This is the War Stories Section of
The Broadcast Archive
Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer
THE DAY THE SPOOKS STEPPED ON MA BELL
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
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
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
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
The spooks indeed stepped on Ma Bell that day.
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