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.
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:
- Attract Assumption: More people will be attracted to ham radio due to the expanded Technician HF privileges.
- 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.
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