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Zero Bias – A CQ Editorial

"Dit … Dit … Dit … Dah… Ten Years of Code-Free Licensing"


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

Ten years ago this month, on February 22, 2007, a volunteer examiner team somewhere in the United States administered the final code test for an FCC amateur radio license. It was the closing act in a long-running drama that played out over the course of more than three decades, with the Greek tragedy-style chorus each time wailing of the imminent death of ham radio.

The drama began in 1974, when the FCC first proposed eliminating the Morse code exam for the Technician Class license. The computer age was dawning, most VHF/UHF activity was on voice and many of those hams and would-be hams who were interested mostly in the "high-tech" of the times felt the code exam was an impediment to growth in the hobby. The amateur community at large strongly opposed the proposal and the FCC backed down. The U.S. had roughly 350,000 licensed amateurs at the time.

Over the next decade-and-a-half, there were more proposals and changes in an effort to increase our ranks and to bring more young people into the hobby (the initial round of baby-boomer "kids" who found a home in ham radio in the 1950s and '60s were beginning to age and grew concerned about competition for technically-oriented young people in the generation that followed). In 1978, Technicians were given Novice HF privileges [they had been limited to 50 MHz and up, despite passing a 5 word-per-minute (WPM) code test and the General Class written exam]. A decade later, Novice Enhancement loosened many of the restrictions on Novices and gave them limited voice privileges on the 10-meter, 220-MHz, and 1296-MHz bands. But there were no changes in code test requirements. At this point, there were just under 430,000 hams in the U.S.1

The beginning of the end for code testing came in 1990, when the FCC once again proposed eliminating the code requirement for Technicians. Despite loud opposition, the mood of the broader amateur community had shifted and comments generally favored the FCC proposal. Code tests for Techs rode into the sunset on Valentine's Day, 1991. But the socalled No-Code Techs were given only VHF and UHF privileges. Passing a code test to become a "Tech Plus" licensee was required in order to access those limited HF Novice privileges that Techs had been granted a decade earlier. The amateur radio ranks had grown to just over 530,000 by this point, but handwringing continued about the hobby's future and the chorus wailed that eliminating the Technician code test would turn the VHF and UHF ham bands into CB.

Next came license restructuring in 2000, when the FCC stopped issuing new Novice and Advanced Class licenses, did away with the separate Tech and Tech-Plus distinctions and lowered the code test speed for General and Extra from 13 and 20 WPM, respectively, to 5 WPM for both. In 2003, the International Telecommunication Union dropped the worldwide requirement for hams using HF to have passed a code test. No less than 18 petitions were filed with the FCC to do the same, and in 2005, the Commission issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making to eliminate code tests for all levels of U.S. amateur licenses. The resulting Report and Order — calling code exams "an unnecessary regulatory burden" — was issued in late December 2006 and took effect on February 23, 2007. It also granted "no-code Techs" the HF spectrum segments they'd previously been denied without passing a code test. The total number of U.S. amateurs at the end of February 2007 was just under 655,500,2 but had been declining steadily since peaking at nearly 688,000 in April 2003. Once again, there were dire predictions for the fate of amateur radio, and especially for CW as an operating mode. Without a mandatory code test, the chorus sang, CW would wither and die.

Our feeling at the time was, as it is today, that CW as an operating mode has enough benefits to thrive on its own, without the need for forcing people to learn it (especially with the bizarre reasoning that you must learn code in order to operate voice). We also felt that, once learning code was perceived as a challenge rather than an obstacle, and was something that could be done at your own pace, interest would not only hold steady but would possibly grow. One manufacturer of keys and keyers told us a certain percentage of hams embrace code as an operating mode without regard to license requirements, and that that same percentage of a higher total number of hams would be just fine for his business.

So … where are we ten years down the road? Has the ham population continued to decline? Has CW use on the air declined? Let's take a look at some numbers: About three months after the code tests went away, the ham population started to grow again. It hasn't stopped. As of the end of September 2016 (the latest month for which figures were available when this was written), there were just under 741,000 licensed hams in the U.S., an all-time high. The number represents a 13% net increase since 2007, and we generally get between 25,000 and 30,000 new people joining the hobby each year.

Of even greater interest, though, is growth by license class. Technician Class licenses have kept pace with overall growth, showing a 14% increase in the past 10 years (and remaining at roughly half the total of licensed hams today, as in 2007). However, the number of General Class hams has grown by 31% in the same time period and the number of Extra Class hams has risen by 32%. Clearly, the code test had posed an obstacle to upgrading for many thousands of hams. But now that learning code was optional, how many of those new Generals and Extras would actually do it?

It's hard to quantify day-to-day operation with any accuracy, since what you hear on the bands at any given time may vary depending on a multitude of factors. When I took a listen on a recent morning, I heard a fair amount of CW activity on 40, 30, and 20 meters — about what I'd expect on a weekday morning in December on the downward slope of a sunspot cycle. Much of what I heard was relatively slow-speed code, suggesting that a certain number of hams who did not need to pass a code test to earn their operating privileges continue to take up the challenge to learn and use CW regardless. I regularly hear from newer hams that their goal for the near future is to either learn code or improve their skills.

This broad level of continued/growing interest is enhanced by the growth in the past decade of interest in QRP (lowpower operating) and homebrewing/kitbuilding. CW is the mode of choice for low power because it gets through better than voice under marginal band conditions, and CW transmitters are simpler to build, smaller and less powerhungry than phone rigs, ideal for "in-the-field" operating.

One area in which we do have numbers to take an objective look is contest logs. In 2006, there were roughly 4,600 CW logs submitted for the CQ World Wide DX Contest. In 2016, the number was over 7,300, a 60% increase! For the CQ WPX Contest, there were just under 2,300 CW logs submitted in 2006; just over 4,200 in 2016, an increase of 85%! (Interestingly, this is more representative of a huge increase in overall contest participation than a spike in CW activity — the number of CW logs as a percentage of total logs submitted in each contest has remained steady as overall participation has surged.)

These stats aren't only for CQ contests or hard-core contesters. The number of CW contacts in ARRL's Field Day — which attracts more casual operators than dedicated contesters — increased by 12% over the same time period, and went from 42% of total contacts to 45%.3 Bottom line: Ham radio is alive and well, and CW is alive and well, as we enter the second decade of ham licensing that does not require a code exam. Still worried about CW's future? Get on the air (preferably in the General CW subbands), call - . - . - - . - (slowly), and be patient with the newbies who will answer your call.

– 73, Rich, W2VU


1. 20th century licensing statistics via the W5YI Report

2. 21st century licensing statistics via ah0a.org

3. Source: ARRL

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