TUCoPS :: Cyber Law :: spooks.txt

The Day the Spooks Stepped on Ma Bell

                     By: Donald E. Kimberlin

     There's nothing in Bell advertising to dissuage the public 
of its common notion that Bell runs the entire realm of 
telecommunications worldwide.  The extent of this misapprehension
shows in items like the widespread news report that bombing of 
the telephone building in Baghdad was "the AT&T building" proves 
our press knows no better than to continue to mislead the public.  
AT&T isn't about to help, either, when it publicizes its 
placement of earth stations in the Gulf War zone, never telling 
the public it rented them from Alascom, a firm with no ownership 
by AT&T.
     But people in other nations know AT&T doesn't rule the roost 
of telecommunications.  Sometimes they just have to let yet 
another stubborn Yank learn the hard way, one more lesson at a 
time.  Sometimes that stubborn Yank is one like me.
     My lesson occurred in 1963, while employed by AT&T in one of 
the three shortwave radio operations they ever built. It was in 
Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the plant operation providing the 
communications channels they public used to Central America and 
the Caribbean.
     Few today even give a thought to how they got telephone 
connections to other countries in a time before there were 
satellites and underseas telephone cables.  To the outside world, 
no one knew a crew of us was on the scene behind what they heard 
was the "Miami Overseas Operator."  That operator just pushed 
plug into a jack on a switchboard and spoke to an operator in the 
other country. That jack was just wired to us at Fort Lauderdale, 
where we launched the voices off to bounce from the ionosphere 
via high-powered transmitters and rhombic antennas to other 
nations.  In the other nation, the operation and people all 
belonged to the telephone company of that nation ... independent 
and soveriegn in their domain as Bell is within its domain.
     The independent other nation in this story was Costa Rica, 
and its international operation was Compania Radiografica 
Costarricense, a nationalized descendant of the "banana republic" 
era operations started there by Tropical Fruit Company of Boston 
before World War I.  Radiografica was one of the best, most 
stable points we worked, and even if one had the notion of 
talking via "shortwave radio," their operations with us were so 
good that most of the time, you'd never know it.
     For many years, we had only two channels to San Jose from 
the U.S., and Radiografica also operated links to other Latin 
American nations such as Mexico. These were, of course, multiple-
channel independent sideband radios, so two channels meant we 
were interested only in having clear radio spectrum "space" only 
three kiloHertz above and below the carrier frequency. We would 
have to change carrier frequency two or three times a day, to 
higher frequencies in the daytime and lower frequencies at night.  
One of the best frequencies we enjoyed with San Jose was 15580
kHz, a spot now used by international shortwave broadcasters.  It 
was assigned the call letters TIW 55 to Radiografica by the Costa 
Rican government.
     In that summer of 1963, Radiografica opened up two 
additional channels with us.  This meant that the added channels 
would occupy radio spectrum "space" out to 6 kHz either side of 
15580 when TIW 55 was on the air.  by and large, this was clear 
space and we had two added channels all day free of any noise or 
     Except ... the day we started using the additional space, a 
Morse code transmission popped up low into the new Channel Four.  
It just called somewhere else over and over, sending, "JW de IQ," 
or something of the sort.  It was about 1 kHz inside our channel, 
producing very clear Morse code in the telephone circuit between 
San Jose toward Miami.  Every afternoon, for a couple of hours, 
it continued on and on.  It never sent anything else; it never 
seemed to make contact with whoever was on its other end.
     I often was assigned to the group of channels that included 
Costa Rica, and we enjoyed excellent relations with our 
coordinates there.  They spoke perfect English for our benefit, 
and it seemed there were things they knew that we didn't know, at 
least in this case.  We of course, could not use the interfered-
with channel for a public telephone circuit, so we would cut it 
off, waiting for the interference to clear, leaving the other 
three for the Miami operators to use.  But, since the traffic was 
so heavy, Miami wanted the circuit.  Our alternative, to shut 
down all four momentarily and use some other frequency that might 
produce four channels, but noisier, was not attractive.
     Whenever there was interference, we performed an 
"observation" of who it was.  We had all the good tools - elegant 
receivers, radio direction finder, spectrum analyzers and 
demodulators for every kind of telegraph and facsimile.  There 
wasn't much we couldn't identify and pin down to its source.
     And, there's a whole system of rationalization for settling 
territorial disputes on radio between countries.  It's called the 
International Frequency Registration Board, a function of the 
Comite Consultatif Internationale des Radio (obviously not a French 
name for our francophone readers - it's a modern Swiss 
bastardization of French), an arm of the International 
Telecommunications Union.  Drawing its authority from treaties 
all United Nations members sign, the IFRB is the repository of 
registrations each nation sends to Geneva, with seniority claims 
of use, so interference complaints between nations can be 
arbitrated when they occur.  Our "tool" was a copy of the multi-
volume International Frequency Register, IFRB's computer printout 
of every radio transmitter licensed by every nation in the world 
... except for military, intelligence and clandestine operations.
     The source of my problem, even though it could be clearly 
heard, was of course not listed in the IFRB books.  I made out a 
report each day, and it didn't go away.  I asked our San Jose 
colleagues, and they immediately showed signs of knowing it was 
there, but offered no information about who it was.  I asked if 
they could contact it, as my direction finder had showed it was 
coming from somewhere near their direction, and all San Jose 
would say was they "would try."  Nothing happened, and we 
continued to lose a couple of hours on that channel each day.  I 
suggested to the San Jose staff that if they knew who it was, if 
they would just slide down the band about a kilohertz, they would 
fall in between our channels and we could co-exist with them.  
San Jose said they "would try."  Nothing changed, and we kept 
losing channel time.
     Finally, my Yankee sense of fairness and my short temper 
combined to make decide to take some definitive action. That was 
to make a complaint via official channels, in this case the FCC 
Field Monitoring station (then) at Fort Lauderdale.  Because AT&T 
is not in charge of the world, any officially-registered 
complaint through IFRB channels has to be observed by them, and 
forwarded by them.  We talked to the FCC monitoring station with 
fair regularity, so it only took a local phone call.
     Again, somebody else knew more about the interloper than did 
I or Ma Bell.  As soon as I mentioned the frequency and the call 
signs, the FCC duty officer replied, "Oh them?  Are you really 
certain you want to file a complaint?"  I asked what was wrong 
with doing so, and he said, "Oh....nothing, I guess.  But maybe 
you don't really want to make a complaint."  He certainly knew 
who it was, but he wasn't going to tell me, nor would he advise me 
there was any adverse result to doing so.  I insisted, so pressed 
on to file a complaint.
     Nothing happened for a couple of days.  We used TIW 55 daily 
for many hours, except for the couple of hours interference to 
that one channel each afternoon.  Then, on the third day, at 
about 9 or 10 AM, I asked San Jose to change frequency to TIW 55, 
I found out what had happened.
     Just 48 hours after my going on record with the FCC, my 
colleague in San Jose said, "I'm sorry to tell you the Costa 
Rican government has cancelled our license to operate on TIW 55.  
You'll have to choose another channel, Old Man."
     The spooks indeed stepped on Ma Bell that day.

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