Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Richard Factor, WA2IKL
When you're at a major trade show such as that of the National Association of Broadcasters (as was I, recently), and you have no specific agenda other than to take a look around and assess the state of the industry and the competition, there's the simplest of strategies. Start at one corner of the hall and wend your way through the aisles and past the stands until you find yourself without further room. At NAB, this would have been impossible due to size and geometry, but I at least was able to do it in one small section, the radio exhibit area. It was more eclectic than one might think. Radio stations use pop-up tents for promotions and beacons on their antenna towers, so it wasn't just broadcast equipment in the narrow sense. Shortly after beginning the trek I found myself face to poster with a stand run by the Federal Communications Commission.
When I was a teenager and new ham operator, the FCC was the source of all blessings and not just a little fear. They were the Government Agency that allowed me to commune with my conspecifics over the radio waves, a privilege accorded only a few and only then after months of arduous study of the Morse Code and radio theory and Law, and only then after appearing before the Examining Officer in a Government Building in the bowels of New York City. When we talked over the air, the FCC was the Friendly Candy Company, the Agency whose Sacred Name (not to mention Sacred Initials) might not be Uttered. (I've dropped most of the capital letters since then. The fear remains, but it is largely hypothetical.)
How things have changed! When I found myself at their stand, there was a bowl of chocolates front and center. I helped myself to one, made eye contact with an FCC representative, and indicated my astonishment that I was actually getting something from the government for free.
The FCC representative, by the way, had a name. She was Cecilia Sulhoff, and her business card attested to her dual portfolio: She was the booth manager and an "outreach specialist." She responded to my offhand comment about the free chocolate by saying that she had paid for the chocolate herself, while mentioning that some churl (my characterization, not hers) had come by earlier and actually complained that the taxpayers were paying for the chocolate. Of course I complimented her on her thoughtfulness in providing same, and punctuated the compliment by accepting a second piece. We chatted a bit about antenna towers, and I suddenly remembered that:
I hold an FCC license for my ham radio activities. I am also the trustee of the "club" license for the SETI League, call letters W2ETI. Ham licenses are valid for ten years, and the W2ETI license had very recently expired. I was reminded of same by two organizations who take it upon themselves to keep the number of renewals close to that of (expirations minus deaths), and make a few bucks in the process, but their forms got buried on my desk and the date slipped by. When I say "form," I'm not talking about a single sheet where you check a "please renew" box and write your credit card number. You need to know your special numbers, which you last saw ten years ago, have obviously forgotten, and have hidden away under a decade of accumulated detritus. I lamented this state of affairs to Ms. Sulhoff and she sprung into action. (The convention hall had very high ceilings; if she had literally sprung it would have been OK.)
"We can renew that license right here and now" she told me. And, in an outreach-specialist minute, she hand-keyboarded me (and even cellphoned me) through the labyrinthine FCC computerized bureaucracy until I had my numbers, my password, and, finally, my printed acknowledgement of a renewed license in folder. The license itself was received a few days later in the post. (In my youth, this process would have required months!) So, right here and now, I would like to thank Cecilia Sulhoff of the Federal Communications Commission for going to the time and trouble of helping this wayward (and expired) mendicant solve his Problem, and also for putting the (literally) "Friendly Candy Company" in a good light with this and probably many more taxpayers. If I were a Congresscritter and asked to vote positively on a Special Appropriation to provide reimbursement to Ms. Sulhoff for the bags of Hershey's Miniatures, I would surely do so.
Which leaves us with just a few questions:
Why doesn't the FCC just send a form with a check box to "please renew my license" and a place to put in a credit card number?
Why does the license expire in the first place? Why not just send a post card whenever they can afford it asking you if you're alive or dead?
Why, when Google can afford to give you a gigabyte of free email storage, does the FCC need to charge to keep you in a database, the entirety of which (for half a million people!) requires less than that?
Answer: We're so used to doing things monthly, quarterly, annually, biennially, or even once per decade, that nobody seems to think that doing something once and forever is enough! Hence the desk full of accumulated detritus.
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this page last updated 7 May 2011
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