Incentives and Licensing

Jeff Davis, KE9V, wrote in his weekly letter, Quintessence, about something we’ve all heard on the air, the roundtable discussing and lamenting about those who are not real hams.  He posits this is one unintended consequence of incentive licensing, where new amateurs tend to stay on repeaters and not upgrade to acquire HF band privileges, creating this us and them mentality.  Newbies will always be on repeaters and the real hams are on HF.

Incentive licensing was introduced in 1964 by the ARRL and FCC.  I got my ticket as a teenager in 1984, but I don’t recall hearing the term incentive licensing or angst about it until perhaps ten years ago.  It never really occurred to me that there was something before incentive licensing in amateur radio.  It was always what I knew amateur radio to be, even when I was a budding radio artisan in the 70s.  License classes were an integral part of amateur radio, much like color television is in every living room today.

The original motivation behind incentive licensing was to get amateurs to increase their knowledge and skill.  While in theory it makes sense, in practice I don’t think it’s been very effective.  Today you can find Extras who are, well, quite simply, numbskulls.  While the exams can test for specific isolated technical tidbits, they never were able to test for operating skills, uncover deep understanding of topics, or examine practical skills like soldering a connnector.  Some would argue the CW exam tested for operating skill, but in reality it didn’t.  It tested operators copying CW for a certain period of time but didn’t really test whether they could copy weak signals, send code, or have a QSO.  It certainly didn’t test whether they were proficient operators or good and wholesome people.  A review of FCC enforcement actions and on air monitoring in which violators and LIDs most often are code tested Extras provides empirical evidence that exams and incentive licensing aren’t always effective at determining good operators or weeding out those guys.

Over the years I’ve found that license class has little to do with the technical proficiency of amateurs.  The biggest factor I’ve found has been professional experience and formal education.  The most technically astute amateurs are, ironically, professionals in telecommunications, electronics, and engineering.  Often these folks have access to equipment and resources that let them expand their knowledge, and amateur radio is a secondary technical endeavor.  The best of these folks seed the rest of the amateur radio community with technical know how.

Personally I’ve found passing amateur radio exams to be trivial.  While I’m a telecommunications professional with some schooling in electronics, I’ve thought tests were fairly easy to pass with just simple question memorization and very little, if any, technical study.  I’m not saying I didn’t know the material.  I could draw a bipolar transistor amplifier circuit from memory and do the calculations on a whiteboard or explain modulation.  Passing a test was merely an inconvenient formality.  Advancing my knowledge and skills in amateur radio has never been driven by a test or advancing in license class, like the original intent of incentive licensing.  It certainly wasn’t driven by getting an extra 20 kHz of space on 20 meters at the time.  Increasing knowledge has been triggered by my interests.  I really got into CW when I saw others using it and saw how quickly and efficiently QSOs could be had, not because I had to pass a 20 WPM test.  I took up rig building when I saw others making simple rigs from 2N2222s and it seemed cool.  I’m exploring satellites now because I find relaying a radio signal through a little box orbiting the Earth intriguing.

If incentive licensing isn’t really motivating amateurs to learn more and increase their skills, what purpose does it serve, other than supporting a needless hierarchy, one implemented back when post-war middle-agers and old codgers were bucking free love and turn on, tune in, drop out?  I think incentive licensing in the US has outlived its usefulness, and it’s perhaps time to eliminate it — one test and license class to rule them all.  What is the worst that could happen, someone new won’t be destined for that local repeater and its accompanying unfair stereotypes, and will instead make a QSO on HF, perhaps get interested in CW, build a rig, and then work through satellites or do moonbounce…and become… the proverbial real ham?  

Anthony, K3NG, is a regular contributor to

12 Responses to “Incentives and Licensing”

  • Harry K7ZOV:

    I got my Novice license in 1963 and tech in 64. I remember the BS incentive push. It pushed the ham radio hobby almost into extinction. In the end it pushed hams out of the hobby. It pushed (with the help of Japan entering the US market) all the major US ham radio equipment builders out of the market. It delayed me from getting my general by not letting techs have the novice bands for CW, thus giving us a place to get our code speed up. VHF/UHF in those days is nothing like it is today. CW on 6 meters was so rare it was really never heard. Now it is. Yes I remember it well and it was not a pretty sight. I also remember that the bands had just as many good hams and lids as now. That 80 meters evening roundtables sounded more like a typical CB band with no ID, blasting the Government, putting down those who did not run 2 KW and a lot more. Then more things change, the more they stay the same.

    73 Harry

  • David:

    A one ticket does all will create a mess. However, it would be great for the business end . So, is Amateur Radio about business or the practice of radio ?
    Let’s see, if the Federal Aviation Administration went to a one ticket does all, you would have a big boost to the Aviation business but one heck of a mess with Aviation accident deaths. So, you must determine your ultimate end game, numbers, dollars or knowledge ? Just thinking… not proposing

  • David, that’s not really an applicable analogy. It’s pretty difficult to kill someone with amateur radio, either inadvertently, or through negligence or lack of knowledge. (You’re probably more likely to hurt yourself with high voltage from a tube rig, but that’s another discussion.) The same can’t be said with aviation. Strict and thorough testing and licensing for aviation is clearly necessary to save lives and outside of that it’s much more technically complicated than amateur radio.

    I didn’t mention business once in this article and it’s not something that motivated anything I wrote. But since you asked, amateur radio is about the practice of radio, education, innovation, and international goodwill. Any business that results from that is secondary, in my book. We undoubtedly need a business ecosystem around amateur radio to provide equipment, books, hamfests, and organizations, but it shouldn’t drive what amateur radio is.


  • Harry K7ZOV:

    I mentioned business, but meant it to be a side note. A lot of us old timers know that the ARRL and incentive licensing damaged and killed major suppliers of finished and kit radio equipment. In the good old day we build a majority of our TX equipment and most RX’s were commerical. The transceiver as we know it now really did not exist for a long time. Most of my friends and I had BC-348’s, ARC-5’s etc for RX and home made or kit tube transmitters with a switching relay. VHF/UHF in my case was a heathkit 2er and 6er. Ham radio was hands on and Japan really opened up the appliance radios we have now. People were very technical then. Hell I had to bring a slid-rule and paper for calculations for my novice test. I also remember very well some very nice, polite and professional hams and listened to them for hours. Even before I got my novice license. I also remember people tuning up on each other, playing music, cussing each other out, pushing others off of “their” frequency and I can go on, but I think or hope I am making my point. The good, the bad and the really ugly have been around forever. Read some of the clips from 100 yrs ago in the editorial section of the last few QST magazines. Having code did not stop the idiots from being on. Going no code as far as I am concerned did not hurt ham radio or made it any better or worst. The self righteous know it all, I have 2 kw and can send 30 wpm jerks were there then and are now and no testing or forcing CW back can and will change human nature. All incentive licensing did was piss of a lot of good hams that lost parts of the band they once had and they dropped out and forced others into the 11 meter CB band. Really smart….

    2 cents done..back under my rock 73 Harry K7ZOV

  • k8gu:

    Let’s make two classes and make the higher class nontrivial to obtain, but with more ceremonial value (like our 1×2 callsigns). For the real hams!

    While I agree with Harry that there have always been lids and morons on the bands, one of the interesting things he brings up is the presence of COTS equipment: this just makes it easier for the lids who make trouble—in fact, there have been so few real developments in amateur HF gear since the addition of SSB in the 1960s that the world is awash in inexpensive no-thought-required HF SSB radios. I predict that amateur licensing may become moot within our lifetime.

    As long as the “real hams” have something to hold onto, there will be “us and them.” I don’t know that messing with the licensing structure will make a difference although the present U.S. license structure remains funny like its predecessor. People will get upset or cause problems no matter how you change it.

  • 0N2D:

    Here in Europe The Netherlands there is a big group of jung hams that are fighting against old hams about harmonistation the novice licenses world wide.

    Many Novice operators don’t want to be like old hams and say that S1.56 ITU Radio Regulations are not from this time anymore because there based on the early days , just because the old hams don’t want to change.

  • Harry K7ZOV:

    Messing with license will do nothing to stop the abusers, flakes, LID’s and self centered idiots. Based on the early QST editorials the Good, the Bad and the Really Ugly have always been on the air. Be it with a spark gap transmitter, AM phone, present day CW, SSB or whatever. Being technical competent does not make you any better or worst then the next guy or gal. You can’t teach common sense and you can’t fix stupid. So it will always be “us against them” just like the past 100 years. Ham radio will survive and evolve. It is now with PSK, Oliva, JT-65A, JT-9 and other mods. It is with digital voice. CubSats and people using hand held antenna and handi-talkies and working though Satellites. Small footprint EME setups. A all mode radio station that you can hold in one hand i.e. KX3. And even though others say it ain’t so, CW is coming back. Being a ham for going on 51 yrs. I see what newer younger hams don’t see, or more like can’t, since they were not there. I was and I plan on having someone pry one hand from a key and the other from a mic the day I die…a long, long time from now….

    73 and have a great week. And enjoy what we have and just turn the dial when you encounter one of the Bad or Really Ugly. There are plenty of us Good still on and will be for years to come.

    Harry k7zov

  • Peter kg5wy:

    I fully agree with line 6.

    Lets bring back the Morse code as it once was.

  • Harry K7ZOV:

    Bringing CW back the way it was can not and will not ever happen in our lifetime or our kids or grandkids lifetime. Internal law was changed and I believe every country as taken CW off the table as a requirement. I could be wrong, and if I am at least a vast majority. CW has been replaced by digital. However the number of newbee’s wanting to learn morse code has grown. I belong to the QRS-CW group and it is very active with beginners. The Straight Key group has been growing. The number of hams I hear on any given evening on the old novice freq are growing. So it is not dead. And as I pointed out before the number of LID, rude, crude and socially unacceptable has not gone up in proportion over the years since CW was take out of the equation to get a license. There are just as many idiots who should be on 11 meters now as there were in 1963 when I got my novice license. I hung out on 40 meters back then mostly. Also 80 and 15. I listened in on the general portion and as a 16 yr old kid hearing swearing, chewing other out, tuning up during a qso and then having some jerk say “this is MY frequency and I and my buddies will be on shortly get off A–Hole” kind of leaves a lasting impression. As well as chasing SSB station off by running AM on top of them and hearing the guy laugh and was proud he pushed someone off the band. Lets no forget playing music on the CW band also. Not AM in sideband. If anyone thinks for one microsecond that the code requirements will raise the level of the class of our appliance hams they really are living is a dream world that never existed. As I said, 16 yrs old and shocked and a bit scared of being a new 17 yr old general and having to survive this was a bit much. I for one vote that the morse code requirement never comes back. It did not work before and it sure the hell won’t work in the future…. That said being a Elmer to others in learning the code and using it would be a big plus. That I am for…

  • Peter kg5wy:

    Many opinions…………..

  • David:

    All is good.. We just need some organization on the radio spectrum so we don’t get chaos. So how do you do that ? CW is one way… Look at the Citizens Band in the 70’s , now that was chaos. Most who take the time to learn code , will respect others, that is one reason to use code as a gage to issue a license. Remember, we are dealing with a limited amount of band width. I don’t see an issue with taking a test to move up the latter.
    After chaos happens , you will see a return of limits.

  • Peter kg5wy:

    I agree David.

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