This is the War Stories Section of
The Broadcast Archive

Maintained by:
Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer


by Donald E. Kimberlin

There's nothing in Bell advertising to dissuade 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 undersea 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 sovereign 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 interference.

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.

--(Donald E. Kimberlin is today President of Telecommunications Network Architects, based in Landis, North Carolina, where he continues to design and implement technologies the world has come to casually call "WANs.")