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FCC Ham Expert to Retire

Electrical engineer Bill Cross leaves Friday

Bill Cross, W3TN, plans to retire from the FCC this week after over 38 years of service.

Officially, Cross is an analyst in the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, however his colleagues send him anything amateur radio-related to solve.

He’s looking forward to having a less structured schedule and more time to devote to amateur radio, he tells me. “I hope to get to build new antennas” and get to some equipment that’s been waiting many years for repairs.

The electrical engineer is also going to have time to cull through some of his gear and figure out what to get rid of, as well as become “the full-time dog sitter” and get to home repairs that have been stacking up.

Cross has been an amateur radio operator since age 14 when he was licensed in 8th grade.

He started out in the commission’s Common Carrier Bureau, now called the Wireline Competition Bureau. Then he began working in the Amateur Radio Group in 1989 in the former Private Radio Bureau, now called the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.

I asked him if dropping the Morse Code requirement back in 2007 from amateur certification was a big deal. He doesn’t believe so, saying: “Morse Code had nothing to do with electronic theory or technical competence.”

The original 1951 license structure had three speeds for three classes of amateur licenses: copying words in Morse code at 5 words per minute, 13 words per minute and 20 words per minute. Many people within the ham community “equated Morse code with technical competency,” he said.

But the requirement was a barrier for many people, he tells me and now, licensees who use Morse Code do it for the enjoyment. The number of ham licensees has increased (to over 700,000), however, he thinks the figure of those who are really active on the air is a lot less, possible one-third of all licensees, he estimates.

The true figure is hard to get a handle on, because many folks don’t tell the FCC when they don’t need their license anymore. Over half of the 700,000 figures hold technician class licenses and are active on the UHF and VHF amateur frequencies using light, handheld radios.

Readers are familiar with amateur operators who help with public safety efforts after a natural disaster; they’re able to stay on the air when other forms of communications systems can’t. But there are many subgroups for the amateur radio hobby, according to Cross.

He cites two as examples; those interested in maritime history and communications can join the Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society. Members operate their radios from or near lighthouses. Another group “hunts” counties across the country. “You sit on the county line and with the [ham] radio in your car, you’re giving contacts with at least two counties to county hunters,” Cross tells me.

Hams operate on different frequencies based on their license class. The Amateur Radio Relay League has a good chart.

I asked him if the noise floor is rising for ham operators as it is for AM licensees. Indeed, he says, explaining that the 160-meter ham band is just above the AM band. In that part of the spectrum the noise floor “is going up across a whole segment of frequencies. Noise is an electrical phenomenon, with objects like computers, equipment power supplies or LEDs and fluorescent lights emitting RF that affects FM as well.

“Sometimes you can minimize it or work around it. But some is natural noise, like [that] caused by thunderstorms,” that can propagate for thousands of miles and “you’re not going to get rid of it completely.”

Cross assures me the bureau will continue to handle amateur-related duties going forward, with aspects of his job — such as questions about antennas, vanity call signs, call signs assignments or rulemaking work — being divvied up among several people within the bureau.