Monday, August 25, 2008

ARRL Strategic Plan

The ARRL (American Radio Relay League, the National Association for Amateur Radio) has asked for comments on its 2006 Strategic Plan as it looks to a future revision.

My comments are attached below. ARRL members may view these and many other comments at the site .

Comments on the 7/22/06 ARRL Strategic Plan document
Martin Ewing, AA6E

Many thanks to the League for opening up this discussion on the Plan with the full membership. This indicates a serious intention to fully engage the membership in future deliberations.

General comments:

A plan like this tries to define an organization's goals and activities into the future. However, this Plan does not appear to consistently distinguish strategic goals of the League proper from the goals of Amateur Radio community. ARRL can never be identical to Amateur Radio, which is (still today) a vast collection of people and activities around the world that will never, and perhaps should never, be subsumed by a single organization. Another way to say this is that the League has parochial interests, as a publishing house, as a sponsor of operating activities, etc., which may be competitive with other organizations and firms. Should the Plan define the League's role as (perhaps) first among equals, along with other Amateur centers of activity, some commercial and some non-profit? I think of CQ Magazine, AMSAT, and numerous other players.

Actually, I think the League HAS handled this balance reasonably well. I would expect there to be more mention of it in the Plan, however.

An organization preparing a strategic plan risks “preparing to fight the last war”. I see some signs of this in the Plan, as I will touch upon below.

Comments on specific sections:


Threats to allocations. Yes, but do we have a strategic sense of how the competition for spectrum, especially at HF, is evolving? Is HF broadcasting going to wither away, or are the bands going to be full of DRM? Such “market analysis” should be a priority for the League.

Membership lifestyle issues & competition from the Internet, etc. This is an old story by now! We need to look forward. In an era of pervasive computing and pervasive personal connectivity, where do Amateur Radio skills and culture fit in? If we did not have A.R., would it have to be invented? Zero-based analysis might help.

Technical advances & spectrum allocation. There will be changes, certainly, but there will be opportunities. For example, look at the 2-meter band, which is completely “full” for channel allocations, but is almost always “empty” on my rig! A dynamic allocation scheme is needed. Hams can do this!

“Defense” Some feel that much of what passes for “homeland security” is a bureaucratic and pork-barrel exercise, spending enormous sums without obvious security benefits. Amateur radio shines in response to local disaster communications, but we should avoid efforts to “professionalize” our “amateur” service. Integration with government agencies or even large NGOs (Red Cross and Salvation Army) is problematic, although the opportunities for service and glory may be tempting. ARRL must bring more clarity to these issues.

Land use issues. The cost structure of ham radio is changing. Equipment is cheaper, but access to good physical sites is getting more expensive and troublesome. Beyond legal and legislative activities, how can the League realistically contribute in these areas?

Network-based transactions. Also old news! Newer news is YouTube, blogs, Twitter, decentralized self-publishing etc. The League should admit how hard it is to keep up with the curve, much less to forecast the future! (Contrast the Internet/computing story with the glacial progress in most radio comms, by comparison. CW forever!) A few more Young Turks at HQ might help...

Intellectual property, economy of scale. This is particularly important for the League as a publishing house. The Plan should call for the League to support and coordinate (or at least get out of the way of) groups and individuals who are providing innovative publications, media, and Internet services. A narrow focus on keeping “control” puts you in the footsteps of the RIAA and MPAA -- suing your customers! The Plan should call for the League to leverage its substantial IP holdings for the maximum benefit of Amateur Radio. (Does a financial bottom line perspective conflict with the greater good of the hobby?) The League has many excellent publications, but they are not cheap. Bringing more of these on-line for the membership and prospective members should be a priority. The League should explore an enhanced subscription program, giving electronic access to the all current and historical ARRL publications, with a concession to new or prospective hams.


Protect frequencies. Yes, but with flexibility. It is important to coordinate with other users where possible. That seems to be the current practice.

Cultural changes in ARRL. That IS a big one, and maybe the most important issue on the list. Elements should include decentralization, upgraded dialog between members, Board, and staff, etc. (This Strategic Plan commenting process is a hopeful example!)

The future is bleak? Some people will feel that way until there is a new “awakening”. I hope it is not limited to Emcomm or Homeland Security! They are important, but they can't be the core. Still, a lot of people manage to have fun on the bands in old and new ways. We should remind ourselves, ham radio has had a very long history of OF's thinking the world is going to the dogs. It's not new!

Developing alliances, etc. This is vital. There could be more active partnering with major (and minor, but innovative) manufacturers. (One would even include potential adversaries, as in the BPL story.) Could the League have an “incubator” program for new technologies, supporting hardware and software pre-commercial R&D? QEX and DCC already have overtones like this.

What is unique? One suggestion is that we should get over our assumption that Amateur Radio = an FCC license! There is a lot of room for unlicensed radio operations, nowadays, and we should ally with anyone with this technology interest. Likewise, there are lots of electronics experimenters who don't have radio as their first interest, but who might want to get licensed eventually. E.g., people who do robotics or computer networking.


It is hard to argue with this list, except it largely repeats the status that the League already has achieved. What the hobby needs, the League needs, and the Plan should support, is EXPANDING THE ENVELOPE of Amateur Radio.

I'd have an education / personal development “value proposition”. I would emphasize continuing education in the radio/electronics/computing/networking arts, including associated engineering, physics, and mathematical disciplines.


There should be something here about ARRL's position in the marketplace, as a publisher. Is this not part of the Vision? To be a top quality supplier of technical and operating information, etc. Working with other publishers to assure a viable market into the future? Providing world-class Internet resources?

One item you left off the list: World Domination. :-)


To advance and advocate A.R. OK, but the big question is what will amateur radio BE in the future?

10 to 30 YEAR PLAN, part 1

The B.A.G. is important, but may be too small. How about “ARRL will be the leading force for national and international development of Amateur Radio, in all its traditional and innovative expressions.”

10 to 30 YEAR PLAN, part 2

“be recognized as the SINGLE VOICE of Amateur Radio...” That's going too far as an objective. (It is largely true, even now, of course.) Some level of cooperation and co-existence with alternative Amateur Radio groups (often specialized ones) needs to be recognized.


Goals A-C say “ARRL will be...” I would rather say “ARRL will have earned the status of...” That is, ARRL can't take this status. The Amateur Radio community has to grant it.

Goal B could be interpreted as suggesting a level of monopoly control for ARRL! I would be happier if the League were to recognize the existence and contribution of other organizations and players in the field, and furthermore to pledge cooperation with them.

On balance, these long range goals are rather modest, since it could be argued that the ARRL has already achieved them in good measure. One should not ask too much of a Strategic Plan. Despite any Plan, the future of the League and of Amateur Radio will depend on many unforeseen events and technical developments. The League's best stance is to be open, receptive, and responsive to new challenges while staying in close contact with its membership and all radio amateurs and their friends.
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