“Balkanization of the National Traffic System”

An opinion piece by Phil Temples, K9HI
December 23, 2003

Recently, I received a letter in the mail from one of our section’s more prolific traffic handlers, Gil, W1GMF. Gil had copied me on a letter sent to him by another Section Manager. (I’ll maintain the anonymity of this SM and refer to him simply as “Joe Manager.” And, no–his first name isn’t “Joe.”)

In his letter to W1GMF, Joe Manager wrote, “I must inform you that your radiograms sent to [my section] stations must stop as we are having a real problem with getting stations to take the spam traffic.” Joe went on to write, “Your radiograms is (sic) a gross misuse of the NTS system.  As the system was not originally meant to send these types of message from one ham to another. (sic) This is not considered a public service.”

Joe Manager concluded his letter with some serious statements that cut to the heart of this essay. He wrote, “…I’ll only have two recourse (sic) if you continue to send these messages. I’ll either get them stopped at the Regional intake or I’ll personally take all your traffic and put in file thirteen… I would hate to [have] all of your radiograms trashed. I’m sure that you do pass some good ones now and then.”

As someone who “cut his ham radio teeth” in NTS and traffic handling, participating at the section, region and area levels, it came as quite a surprise to me to learn that sending radiograms from one ham to another was a “gross misuse” of the system. I decided to contact Joe Manager to learn what his source of information was.

Joe Manager and I spoke on the telephone yesterday. Our conversation was civil. I asked him to explain his position further so that I might better understand the rational behind his threats. Joe Manager reiterated that he and the traffic handlers in his section felt that the traffic originated by W1GMF was “spam.” Joe thought that W1GMF and others like him were simply trying to “run up their totals” in order to earn awards. [Joe Manager did say, “I understand that W1GMF doesn’t always turn in his traffic totals at the end of the month.”] Further, Joe explained that many traffic handlers in his section had simply decided to “hang it up” on account of the volume of these messages coming into his section.

I asked Joe Manager if he could point me to the source of his information that indicated “amateur-to-amateur” traffic was inappropriate on NTS. He referred me to a document authored by his Section Traffic Manager–a document I had already read. I asked Joe, “Is there a reference to some ARRL publication that he may have used?” Joe replied, “I’m sure that there is. I’ll get back to you on that.”

I asked Joe Manager if he had discussed this matter with any NTS Area Staff. “I’ve discussed this matter with my Division Director and with my Net Managers.” Joe added, “Area Staff? Who are they, now? What do they do?”

Joe argued that the W1GMF traffic was “all the same.” He was referring, of course, to the fact that it arrived in book format. Joe Manager felt that this particular attribute made the traffic especially undesirable–hence, spam. I pointed out to Joe Manager that his description of the traffic as “spam” was not only inflammatory, but incorrect. I explained that the term “spam” is used to describe “unsolicited, commercial e-mail,” and before that, “unsolicited, commercial Usenet posts.” Joe agreed with me on this sole point–he would refrain from using the term “spam” to describe the messages. Instead, he would call W1GMF’s traffic “generic radiograms.”

I asked Joe Manager how much traffic was passed on his section nets. He replied, “Not much.” I then asked if he would agree with me that eliminating the greeting traffic would reduce the amount of messages and net participation even further. I received a very telling answer: “I could care less whether there’s any traffic!”

Joe Manager explained to me that, in his opinion, traffic handling skills should be taught under the auspices of ARES. Joe had already decided to cancel the STM position in his section, in anticipation of field organization restructuring heralded in the recent VRC report to the ARRL Board of Directors.

Again, during our conversation, Joe Manager reiterated that he would personally block “generic radiograms” from entering his section. He went on to point out that this was also occurring at the “Eleventh and Twelfth Region levels.”

Excerpting from the email of a Washington, D.C.-area traffic handler who states the case for generic, or greeting traffic eloquently:

     “I hardly need to tell you that we are a service, and our continued existence depends on the perception of us as a service–one that comes through when all else fails. NTS (and ARES) are designed to provide practice for those times when we are called upon to serve. If that means handling a book of 22 birthday messages to octegenarians, so be it. My 17-year-old daughter practices her volleyball serves hundreds of time during the course of a season; my eight-year-old practices the violin for long periods of time (with no parental guidance, I’m afraid). Rote is good. Routine is good. A book of 22 birthday messages today prepares us to handle a book of 22 health and welfare messages tomorrow. Tomorrow won’t come? Move last week’s 6.5 magnitude earthquake south of Paso Robles, oh, say, 200 miles, and there will be a lot of tomorrows…”

In closing, I am appalled that someone in a position of leadership–an ARRL Section Manager, of all people–would threaten to block radiograms en masse. Imagine what would happen to the National Traffic System if every section–indeed, every traffic handler took the law unto his or her own hands and decided what traffic they felt was appropriate and worthy of relay or delivery. Or, region and area liaisons accepting the responsibility for relaying messages, only to silently discard them–to “put in ‘file thirteen'” as Joe Manager would say.

I wonder if we’ll soon hear exchanges on the nets like, “Sorry–we don’t accept ham-to-ham greeting traffic. Birthday traffic? Okay; Handi-ham traffic–nope. ‘License expiration warning’ traffic is okay. Net reports are… well–maybe, I guess.”

Will your next radiogram pass the “sniff test?”

It’s bad enough when individual traffic handlers act irresponsibly by accepting messages, only to discard them. However, it’s particularly reprehensible that someone in a leadership or liaison role would attempt to block traffic into his/her region or section, thus depriving the many from enjoying the pleasures of participating in this great pastime we call the NTS.

Are we witnessing the balkanization of the National Traffic System?


Follows is an excerpt from one of the many messages received by Gil, W1GMF. I believe it epitomizes what Gil and company have tried to accomplish by generating the greeting traffic. I suspect that this story is being played out across the country:

     “I had someone check into one of our 2-meter traffic nets and although he’d never handled any traffic before and didn’t know the format …talked him into getting his feet wet.

     “…Held him until the end of the net and then talked him through copying a short book explaining the format and as he copied… telling him when to start a new line and when to put in blank lines. Since I could monitor it, [I] listened to him relay that traffic on the VHF net he took it to. He did fine.

     “Waited to see if he’d come back the next day. He did and was willing to take more traffic. Now I’m trying to make sure I’ve got a short book of your messages (or at least something) each day for him so he has something to look forward to and a reason to continue checking into the net. That, of course, also involves him in another net. Any traffic he can’t deliver himself he takes to this second net and relays it there.”