Is Winlink a Common Carrier Dodge of For-Fee Commercial Services?

Discussion in 'Ham Radio Discussions' started by W6EM, Aug 14, 2021.

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  1. W6EM

    W6EM Ham Member QRZ Page

    Lots of debate on this one, pro and con. To begin, here are some definitions.

    47USC §153.......(11)Common carrier
    The term “common carrier” or “carrier” means any person engaged as a common carrier for hire, in interstate or foreign communication by wire or radio or interstate or foreign radio transmission of energy, except where reference is made to common carriers not subject to this chapter; but a person engaged in radio broadcasting shall not, insofar as such person is so engaged, be deemed a common carrier.

    And, is it a “service provided on a regular basis” [that] could be furnished through other services? 47CFR 97.113(a) 5 specifically prohibits use of the Amateur Service for such purposes.

    Lots of comments in proceedings before the FCC, including rulemaking WT 16-239. I found a recent Ex-Parte posting into the proceeding record by Dr. Michael Marcus, of Marcus Spectrum Solutions, LLC particularly interesting and it prompted this thread. He filed late comments introducing a new, world-wide satellite-based voice and data system called “Bivy Stick,” sold by ACR Electronics of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, that adapts full featured smart phones for use with the system by simply inserting the phones into a small cradle that attaches to the back of phones. It sure sounds like a service intended to be provided on a regular basis. And, of course, there's already Sail Mail out there as a for-fee, common carrier equivalent of Winlink for sailors and RVers. Here’s the Bivy Stick story link: parte 6 19 21.pdf

    There are many claims amongst the Winlink community that it isn’t a common carrier, since Winlink only requests dues or annual “donations.” And, as I was reminded yesterday, its software is free. However, some folks are paying to interconnect their modems to telephone or cable Internet portals to allow Winlink to connect to the Internet as part of their Winlink participation. And, those seem to fit the above codified definition of what common carriers are, if considered part of the infrastructure means to connect to the Internet. And, of course, fees are paid to their provider to make connections by those who operate RMS stations.

    The sticky wicket, per se, is just how often does the “service provided on a regular basis” perturb the codified language? Daily? Weekly? Only needed for “emergencies” or drills? Lots of evidence has been collected and filed with the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau demonstrating just how many amateurs use Winlink as a routine connection to the Internet to pass all manner of content. Personal, having pecuniary interests, business transactions, and some very-risque exchanges with significant others. :)

    So, let’s hear it. Is Winlink something that routinely violates standing FCC regulations? And, if it does, why has it been given a “pass” by the ARRL, its “Volunteer Monitor Program,” and the FCC for many years? Is it time for the FCC to finally corral the apparent abuse? Or, should the FCC, as ARRL wants as of late, allow it to expand across the HF bands and even include intentionally obscured content? (Not that it already isn’t extremely difficult to intercept and monitor by 3rd parties) And, here's ARRL's latest plea to the FCC to lift the baud rate limit. Notice that its claims of all other countries permitting wider digital bandwidth carefully omit the detail that many countries prohibit use of amateur radio to pass third party traffic, a backbone reason for use of Winlink in the first place: ex parte FCC OCH 06_2021.pdf

    I’m personally one of those who thinks that Winlink is guilty on both counts. As a common carrier, and a means to bypass services available elsewhere for a price. Amateur radio was never purposed to be a way to dodge commercial services. Oh, sure, an occasional message or old-style phone patch is fine. But really, regular, routine email traffic? Dumping the entirety of an email in-box via HF amateur radio over and over?

    Winlink is owned and operated by the Amateur Radio Safety Foundation, Inc. A 501c not-for-profit. Those who are members of its Board of Directors do receive some annual remuneration, along with their expenses being paid. And, I can’t help but wonder, how many “RMS” servers and Telnet access points are paid for with ARSFI/Winlink funds on a regular basis?

    So, let’s hear it. My thoughts are that amateur radio should only be “peer-to-peer,” and not used as a dodge of commercial services for sending and receiving emails and attachments. Just my 10 cents. Your shekels may be different.
    WQ4G, K0UO, K0IDT and 1 other person like this.
  2. KS2G

    KS2G Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    Just what we need.
    Another bash-WinLink thread.
    N5HXR, N0KEW, KD4MOJ and 3 others like this.
  3. WA3VJB

    WA3VJB Ham Member QRZ Page

    The FCC maintains a policy of allowing a "least restrictive environment" in spectrum allocated to licensed radio hobbyists. But when experiments that are not otherwise prohibited are found in conflict with established activity, the FCC would consider Rule Making to restrict, define or in some cases, prohibit the newcomer.

    More than 25 years ago I had a telephone conversation with Steve Waterman, one of the founders of Winlink. The call was recorded with his permission as part of reporting coverage for Amateur Radio Newsline, where I was among the correspondents covering stories about the hobby.

    Waterman told me in that phone call that he had directed users to disable an inhibit function that prevented interference by Winlink with existing activity on frequencies where his automated systems were polling for messages. He told me at that time that his system was being deliberately interfered with, in ways that took advantage of the listen-before-transmit protocol, blocking automated transmissions.

    And so it began that Winlink's poor relationship with active, concerned licensees was established.

    Slowly, but continuously, proponents of the system have tried to hold onto frequencies they have agreed among themselves they shall use, until such time they felt emboldened to try to carve out permanent reserved space for their activity.

    Yet, the fundamental question has never been put to the Amateur community as to whether systems like Winlink, as an activity, belong in spectrum regulated by Part 97.

    Several times in regulatory proceedings, often aided by positions taken by the ARRL, there have been efforts to refine the definitions of telemetry in such a way that would validate the presence of Winlink. Never a direct question about the purpose, but a sort of backdoor way of winning FCC support for technical standards that also would be de facto permission for Winlink to be on hobbyist allocations.

    The most direct approach today would be for proponents of Winlink to raise the question, allow public comment for and against, and ask the FCC for a ruling. Those opposed to Winlink could do the same thing. Each side could document their position through cited on-air activity, conflict, and safeguards, in addition to discussions that would more formally define just what is permitted in the spirit of Amateur radio, and how compliance would be enforced.

    But as it stands, more than 25 years later, Winlink exists in a gray area of passing content that is not quite allowed, but not really prohibited, either.
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  4. KQ0J

    KQ0J XML Subscriber QRZ Page

    Seems to me that its just like back in the days that the " Radio Relay " League was formed - a radio organization / system formed to pass messages on a cost free basis in
    order to bypass an already robust commercial telegraph system ( and growing telephone systems ) and US Mail. Passing ' Traffic ' - a message from a person in
    Boston to a person in Chicago via multiple relay stations over RF communications rather than using the commercial Western Union system that existed between those two
    KE5OFJ, N1ZZZ, KK9W and 4 others like this.
  5. W6EM

    W6EM Ham Member QRZ Page

    And, likely decades before Part 97 existed. Today we have FCC rules that will put folks in harm's way for unauthorized listening to cell phone calls, public safety communications, and MDSA and satellite TV broadcasting. Times have indeed changed.
  6. K7JEM

    K7JEM Ham Member QRZ Page

    Obviously the OP has no clue what a "common carrier" radio system consists of. Been through this discussion before.
    KA9JLM likes this.
  7. W5UAA

    W5UAA Ham Member QRZ Page

    It falls in the same category as WSPR (not supposed to leave it unattended, otherwise it meets the definition of "broadcast"?), ROS (not allowed on HF because it's spread spectrum but it fits within a voice bandwidth?), G-TOR (trademark of Kantronics, so is it for pecuniary interest?), and Clover (allows transferring executable files?).

    WinLink transfers SMTP, which is an internet protocol. Some emails may slip through that are not supposed to go through. But the ARRL is betting on WinLink to save its original charter reason--its reason for being.

    So, we all just look the other way as long as no one complains.

    Common carrier? This is a semantics argument. We continue to relax the rules on what words mean and allow multiple meanings these days when parsing sentences. Depends on what the meaning of "is" is. There's more and more debate on more and more things these days because of semantics which is leading to other, larger problems.

    Is WinLink a "Common Carrier?" ...Who (is complaining) really cares? Answer the latter question and you can predict the eventual answer to the former question.
  8. N4DJT

    N4DJT Platinum Subscriber Platinum Subscriber QRZ Page


    Attached Files:

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  9. K1LKP

    K1LKP Platinum Subscriber Platinum Subscriber QRZ Page

  10. N1FM

    N1FM Ham Member QRZ Page

    I think it may be a mobile internet access service, best classified as an information service, although it's not a mass market retail service, and because it's related to a charity, it's not specifically marketed for a fee. Interestingly, "public safety services" are not included as information services, because they're not marketed to the public. Ultimately (based on league sponsored documents) I think they'd like to classify their emcomm services as "public safety services" and gain a permanent encryption and a Pactor 4 waiver, in order to quickly pass HIPAA traffic on behalf of FEMA, etc.

    Examples: Advocating for wider bandwidths for data transfer, refarming the bands, abolishing 300 Baud symbol rate limit, allowing encryption for HIPAA info transfer, allowing payment for emcomm ops....

    Analysis is based on the information at the url below:

    Items to be considered: Mozilla v FCC (2019) and the FCC Declaratory Ruling in WC Docket No. 17-108, adopted on December 14, 2017 and released on January 4, 2018. Both docs seem to speak to [some of] the issues. A part 97 decision based on the definition of "encryption" is also still pending.

    As Paul said, it's a gray area. Not to mention; if it takes eight years to get an answer on a few amateur petitions, I think it's an interesting discussion, but probably a moot point for most, because we'd be long dead before a decision was handed down.
    Last edited: Aug 15, 2021
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