IN THE BEGINNING…
It is no secret. I have been around the hobby of scanning for a long time. I have seen the progression of receivers from tunable sets with limited coverage and as much selectivity (the ability of a device to respond to a particular frequency without interference from others) as a house brick, through to crystal sets then to the modern digital trunk tracking scanners of today. Adjunct to these advances in technology has been the need and desire to determine who a particular user is on the thousands of radio frequencies in use across Australia. Back when the earth was still cooling and I purchased my first synthesised scanner, (the mid 1970’s just for the record), there was no reliable source of frequency information. You used your detectives’ skills or other methods to confirm a user. When a frequency was confirmed, you kept it very much to yourself or if you did share it, it was only amongst a few of your most trusted friends.
BIRTH OF THE FREQUENCY GUIDE…
The Australian Radio Frequency Handbook was very popular.
Later on in the early 1980’s a number of frequency guides were produced but they were crude to say the least. Based on personal and individual loggings they were poorly vetted and rarely verified, but we bought them in their hundreds because that was all that was available. One such publication was Dick Smith’s Australian Radio Frequency Handbook written by Jack McDonald.
Later in the 1980’s the then Department of Communications released under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act a series of microfiche slides detailing almost every frequency assignment across the country. If you had the money to buy a microfiche reader and the slides, then you had access to a plethora of information beyond your wildest dreams. As a result the FOI documents spawned another run of frequency guides, this time a little more accurate but nevertheless incomplete. Again we bought them without reservation.
Before anyone says anything, yes I must declare an interest in several of these guides, compiled in my name as well as several non de plumes.
Railscan Monitoring The Railways (Series 3). Just one of several publications compiled and released by Russell Bryant.
THE FORUM IS FORMED…
Okay so where is this all leading? Well I am glad you asked. For those of us with dates of birth before the 1970’s, you will probably remember Shortwave Possums Bulletin Board managed by Patrick McDonald. It was one of, if not the first attempt at an ‘internet’ based forum. A collective, where like-minded people could meet and exchange information. Sounds like a dating site! There were various ‘rooms’ that members could enter each catering to your particular bent, whether it was shortwave, HF utility monitoring or VHF/UHF services. It is safe to say this was the beginning of the modern forum that many of us join today.
From a personal point of view I am a member of two dozens radio-based forums, both here and overseas. Again it is probably safe to say that the scanning forums have exploded across the web, providing a valuable resource. Or have they?
Without naming any forum or individual, it might be argued that the forum is destroying not enhancing the hobby. How could this be? Rather easy when you consider the forum provides a certain degree (not 100 percent grant you) of anonymity, whereby users can post information and opinions without their identity being known. Of course the more you post, the more likely it is that you will reveal yourself.
THE DOWN HILL SLIDE…
This anonymity is the basis for many to post information obtained from official or semi official sources, with little regard for the ramifications. Generally speaking commercial and government users do not like details of their radio communications systems posted across the web for all to see and monitor. And before anyone says the information is ‘publicly available’ on ACMA, which of course is true, ACMA doesn’t provide details of how the frequencies are used or technical data such as CTCSS and DCS tone or colour codes etc. It is this that incurs the displeasure of most communication users. Some posters adopt the attitude of ‘tough luck’, or indeed if they didn’t post it someone else will. Might I suggest that this cavalier approach is the very reason some radio users are moving to encryption?
By way of example, a well-known overseas forum was asked by a law enforcement agency not to rebroadcast their radio traffic via a stream (something I will talk about later). The forum in question declined the department’s request citing freedom of speech provisions of their constitution. The police agency in question simply encrypted their radio signals. Naturally this was criticised by those listeners affected by the switch but understandable from the department’s point of view, either way the hobby loses.
Okay so that might be a single example amongst the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of posts made every day across the world. Or is it? Not being privy to the machinations of management of some of our agencies, it is conceivable to say that availability of scanners and the amount of information freely available on forums is one, maybe not the primary reason, that some government agencies and private companies decide to encrypt. It is correct to say that the scanner user is not, in this day and age, the main reason why radio frequency assignees decide to encrypt, it is however an element and the forum by virtue of its existence also a factor.
GET OUT THE SOAPBOX…
In the past if you wanted to voice your opinion about anything, you took yourself off to Sydney’s Domain or to the central stairway outside the State Library on Swanston Street in Melbourne. Today it is as simple as logging into your favourite scanner forum and venting your spleen about everything and anything without regard to the facts or people involved, usually hiding behind an obscure username.
Often the topic is little more than a pet grievance that the poster has, with the loss of a particular service to encryption the most popular subject. Allegations of hiding misdeeds or inappropriate actions by these agencies from the public usually surface as the reason. Of course criminal activities, security threats and officer safety are not considered. It is to stop scanner users from listening in when we are bored. As far as this correspondent is concerned the sooner the police fully encrypt the sooner these posters will get tired and move onto something else.
ROW YOUR BOAT GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM…
A few years back someone worked out that if you connected your scanner to a computer, had the computer permanently on-line people thousands of kilometres away could monitor radio activity without the need for scanner themselves. This new-found technological marvel became known as streaming. Today you can listen to just about anything anywhere from your home PC, laptop, tablet or smart phone.
Today you can listen to just about anything anywhere from your home PC, laptop, tablet or smart phone.
Forums are a common source of streams and as such anyone not really interested in scanning or scanners can monitor radio traffic from a multitude of radio users. The problem here is simple, instead of a couple of hundred at the most monitors, the potential is thousands, which during a major emergency or significant event could cause confusion or even a hazardous situation. A sudden influx of sticky beaks or rubber neckers is the last thing emergency services need. I suppose the burning issue is, can forums be held responsible for this happening? I submit they can and should.
HAVE FENCE, WILL SIT…
As part of this examination of forums, a survey was conducted on an Australian scanner forum of its member numbers and contributions. The results are interesting to say the least. The forum has 289 members, of which 151 have not posted a single message. Ninety-nine users have posted less than 100 messages, 20 have posted less than 500 messages, five members have posted less than 1000 messages and finally only three members have posted greater than 1000 messages. The forum has been in existence for nearly eight years.
Okay so there is no law against not posting, but as demonstrated above less than 7 percent of members are actively and regularly supporting the forum. The trouble starts when someone joins a forum then proceeds to suck up all the information posted but contributes none. Hardly a balanced state of affairs.
Alternatively some members post something like, “Can someone give me all the frequencies for Kickatinalong?” A quick check of their joining date normally reveals they became a member less than 48 hours previously. Again the norm rather than the exception.
It can of course be argued that a newcomer has not yet gathered the necessary data so as to reciprocate with frequency information. A proviso if I may. Anyone who knows me will know that I am the last person to discourage anyone or push them away from the hobby, but it is, generally speaking, not the done thing to join a forum and your first message is give, give and give. An introduction might be nice or have we forgotten basic etiquette in this day and age?
OTHER FORUM MISDEMEANOURS…
I normally do not read owners’ manuals or user guides, so now it’s a little ‘there but for the grace of god go I’ time. However there seems to be a growing practise amongst many, to buy a new scanner, have trouble programming it or indeed using it and then go immediately to press on a forum. The end result is usually one of two things. A plea seeking help to program the radio and or criticise it saying that it is a lemon and not performing as it should.
In the vast majority of situations a little time reading the manual will generally take care of both scenarios. Dare I say, there is usually someone crazy enough to spend many hours providing a step by step guide in an attempt to resolve the issue. And yes I am guilty of being crazy enough to spend many hours providing a step by step guide in an attempt to resolve the issue. However, the first question I ask now is, “Have you read the user guide?” If the answer is No, then goodbye. If you are not prepared to help yourself, then don’t expect members of a forum to help you.
AND SO IT CONTINUES…
Australia has an adult literacy rate around 99% and regularly scores among the top five of thirty major developed countries. About 58% of Australians aged from 25 to 64 have vocational or tertiary qualifications we also have a tertiary graduation rate of 49% is the highest among OECD countries. Further 38 percent of Australia’s population has a university or college degree, which is among the highest percentages in the world.
To read some of the posts on the various local forums you would consider the figures quoted above to be fanciful. I will again pre-empt any comments by saying I make no claim to being a literary giant or indeed a great scholar. I would like to think that I can string a few words together that make sense, which are spelt correctly and have a degree of syntax about them. This does not appear to be the case with some posts made on forums. Punctuation, spelling, proper nouns and sentence structure appear to be inconsequential. Anyone attempting to raise the standard is usually dismissed as a crank or some sort of grammar police.
Radio related terms are not immune either. Some of the more glaring technical errors are, frequencies spelt frequencys, MHz shown as mhz and kHz written as khz. Overall a poor show by a hobby that wants to be taken seriously.
I am not sure of just how long it has been, but SMS or Texting has been an integral part of our lifestyle for a while now. For a number of reasons, texting developed its own vocabulary and abbreviations. Which is all well and good when you are limited by message sizes and message tariffs, but why, why has this inane practise migrated across to posts on scanner forums? God knows it is hard enough to understand the context of some post without adding things like, BUMP or a full stop, nothing else just a full stop. For those of us who spent the vast majority of our lives without mobile phones have a heart. Say what you mean, don’t use a series of hieroglyphics or non descript symbols. You never know it might actually improve your vocabulary and verbal skills.
As you can see, a number of issues have been raised in this ramble. Some of a personal nature while others are shared with a couple of other grumpy old men acquaintances of mine. The underlying text is that while forums on the surface appear to be a benefit to the hobby, the argument could be made that they are destroying it. No doubt this will generate comment and criticism, feel free. Maybe I could start the anti forum forum?