Controversial soaring edifices along the Downeast coast seem to be all the rage, most notably the proposed Flagpole of Freedom Park in Columbia Falls, which garnered national attention and prompted a temporary building moratorium.
But neighboring Jonesboro shouldn’t be overshadowed. Although much less imposing than the proposed 1,461-foot flagpole, a ham radio antenna array, with the highest antenna stretching 200 feet, was constructed last year atop Jonesboro’s picturesque blueberry barrens off Route 1.
The jarring backdrop along the Chandler River rankled some residents until an ordinance was enacted, but amateur radio buffs are still getting static, even as they fend off what they see as new interference with their hobby from Augusta.
“You know, when you wake up in the morning, you wouldn’t want to look at them every day,” said Wendy Schoppee, the Jonesboro town clerk and chair of the planning board of the seven ham radio antennas in her town. “So we decided we better put an ordinance in place, basically to keep them from other people’s properties, you know, so they don’t fall on somebody.”
Other than restricting antennas’ height, distances from property lines and requiring a permit, Schoppee said ham radio officials told the board there is little else they or any municipality can do to control the proliferation of towers. The Jonesboro array, as well as others along the coast, were built and owned by a Massachusetts ham radio aficionado, Krassimir Petkov, or K-1-L-Z, his callsign in the ham universe.
Petkov, a high-end manufacturer of amateur radio and commercial communication equipment, did not respond to The Maine Monitor’s request for an interview. But other local “hams,” as they call themselves, defended Petkov and his antennas in Jonesboro, and were eager to fend against any new threats to a hobby that’s existed for more than a century.
“I have a great view of his antenna from my living-room window and it doesn’t bother me a bit,” said Brian Carlton, a retired game warden and licensed ham in the U.S. and Canada. “Higher is always better.”
Some, including Carlton (aka KC1FXF, or Kilo Charlie 1 Foxtrot Xray Foxtrot), have estimated the cost of Petkov’s array at well over a million dollars.
Carlton, one of Maine’s 4,500 hams, has a much less ostentatious setup — a spruce tree stripped bare with a wire antenna attached to his office window. But even he has talked to faraway contacts like “Santa Claus” in Finland with his modest, used rig.
Towering or tiny, the rights of ham operators to erect antennas and transmit across the airwaves are protected by Maine law and the Federal Communications Commission. FCC rules governing ham radio, officially called Amateur Radio, date to 1914 when the hobby was established in the United States.
The regulations prevent municipalities from imposing “overly restrictive” regulations on their ability to transmit across frequencies or limit their antennas, whether it be a single wire attached to a house or a sky-high array, according to Phil Duggan, the Maine section manager for the National Association for Amateur Radio, the ARRL. He helped Jonesboro officials craft what he considers a reasonable ordinance, though he would prefer none at all.
“We don’t want restrictions on us,” said Duggan, a former Navy communications expert, and a veteran ham operator and instructor. “My only worry is that other towns in Washington County would now want a copy of that ordinance and start putting restrictions on other ham radio operators.”
Sitting in the cramped control room of his Milbridge home, surrounded by walls of squawking and chattering receivers, Duggan fielded questions while monitoring transmissions from France. In reality, Duggan said most hams don’t have the money to put up multiple 200-foot towers like Petkov.
For average or even uber ham operators, Duggan said investments run from $21 to upwards of $10,000, depending on the type of radio, number of antennas and their height. After retiring from a 20-year naval stint as an electronics technician chief, Duggan got his ham license. Ironically, his first rig was a Radio Shack receiver and an antenna made of coat hangers.
Petkov, on the other hand, is what hams call a “contester,” competing worldwide for awards and expensive prizes by erecting multiple arrays to see who can bounce a signal the farthest or compete by scouring forests and urban areas hunting for transmitters.
Maine has a relatively open rural landscape and is the closest state to Europe, which makes for great ham radio signal bouncing. The Navy thought so too, locating 13 towers nearing 1,000 feet tall in Cutler.
Duggan said some contests in Maine are purely for socializing and bragging rights, such as “fox hunts” where the fox is a transmitter hidden deep in the woods and hams are the hunters, or the paper chases like “county hunting” with hams competing to see how many contacts they can make with hams from a single county. With roughly only 260 licensed hams spread over 30,862 square land miles, Duggan said Washington County is one of the more challenging paper chases.
But if ham radio sounds like all fun and games, hams stress that they are professionals who can be counted on in any emergency, even though they are unpaid, amateur operators.
To ensure they are preparing for any eventuality, hams have to pass a rigorous licensing test, proving their fluency with the myriad bandwidths and frequencies across the spectrum, not to mention things like a half-wave dipole. Once licensed, many hams do on-air training with the military twice a year.
“We’re the backup communication infrastructure for the nation,” Duggan said. “So if there was disaster or things really hit the fan, then we would be expected to get on the air to help out, whether it be the military or the emergency management director or whatever.”
Lisa Hanscom, the Washington County emergency management director, and Andrew Sankey, who does the same job for Hancock County, call ham radio operators essential personnel. Hanscom said Washington County is in line to receive a $3 million-plus federal grant for a digital radio upgrade. She said they have a ham radio at EM headquarters with a roof antenna, and that setup will stay.
“Probably the more advanced we get, probably the more we need ham radio operators because electronics can fail,” Hanscom said. “They’re our guarantee that we have communications.”
In Hancock County, that guarantee has been formalized. Sankey is a ham operator with a designated ham radio emergency backup team. He said that backup is crucial in a rural state like Maine.
“A lot of the cell towers are fed by fiber optic lines and if those lines physically go down, let’s say in a storm, or a vehicle goes off the road and takes out services … And there are a number of offshore island communities that rely on undersea cables, so if they go out there’s no real means of communication other than radio,” Sankey said.
That’s why Sankey, Hanscom and their counterparts across Maine are mystified and alarmed by what they and the state’s ham operators see as the latest and most serious threat. LD 697, a bill introduced by Rep. Tracy Quint (R-Hodgdon), calls for a study of the environmental effects of 5G technology and radio frequency radiation emissions.
Although possibly an unintended consequence, ham operators believe any study could lead to restrictions on the 5G spectrum, including frequencies shared by ham radio operators, as well as the intended target of the bill, the telecommunications industry. They were relieved to learn that the bill is stalled after a divided legislative committee.
Maine is earmarked to receive over $128 million from the American Rescue Plan for broadband expansion, essential for 5G technology. Connect Maine, the state agency serving as a pass-through for the funding — is mum on the 5G bill. “At this time, Maine Connectivity Authority doesn’t have anything to add to the story,” said an agency spokesman.
But the bipartisan bill did provoke loud outcry from the state’s ham radio operators — despite there being no mention of ham radios in the legislation. Quint said the state’s lack of interest in a study and the focus shift to ham radios is “weird” and perhaps convenient for those with a financial interest in 5G.
“I sort of feel like the (telecommunications) industry would like it to be about ham radios, because then the true conversation gets lost,” Quint said. “And I feel that that’s somewhat what’s going on, from the original hearing when I explained that I wanted a study by non-industry experts — then it became all about ham radios.”
After word about the bill circulated, dozens of Maine ham radio operators objected, submitting written testimony in opposition.
“The way this bill is worded it talks about 5G, but it also opens it up to all ‘modulated radio frequency radiation at nonthermal levels.’ That means essentially everything … then let’s shut down the VLF in Cutler that can emit over 1 million watts of (radio frequency) power,” said Milbridge ham operator Eli Brown in his written testimony.
Others, like Duggan and Maurice Mills of Dennysville, wrote to the committee arguing that amateur radio operators are required by their license to conduct an initial evaluation of the RF emissions produced by their station and repeat this evaluation whenever changes to equipment or antennas are made to be sure their stations meet federal limits and guidelines.
In New Hampshire, a similar bill passed the legislative committee. The New Hampshire State Commission on 5G Health and Environment issued a final report in October after a year of research and testimony from numerous experts. The report made several recommendations, including setbacks for cell towers from homes, and a resolution that would require the FCC to commission an independent health study and review radio frequency emission safety limits.
For Maine’s hams, as well as the telecom industry, the bill might become much ado about nothing. Sankey certainly hopes so, or at least if the bill goes forward that ham radio operators and other emergency personnel be exempt.
“As we become more and more technologically dependent, the failure points of that increase,” said Sankey. “In reality, we have to rely upon Flintstones solutions like ham radio as our backups.”
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