We teach new hams that nobody owns a frequency, and as such, they may use any frequency they wish as long as they follow the rules. This is generally correct, however, repeaters are special. Owners can set their own rules.
Important note: I am not a lawyer – this is simply my interpretation of the FCC rules. Disagree? Leave a comment below and let’s discuss!
The rules surrounding repeater operation are less well-known, so, hopefully this will help to clarify them.
The short answer: The owner of a repeater may set their own rules. For instance, they can make their repeater closed (so only authorized users may use it) or ban specific users.
Let us begin with a refresher: The rules governing amateur radio are in Part 97 of the FCC’s rules, and by holding an amateur radio license, you agree to follow those rules (and potentially face penalties if you do not).
We teach our technician-class students about 47 CFR § 97.101, and paragraph (b) states:
Each station licensee and each control operator must cooperate in selecting transmitting channels and in making the most effective use of the amateur service frequencies. No frequency will be assigned for the exclusive use of any station.47 CFR § 97.101
Example: My friends and I have a QSO every night at 8:00PM on 146.55MHz. We have done this for 20 years and haven’t missed a night. Tonght, I fire up my radio and find a couple of new hams having a QSO on that frequency. I know the rules, therefore I know that I may not interrupt those hams or ask them to move to a different frequency. In other words, they have just as much of a right to use it, even though I’ve been using it every night for 20 years. It is my responsibility to select a different frequency for our nightly QSO. Or better yet, ask if we can join in!
Repeaters have a special status in the rules, 47 CFR § 97.205 governs their operation.
Coordinators are volunteer groups that the local community recognizes. Their job is to coordinate and assign repeater frequencies, and as a result, coordinated repeaters should not interfere with each other. Most repeater owners pursue coordination of their repeaters because it provides some level of protection against interference.
(c) Where the transmissions of a repeater cause harmful interference to another repeater, the two station licensees are equally and fully responsible for resolving the interference unless the operation of one station is recommended by a frequency coordinator and the operation of the other station is not. In that case, the licensee of the non-coordinated repeater has primary responsibility to resolve the interference.47 CFR § 97.205
In other words, given two repeaters on the same frequency, if both repeaters are not coordinated, the owners must work together to fix the problem. A non-coordinated repeater may not interfere with a coordinated repeater, and the coordinated repeater wins every time. In the case of interference, the FCC will side with the coordinated repeater. This may be the closest thing we have to frequency “ownership” in ham radio.
Your Repeater, Your Rules
(e) Ancillary functions of a repeater that are available to users on the input channel are not considered remotely controlled functions of the station. Limiting the use of a repeater to only certain user stations is permissible.47 CFR § 97.205
The second sentence in the above paragraph could not be more clear: The owner of the repeater decides who may use it and who may not. An owner may ban a user, consequently the user has no recourse – they must cease their use of the repeater. The FCC will back the owner up.
Here’s a video of Laura Smith from the FCC discussing this:
Putting it Together
When you put those two clauses in 47 CFR § 97.205 together, they mean that an owner of a repeater gets to decide who may or may not use the it, and if coordinated, they get precedence on the assigned frequency pair in the assigned area.
I know many are disappointed with how (or whether) the FCC enforces the rules. That’s not what this article is about. Whether or not the rules are enforced, it is our responsibility to follow them.
Personally, I support this rule. Repeaters are property, and property owners should have a say in how others use it. Many new hams do not appreciate the time and money it takes to operate a repeater. If I am going to put my own time and money into it, I should be able to dictate how it’s used. As a friend of mine likes to say: Repeaters are not a public utility.
All that said, repeater usage has declined and many repeaters sit idle as hams have embraced other technologies to keep in touch. Therefore, I think closed repeaters are generally a bad thing even though they are perfectly legal. I would also advise owners against being draconian with their rules, as that will only scare users off.