t doing background checks? I’ll put up the first $20.

The “Growing” Ham Radio Hobby – Or Is It?

The American Radio Relay League, the main organization representing the US Amateur Radio community, likes to put out predictable press releases trumpeting the hobby’s growth. Back in October, they did it again:

As the third quarter of 2011 came to a close, ARRL VEC Manager Maria Somma, AB1FM, began calculating the number of licensed Amateur Radio operators in the US, as well as the number of new licensees. “At the end of September, I saw that the number of hams in the US was high,” she said. “When I started comparing that number with other years, I found that it was an all-time high.” For the first time, there are more than 700,000 radio amateurs in the US.

Somma said these high numbers mean that hams are upgrading and renewing in larger numbers and staying interested in hobby: “These are compelling statistics and I am thrilled to see the highest number of amateur radio licensees ever!”

Is that really what those numbers mean? Just a glance at the historical data in this press release told me that the ham radio population’s increase wasn’t happening at a smooth rate. In addition, the US population has also grown over the years, so the raw number of amateur radio licensees could keep going up even if relative interest in the hobby were stagnant or declining.

When I started playing with the numbers to figure those things out, the League’s rosy picture started to fade. This graph tells the story pretty well:

Ham Radio in Decline

Ham Radio in Decline

The US population has grown at a reasonably steady rate over the past forty years, averaging somewhere around 10%. Ham radio, however, has been on a roller-coaster ride, from a 50% increase in the 1971-1981 period to a meagre 2.5% rise from 2001-2011. Indeed, the past ten years marked the first period when the ham population grew more slowly than the total population. As a result, the number of hams per 1 million Americans went from 1,402 in 1971 up to a high of 2,427 in 2001. Then, for the first time, it declined.

If we consider that 1991 was the year the US Federal Communications Commission lifted the Morse code requirement for the entry-level amateur radio license, the picture looks even worse. That lift in the 1991-2001 period likely represents the influx of people who’d always wanted to be hams, but were put off by the difficulty of passing the Morse test. Having absorbed all of that extra demand, we went back to a drop that was probably already underway (1981-1991 was almost flat). The data show the opposite of what the ARRL wants to believe.

That’s not a reason to avoid the activity, of course. I love tinkering with radios and electronics, and have no intention of quitting. But let’s stop pretending it’s the hot new thing.

How To Renew Your Ham Radio License (For Free)

I just received an official-looking envelope in the mail, notifying me that my amateur radio license is about to expire. Inside, an official-looking form offered the opportunity to renew it: just fill in a few pieces of information, indicate how I planned to pay the “$7 license renewal fee,” and send it back in the enclosed postpaid envelope. Recognizing it as a scam, I threw it out.

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Could Someone Please Do This Experiment, Already?

Over the past few years, a growing body of important but politically incendiary research has shown that – duh – distracted drivers are unsafe. Talking on a cellular phone seems to be particularly distracting, a finding that has led to a slew of new laws limiting cellular phone use in the car. Meanwhile, ham radio operators (one of the many geek tribes to which I belong) have protested that these laws are sometimes too broad, effectively banning hams from using their mobile radios. As a ham, I want to believe that my hobby should be exempted from the “driving while cellular” laws, but as a scientist, I need to see some data first. Does talking on a two-way radio make a driver less safe, or not?

It’s a simple experiment. Just line up a few hams with mobile rigs, have them drive through an obstacle course with their radios off, then have them drive through again while having an active QSO. Maybe you could even randomize them to see if talking on a local repeater is more or less hazardous than trying to dig out a weak DX signal. Unfortunately, nobody’s done this experiment.

The American Radio Relay League, the official lobbying group for ham radio in the US, wants us to believe that this absence of evidence constitutes evidence of absence:

As ARRL Chief Executive Officer David Sumner has observed based on more than 40 years of experience, “Simplex, two-way radio operation is simply different than duplex, cell phone use. Two-way radio operation in moving vehicles has been going on for decades without highway safety being an issue. The fact that cell phones have come along does not change that.”

It’s a true statement, but a very misleading one. Highway safety hasn’t been an issue in two-way radio use simply because nobody has checked to see whether it should be an issue. For centuries, people smoked tobacco without cancer being an issue. That doesn’t mean tobacco wasn’t killing people throughout those centuries, just that they didn’t know it.

The ARRL has also lobbied the National Safety Council, the organization responsible for much of the recent research on distracted driving. The NSC response was telling:

Noting that there is significant evidence that talking on cell phones while driving poses crash risk four times that of other drivers, Froetscher observed that the NSC position calling for bans on the use of cell phones while driving is grounded in science. “We are not aware of evidence that using Amateur Radios while driving has significant crash risks,” Froetscher wrote in her August 24 letter. “We also have no evidence that using two-way radios while driving poses significant crash risks. Until such time as compelling, peer-reviewed scientific research is presented that denotes significant risks associated with the use of Amateur Radios, two-way radios or other communication devices, the NSC does not support legislative bans or prohibition on their use.”

Froetscher said that while “the specific risk of radio use while driving is unmeasured and likely does not approach that of cell phones, there indeed is some elevated risk to the drivers, their passengers and the public associated with 650,000 Amateur Radio operators who may not, at one time or another, not [sic] concentrate fully on their driving.” She points out that the “best safety practice is to have one’s full attention on their driving, their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. Drivers who engage in any activity that impairs any of these constitutes an increased risk.”

In other words, the NSC concedes that the evidence isn’t in, but reminds the ARRL that this doesn’t necessarily let hams off the hook. Two-way radio use might be just as distracting as cell phone use, or half as distracting, or not distracting at all. It certainly seems as if someone should look into that. Soon.

The Importance of Being Ionized

According to the latest data from NASA, the layer of charged atmospheric gases at the outer limit of the atmosphere has gotten surprisingly thin. The new results come from a satellite-mounted experiment called CINDI:

CINDI’s first discovery was, however, that the ionosphere was not where it had been expected to be. During the first months of CINDI operations the transition between the ionosphere and space was found to be at about 260 miles (420 km) altitude during the nighttime, barely rising above 500 miles (800 km) during the day. These altitudes were extraordinarily low compared with the more typical values of 400 miles (640 km) during the nighttime and 600 miles (960 km) during the day.

I’m always interested in the condition of the ionosphere, because it has an enormous effect on the propagation of ham radio signals. Secondarily, it keeps solar radiation from burning all life on earth to a crisp. There’s no need to be worried about this critical atmospheric layer’s sudden slimming, though – it’s actually expected:

The height of the ionosphere/space transition is controlled in part by the amount of extreme ultraviolet energy emitted by the Sun and a somewhat contracted ionosphere could have been expected because C/NOFS was launched during a minimum in the 11-year cycle of solar activity. However, the size of the actual contraction caught investigators by surprise. In fact, when they looked back over records of solar activity, they found that C/NOFS had been launched during the quietest solar minimum since the space age began.

The next sunspot cycle is warming up now, albeit slowly, so CINDI should soon be able to watch the ionosphere bulk up. Hams, meanwhile, should finally start to see propagation conditions improve.

Callsign Search Widget Fixed

If you’re a ham radio operator who uses a Mac, chances are you’ve enjoyed the KC9L callsign search widget, which provides an instant lookup for any US ham operator’s name and address right in your Mac’s Dashboard. If you’re not a ham, you won’t understand how useful this is, and should probably skip to the next post.

Unfortunately, the callsign widget broke around the beginning of May, because of a formatting change on the American Radio Relay League Web site. Worse, KC9L doesn’t seem to have a valid email address in anyone’s records. My Javascript skills are rudimentary, but with a little patience, some luck, and the arrogance of a rank beginner, I was able to fix the thing today. You can download my repaired version here. Now I’ll send an old-fashioned paper letter to KC9L to let him know.