FCC Considers Changes to Amateur Radio Licensing

The FCC has invited public comments on two proposals to change the licensing requirements for amateur radio operators. Both of these proposals are aimed at attracting and retaining new amateur radio licensees.


The first one is the “Tyro” license proposal from Gary/AD0WU that creates a new license class with minimal licensing requirements and operating privileges on the 70 cm band. See the complete proposal on the FCC website.

I find this proposal severely flawed with way too many details that would need to be written into Part 97. For example, the proposal establishes 99 specific repeater/simplex channels in the 430 MHz portion of the band. Oh, and the repeaters use a non-standard 9 MHz offset. There’s lots more in the proposal that make it a non-starter.

Still there is a nugget of an idea in here: a GMRS-like entry-level amateur radio license that is super easy to get. This could be an easy-peasy gateway into ham radio for kids, spouses and family members. However, I expect the FCC to just dismiss this petition without serious consideration.

Enhanced Technician

The second proposal is from the ARRL (see this ARRL news item):

The FCC has invited public comments on ARRL’s 2018 Petition for Rule Making, now designated as RM-11828, which asks the FCC to expand HF privileges for Technician licensees to include limited phone privileges on 75, 40, and 15 meters, plus RTTY and digital mode privileges on 80, 40, 15, and 10 meters.

The proposal would “add limited High Frequency (HF) data and telephony privileges to those currently available to Technician Class Amateur licensees.” The objective is to sweeten the Technician privileges to both attract new licensees and to retain existing Technicians (and maybe get them interested in moving up to General). There is an assumption/belief/hope that providing some HF telephony and digital privileges will accomplish these goals.

I am disappointed in the lack of data-driven analysis in support of this proposal. The ARRL filing claims that they “studied the comparable entry level license class operating privileges of other countries” but provided no data. There are different licensing schemes around the world…maybe we should compare and learn something from them. The data they did provide was survey data of ARRL members…which is really just an opinion poll: what do you think we should do with the licensing structure? This is not a great way to create public policy.

What’s the Objective?

Let’s start with the objective, which the ARRL petition says is “developing improved operating capabilities, increasing emergency communications participation, improving technical self-training, and increasing growth overall in the Amateur Radio Service.” I think this is a reasonable goal.

For some reason, every time there is a concern about improving and growing amateur radio, the proposed solution is a change in the licensing structure (usually to make it easier to obtain operating privileges). If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. While the licensing structure should be improved over time, it should not be the first (or only) tool to apply. The ARRL needs to take a much more strategic approach to working towards the objective. Fortunately, I see positive signs they are moving in the right direction. See ARRL CEO Howard/WB2ITX Speaks.

Back To Licensing

There is a worthy idea in the ARRL proposal:
Change the entry level license (Technician) to provide a taste of HF phone and digital privileges, so it attracts more people to the hobby AND get them more deeply engaged. This might actually work.

I am not an unbiased observer because I have plenty of fun playing around with radios on frequencies above 50 MHz. I originally thought I would be a Technician for life but gradually got pulled into the fun below 30 MHz. So part of my brain says “Technicians just need to figure out how to have fun on VHF/UHF.” There is a lot to be said for having the entry level license be focused on VHF/UHF to learn basic radio operating. HF can come later.

Another part of my brain sees the excitement and growing popularity of the WSJT-X digital modes, especially FT8. Why do Technicians get to use CW on some of the HF bands but not other digital modes? That seems kind of silly in the year 2019. And making HF contacts with other states and countries on SSB is lots of fun, too.

Another question to ask is “what harm could be done by this proposal?” We could see a lot more activity in the portions of the HF bands Technicians are given. Maybe so much that those subbands get overrun with signals…seems like a potential problem. Some people have argued that giving Technicians these HF privileges will cause them to not upgrade to General. That seems like a low risk…if they get hooked on HF operating, they will upgrade to get access to additional spectrum.

There are really two assumptions in play here:

  1. Attract Assumption: More people will be attracted to ham radio due to the expanded Technician HF privileges.
  2. Retain Assumption: That Technicians will be more engaged in ham radio activity due to the expanded HF privileges (perhaps upgrading to higher license classes).

The distribution of US amateur radio licenses is roughly Amateur Extra (20%), General (23%) and Technician (50%), the remaining 7% are Novice and Advanced. So roughly half of US radio amateurs have decided to get their “VHF oriented” license while the other half have gone on to get an “HF privileged” license. Frankly, I don’t see the General license exam as a big barrier…I see people studying for it in our license classes and 90% of them are successful on the exam. But the exam is yet another thing to do, so it does represent an obstacle to overcome, just not a big one. What I do see them struggling with actually getting on the air with HF. See Getting On HF: The Fiddle Factor. Easier licensing is not going to address that problem.

Who Wants HF?

A lot of Technicians are just fine with the operating privileges they have. I even noted some Tech’s complaining they are tired of OF hams telling them they need to fall in love with HF. Interesting. I don’t have reliable data on what Technicians think but I see several types of Technicians that are quite happy with their existing privileges:

  • Family/Friend Communicators – these folks are not hard core radio amateurs but they got their license to communicate with friends and family.
  • Outdoor Enthusiasts – these folks use ham radio to augment their outdoor activities: hiking, biking, offroad driving, camping, fishing, etc.
  • Emcomm and Public Service Volunteers – these hams are involved in local emergency response, support of served agencies (Red Cross, Salvation Army, etc.) or providing communications support for marathons, parades, charity walks, etc.
  • Technical Experimenters – many radio amateurs are into experimenting with technology and the bands above 50 MHz offer a lot of opportunity for that.

I don’t know what percentage of Technicians are unconcerned about HF privileges but it is significant (half of them? perhaps more?) Providing HF privileges to this group will not have much of an effect. It seems like the ARRL should have data on this before serving up a proposal to change the licensing structure.

My Thoughts

What do I think? I think this proposal most likely will not make a significant difference with regard to attracting and retaining new radio hams. Something else is needed to do that, such as effective training programs, strong local clubs and mentors available to help newbies get started and build skills.

But it might just work. Maybe HF is the bright shiny object that will motivate people to pursue amateur radio.

So count me as agnostic on this proposal. I won’t be filing comments with the FCC. What do you think?

73 Bob K0NR

The post FCC Considers Changes to Amateur Radio Licensing appeared first on The KØNR Radio Site.

Bob Witte, KØNR, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Colorado, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

17 Responses to “FCC Considers Changes to Amateur Radio Licensing”

  • Matt W1MST:

    Having more operators with HF voice privileges *could* make it more attractive for manufacturers to invest in new HF radio models.

  • Ron N8WCR:

    I think this is a good idea, it might get more people interested in getting a license because they can get on HF right away and give them a taste of wanting more and go for their General. Right now when I show people my radio they ask about getting on HF and I tell them they have to take the General test they back down, but I know they would go ahead and take the Technician test and later upgrade.

  • Bill ki7hyi:

    If easy entrance into amatuer radio is the goal, why is a band orphaned by the FCC not simply allowed to be used by those who are, in many cases, still using it from before it was orphaned? I have worked as a broadcast engineer and a two-way radio technician. Before that, I was a CBer before I was 18. There are a number of amateurs that are using the orphaned CB band as an outreach to potential amateurs. Since the band has been officially ignored since the FCC decommissioned it, making it essentially an unallocated HF ISM band, and new CB equipment is still being manufactured and sold, why don’t we just use it for outreach? The only requirements should be active prohibition of profanity and the use of original and newly issued callsigns, under the same conditions as on other amateur allocations. In other words, relegitimize 11 meters, and use it as it should always had been used.

  • Jim KN4RCC:

    I studied for a week and got my tech license in Dec 2018, I then got on the air and met some good folks. I decided to get my general and studied for about three weeks and passed the exam on Valentines day 2019. The point of this is the tests are not hard to pass so opening up more frequencies to techs probably won’t do much either way. Promoting events that are interesting to new folks is what will bring in new “Hams”. Community activities that has food and points of interest to get people talking to each other about what can be done with the equipment that is available is what is needed. I personally am more interested in the analog side of things more than digital but both need to be promoted….

  • Michael - W9AAM:

    I am thinking of the enforcement nightmare of 14.313 and 7.200 with all the propagation there on those bands.
    I am thinking to give the Techs part of 10 or 15M for SSB and AM Phone so they can be found within a 50 Mile radius of they act up.. As Bill pointed out, 11M is still there too.

    There needs to be a limit of the band space available for contests. …on 80M for sure.
    Give them 3950 – 4000.
    Make it a challenge for them to climb on top of each others in the pileups.

    There needs to be something more than an Extra Class too.
    Add some First Phone and RADAR content to the requirements.

  • Ross KG5OED:

    If the changes bring more amateurs on the bands, I say go for it.Hey, it might be flawed somewhat, but let`s do it. As the saying goes, we use the bands or we lose them. Nuff said.

  • Walt N5EQY:

    Adapt improvise and overcome,the only things that remains the same is change.

  • David WB4ONA:

    What’s the point of giving more people HF access if they can’t put up an antenna because of HOA and Landlord restrictions? The ARRL (as usual) has the cart before the horse on this one.

  • Don W9DPC:

    I guess it’s OK, but I can also see where some would think it’s a slap in the face after they studied and tested to upgrad.

  • jerry w5kaw:

    why not just make a HF license and a tech license tech for 50mhz and up and the HF license for all of HF and just simplifiy the whole thing!!

  • Goody K3NG:

    > why not just make a HF license and a tech license tech for 50mhz and up and the HF license for all of HF and just simplifiy the whole thing

    Wow. I like that idea.

    I honestly think we’re at the point of diminishing returns with licensing changes resulting in more licensees, better retention, and more activity. For this hobby to grow, we need cultural change. That’s complicated and hard to accomplish.

  • Jim - KH2SR:

    Last post was by mistake. Please delete.

    I agree with the enhanced technician changes. But not the TYRO changes.

    Young people who get their tech license are more interested in HF digital & voice. CW on 80, 40, 15 and SSB on the 10m band doesn’t give them a good example of HF because they are unlikely to try CW initially and the 10m band won’t be reliable enough for quite some time. They need a little bit of access to the other HF bands and on the modes they are likely to want to use. I think they will be much more likely to upgrade to general if they get a better taste of how awesome HF is.

    As for the TYRO. I think it will interfere with pre-existing 70cm satellite and repeater operation. In section 3.42 he discusses how this would benefit ARES & CERT by allowing ham and non ham emergency teams to more easily communicate. I think a better solution would be to forget TYRO and just make it legal for hams to MARS/CAP modify their ham gear and legally operate on FRS, GMRS, & MURS frequencies while following the power output requirements already in place for those bands. This would allow ham and non ham emergency teams to communicate with ease.

    73! – Jim – KH2SR

  • Dave Edmonds N1OEY:

    Just recently got my General upgrade still haven’t been on HF yet. Need to install antenna. I can see the lure for upgrading the Technician license to attract more interest. I’ve been studying a bit for the Extra, but not sure it would be something I really need.

    This is an odd hobby. Not many people involved from what I see and those that have been in it for awhile tend to look down on the new people (not all but many), this discourages many people as well. In turn you stop asking those newby questions when the responses are lacking help.

  • Steve Isherwood KK6MPV:

    One must consider as well, any Tech can get on hf by joining a club. The club setup would be available under supervision and an Elmer call sign, enabling them to get out. That was the factor with my XYL. She wanted to make contacts on her own call sign! Our club has always open armed welcomed even visitors! They may be just curious but the atmosphere of the club is a key selling point! We have to remember….we were in their place, however long ago! The Tech ticket is a license to learn, help them and they will help themselves.

  • K4JTM:

    The entire testing question pools should be redone regardless of these options. We are scaring away potential hams with the ridiculous amount of mind numbing technical data that they memorize to pass a test and then never use again. For the ones that do suffer through it, they can walk out as a technician, general or amateur extra and still not know the basics of how to operate a radio, common courtesies, or basic ham activities like soldering an antenna connector, how to connect a power supply, how to tune an antenna with a tuner. I know an extra class operator that doesn’t understand how a repeater works. But he can still give you the answers to the repeater questions on all three tests.

    We live in a day and time that radios don’t come in kits that you have to assemble, so scrap all the electrical components questions. Start with fixing the tests so people that obtain one of the three levels can actually operate a radio and the basic equipment once they are licensed.

    Just my thoughts;
    John K4JTM
    Amateur Extra Class

  • Rick W2RDH:

    John K4JTM pegged it right on the nose!!! The hobby has been in decline for years. Don’t think so go to any hamfest, all old men/women!!! Where are the kids?

    I ran a high school ham radio club for years and presently not one student has any interest. If its not robotics, its not!!! Have tried everything to get it restarted with no luck and mind you I also run the technical theatre program and have plenty of very talented techie’s in that program. When I bring it up to give it a try I get the same answer, why on a radio, I can use my cellphone and I have to study too and take a test, nah…

    Maybe the 3 classes of license should be, entry (above 50 MHz), digital (VHF/UHF & limited HF) and entire HF before we loose what we have to “old ideas”!!

  • Ernie w5dfc:

    The Novice License already has the Tech HF voice privileges, let them upgrade their voice allotments along with the Techs.

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