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Zero Bias – A CQ Editorial

"There You Go Again…"


*e-mail: w2vu@cq-amateur-radio.com

There you go again…" The phrase, made famous by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential debates, immediately popped into my mind when I read the ARRL's latest hare-brained licensing scheme. At its July meeting, the League board adopted a motion to create "an ad hoc committee…to examine the current license exam requirements for the Technician Class license and make recommendations for change, including consideration of a new entry license class (with) a more targeted examination (and) a more limited set of privileges that would attract a new generation of amateurs." The rationale for this, according to the resolution, was that once the FCC stopped issuing new Novice Class licenses in 2000, and dropped the code requirement for all license classes in 2007, the Technician Class license became the new entry point to amateur radio. In turn, the resolution continued, "there was a considerable increase in difficulty for the new entry point, and new licensees were then accorded extensive privileges not appropriate for all newcomers." Now, more than 15 years later, it went on, "we need to improve upon our efforts to attract newcomers to Amateur Radio and pass along the tradition of emergency and…communications support, developing interest in hands-on projects, and improving on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics educations (sic)."

There are two basic problems with this proposal: 1) The reasons given to support it are invalid; and 2) The proposed "solution" addresses a problem which doesn't exist while conveniently ignoring a necessary discussion of the real problems we need to be addressing. Plus, of course, there's the underlying message ("There you go again…") that the only "real" hams are those who operate HF. Let's take a closer look at the rationale behind this proposal:

1) The Technician Class has become the entry point to amateur radio as a result of FCC actions to a) stop issuing new Novice licenses and to b) eliminate the Morse code requirement in 2007. WRONG! The FCC's decision in 2000 to eliminate the Novice license as the entry-level license was made because hams had largely abandoned it already. Once the code test was removed from the Technician Class license in 1991, new hams began "voting with their feet" by choosing the Tech license over the Novice as their point of entry, especially since Techs also enjoyed all Novice Class privileges on HF. The FCC's decision to eliminate the code test requirement for all license classes in 2007 was irrelevant because the Tech license had already been "code-free" for 16 years.

2) "(T)here was a considerable increase in difficulty for the new entry point…" WRONG! We won't get into the question of whether the Technician Class exam is too hard or too easy, but there was no significant change in the exam's level of difficulty as a result of restructuring in 2000. Some questions about HF were added after Novice Enhancement in 1987 gave Novice HF privileges to Techs, but since restructuring made no changes in Technician privileges, it did not result in any major changes to the Tech exam.

Plus, if the Tech exam is now considerably harder than it used to be (and that is debatable), how is it that the ARRL VEC reported just a few weeks after this resolution was adopted that, with over 20,000 new U.S. amateur licenses issued in the first seven months of 2016, "the U.S. is on track to exceed 30,000 new radio amateurs for the third straight year by the end of the year," as well as about 11,000 upgrades. For the past 10 years or so, we have typically had between 25,000 and 30,000 new people joining our ranks every year. That makes it tough to claim that the exam is too difficult.

3) "(N)ew licensees were then accorded extensive privileges not appropriate for all newcomers…" WRONG! Technician Class licensees have enjoyed extensive privileges since the license class was created by the FCC in 1951. They started out with all privileges above 220 Mc (to be time-appropriate) and quickly gained all privileges above 50 MHz. Even when the Novice license was alive and well, the Tech was a popular point of entry for many hams. We have never heard of a case in which a new ham with no prior experience got on the microwave bands and fried his neighbor's dog, operated meteor scatter with such a wide signal that he set off an aurora, or focused so much power on the moon attempting an EME contact that its orbit was changed. They haven't knocked any satellites out of the sky or built repeaters that were so technically inadequate that the interference shut down the local airport. Fact: In the 65 years that the Technician license has been in existence, there is very little evidence to suggest widespread abuse of the extensive privileges that license carries. And by the way, the FCC says that most enforcement actions relating to repeater interference have been taken against holders of higher-class licenses. This is simply a red herring.

4) "(W)e need to improve upon our efforts to attract newcomers to Amateur Radio and pass along the tradition of emergency and communication…support, developing interest in hands-on projects, and improving on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education." No argument here, but…as noted above, we are currently attracting roughly 30,000 newcomers to amateur radio every year, so we must be doing something right in that department. In addition, most emergency and public service communications that hams provide is conducted on the VHF and UHF bands (using a variety of technologies; see much of this issue), which are already available to Technician Class hams. In addition, interest in handson projects is already growing and does not seem limited by license class; and the same applies to so-called "STEM" education projects related to ham radio. Most of those projects, again, primarily make use of the VHF/UHF bands already available to Technicians, or are not frequency-dependent. A new entrylevel license class will not have much impact on these activities.

Next…what is the proposed solution to this alleged problem (Or more accurately, a solution in search of a problem)? The ARRL board wants its committee to revisit the Technician license exam requirements and consider proposing a new license class with "a more targeted examination" and "a more limited set of privileges" to "attract a new generation of amateurs." We are assuming that those limited privileges would be on HF, since Techs already have all VHF/UHF privileges (as well as limited privileges on HF. Hmmm).

Forget for a moment that we're already attracting roughly 30,000 new amateurs a year. An FCC rulemaking is not required to make changes in the Technician Class exam questions. The National Council of Volunteer Examiner Coordinators, of which ARRL is a member, has a Question Pool Committee, on which ARRL has a seat, and it essentially has free rein in developing the questions that make up any amateur exam. The FCC provides broad categories as guidance, but the QPC does not need FCC approval to write "a more targeted examination," whatever that means.

Plus, the FCC made it very clear back in 2000 when it shrank the number of amateur license classes from six to three that it had no intention — even 16 years later — of ever expanding the number of license classes again. Trying to convince the Commission to add a new license class when the statistics show there is no problem with the current structure will be a waste of time, effort, and ARRL members' money.

So, what IS the real problem? The ARRL already knows that answer, or at least ARRL VEC Manager Maria Somma, AB1FM, does. In the same announcement about the licensing numbers, Somma is quoted as saying, "I'm also keenly aware that without some mentoring, these new hams' initial curiosity and enchantment may fade if they don't get on the air right away… Let's show these new hams what the magic is all about."

Bingo! Perhaps the board needs to pay more attention to the staff once in a while. We don't have a problem getting new hams licensed; we have a problem getting those new hams active on the air (whether on HF or VHF/UHF) and involved in the broader amateur radio community…joining clubs, coming out to activities, getting EmComm training, and even reading magazines.

We are not alone in this. Last weekend, I was talking with a ham who is also very active in astronomy and in trying to involve more people in astronomy activities. When we bring the telescopes to them, she said, they're interested; but we have trouble getting young people to come out to our observatory. It's the same with us. Bring ham radio to kids and they're fascinated. Try to get them to come to club meetings or events…not so much.

Many of today's young people "live" online, and it's hard to get them to physically show up for much of anything. That's a societal problem, not just a ham radio problem. But it means we need to do more to bring ham radio to them, whether it's in a physical space like a school or a virtual space like a social media site. Plus, the ARRL needs to do more to make itself relevant to new hams, whose interests may lie more above 30 MHz than below. Creating a new license class with limited HF privileges will not do that. A far better course would be to listen to AB1FM, develop programs to actively encourage mentoring, and "show these new hams what the magic is all about."

– 73, W2VU

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