The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled earlier this month that the FCC was well within its rights to impose a 120-day window for voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, service providers to comply with its order to provide Enhanced 911 services (see story below). On the same day, the FCC adopted an order that eliminated the requirement to learn Morse code in order to obtain an amateur radio license.

Both are common-sense rulings that will have far-reaching implications. In the case of the former, providers of nomadic, non-native VoIP service will have to deploy systems capable of locating subscribers when they make 911 calls from their VoIP handsets much sooner than they had hoped, which will save lives. Formally eliminating the Morse code requirement will make it easier to attract new entrants to amateur radio -- which also could result in the saving of additional lives. The exploits of the hams in times of crisis are well documented, so it stands to reason that having more of them out there would be extremely valuable.

The VoIP providers that challenged the FCC's E911 order tried to argue that the commission didn't adequately consider how costly it would be for them to meet the 120-day deadline. Fortunately, the court determined that the commission did suitably weigh those concerns against those of public safety, and was well within its statutory authority in determining that the latter took precedence over the former.

As a practical matter, however, why should the FCC care about the bottom lines of these companies? The commission exists solely to serve the public interest, and that interest would have been severely damaged if the VoIP providers had been allowed to drag their feet further. As the court pointed out in its decision, the technology already exists to provide E911 service to nomadic, non-native VoIP subscribers. Moreover, it's not as if the service providers weren't aware that they likely would be forced to provide such capability at some point. Given this, they should have been far enough along in their planning so that the 120-day deadline would have been irrelevant. If they didn't plan ahead, shame on them.

Turning to the FCC's decision to eliminate the Morse code requirement, it already is having an impact on amateur radio, according to Alan Pitts, spokesperson for ARRL, the national association for amateur radio in the U.S., who told me that requests for licensing information, which usually total about 200 per week, more than doubled immediately after the FCC released the order.

On a basic level, the action is irrelevant because proficiency in Morse code wasn't required for the entry-level "Technician" license, said Pitts, who put his preparations for this weekend's special celebration event -- which concludes the yearlong "Hello" campaign commemorating 100 years of voice over radio -- on hold to talk with me this week. But perception has a way of becoming reality, and Pitts believes the formal clarification provided by the FCC will remove a perceived barrier to entry, which is a good thing for a hobby that is trying to figure out how to attract new participants, especially younger people.

The ARRL had hoped that the FCC would keep the Morse code requirement for the top-level "Extra Class" amateur license, Pitts said. "Holders of that license should be the most skilled in the radio arts, and [the Morse code requirement] fits. But the FCC decided to streamline the process, and we can accept that," he said.

According to Pitts, the Morse code requirement was eliminated in several European countries a few years ago. Oddly, the result was an increase in the number of people seeking to learn the intricacies of the code. "It's the 'Tom Sawyer' effect -- a quirk of human nature," Pitts said. "If it's a job people are required to do, they resent doing it. If you recall the story, as soon as it became fun, people started paying Tom Sawyer to whitewash his fence. It's the same thing with Morse code in those countries."

Nevertheless, Pitts acknowledged that Morse code would be needed in only the rarest of circumstances in today's world. "It would be in situations where propagation or radio conditions are such that you can make out the dit-dah of Morse code and you can't get another type of signal through clearly."

Pitts' comment made me think back to the tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in December 2004 ("Beacons of Hope," MRT, March 2005, pages 62-67). As Senior Writer Donny Jackson reported, hams were the only form of communication in some parts of the stricken region for the first two weeks after the disaster. While I have no idea whether any of them had to resort to Morse code, it is easy to imagine, given the circumstances, that they might have been forced to do so.

Such a capability, then, could come in quite handy during a catastrophe. Perhaps the FCC should reconsider its decision to drop the Morse code requirement from the Extra Class license.

In the meantime, best wishes for a happy, healthy and productive new year.

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