Wireless standards: the early years

Say what you like about the Internet, it is a constant source of rich amusement that can jolt even the most time-jaded palate. And from the most unlikely sources.

Say what you like about the Internet, it is a constant source of rich amusement that can jolt even the most time-jaded palate. And from the most unlikely sources.

Last night, for example, I was researching the early history of wireless regulation. Worse, I was digging into what might well qualify for Britain's entry in the 2012 Olympic Geekathon 200 Metre Doze-Off - the origins of amateur radio callsigns. But stick with me.

You may know that each country has its own unique prefix for ham radio licences. It wasn't like that in the early 20s, when it was up to the individual governments, and in some cases the individual amateurs, to decide pretty much at random how to be identified on-air. This started in the days when radio, especially ham radio, was crude, rare and short-range. It didn't really matter that there could be confusion between countries.

That changed as the technology got more accessible, people started to use shortwave and signals could be picked up all over the shop. As a result, the ITU got together in 1927 and agreed an international standard that holds to this day.

Mostly, this was logical. Some countries just got the first letter of their country name as their prefix - Great Britain got G, France F, Germany D and so on. Countries with large populations or particular influence got more than one range (we also got M, for example), while smaller countries or those who didn't really care had to share their first letter with others -- with nearly 70 countries in the ITU and only a third as many characters in the alphabet, something had to give. TA went to Turkey, TG to Guatemala, that sort of thing.

20th century politics being what it was, there are echoes of imperialism all over the shop: V and Z were used for British Empire, which is why India, Canada and Australia all share V sequences with the likes of the Falklands, Bermuda and Mellish Reef. You can see a complete list here, from which the historically minded can pick numerous bones.

Logical enough, in the circs. But what is never addressed and may well be lost is what thought processes and behind-the-scenes politicking allocated the United States of America joint or sole rights to use that country's four letters. As it was the most radio-minded, high tech and industrially expanding nation on earth, few would quibble with such a generous quota on count alone. The number's not the issue.

But how, in the name of Marconi, did the septics get...

W, A, N and K

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