The current ARRL proposal for a restructuring of the amateur license exams has been done
Since the effects of another restructuring will be felt for at least the same time scale as the previous restructurings, rather than asking how the licensing should be changed, I propose that we formulate a 50yr master plan for amateur radio based on public discussion and then ask how we can use licensing to move amateur radio in that direction.
Amateur radio is a hobby based on using, designing and building radio stations. The difference between amateur radio and other expensive hobbies whose participation is helped by technical understanding (such as amateur astronomy, home machining or car mechanics), is that amateur radio requires allocation of a portion of a large but finite (for our purposes), publically owned resource (the radio spectrum). A license is needed in order to use the spectrum allocation and to enforce accountability by the amateur to the public in whose interest the spectrum is managed. At one time, you had to be able to be able to demonstrate in an exam that you could design, construct, and maintain the simplest known transmitter (SKT), a 2 tube crystal controlled transmitter with a common cathode triode output stage at the same frequency as the crystal, and to communicate with it (which meant CW).
Over the last 50yrs ham radio has changed.
Hams have always been good citizens in the eyes of the public, we are most anxious to preserve our bandspace and go to extraordinary lengths to maintain our good standing in the community. We identify more strongly with our country than with each other, and in the case of WWII gladly went to war to kill other hams (or would have if our enemies had allowed ham radio in their country). Clearly the Govt has nothing to fear from us. We tow the line and don't rock the boat. The FCC has left us with almost the whole process of regulation, examination and licensing and gone off to fry bigger fish, like the a multibillion dollar industry broadcasting industry. We are almost autonomous and anything sensible that hams proposed about the future of our hobby would be given a reasonable hearing from the FCC.
If we maintain the hobby in a mode where hams continue to behave responsibly with respect to each other, the spectrum and the community, then we can probably do almost anything we want. It is just as easy for the FCC to enter the examination results for people who have passed a VE supervised exam at 35 wpm or for 5wpm.
Given the changes in ham radio, is it reasonable to expect that amateurs should understand how radios work? Provided that we can maintain accountability to the public and be self policing, there is no necessary connection between technical ability and a license. Only one license level would be needed and further recognition of technical competence or operating skill could come from within ham radio, like with DXCC certificates.
To be a ham you need a good location. This means buying a house, having a stable enough job that you are willing to invest the time to put up a tower, wire the house, dig trenches... Ham radio is not for people who move towns every 5 years. Clipping a lead to a coat hanger in a closet and calling it ham radio is for the birds, and I'd rather go play with my computer.
Part of hamdom's conventional wisdom is that you can do ham radio as a hobby with only minimal tools. Zack in the ARRL lab is thought of as one of us. He has been building award winning equipment that dazzles us all. He has a lab full of instruments at his disposal, a mill at home and pores through spec sheets and manuals and does this full time. The tenet that you can do this all in the basement with a multimeter, a soldering iron and a junk box, would mean that Zack is not one of us, but a career electrical engineer who happens to work for the ARRL. The reality, and the only thing that we can build the future of ham radio on, is that Zack is a ham who can only do the things that hams applaud, because he has the equipment to do the work at his disposal and can spend all day at it. You can operate as a hobby, but it is very hard to build as a hobby.
The activities that are of interest to hams are more on the level of W6JKV (QST, Sep 98, p28) who is independantly wealthy and travels the world in his yacht making EME contacts, or the participants of the Heard Is. expedition, who presumably are equally well financed and don't use coat hangers as their antennas. That's the reality of ham radio.
"Amateur Radio is a hobby based in electronics. There are many facets of Amateur Radio that do not require a technical background; community service, emergency communication, operating and contests as well as the more technical aspects of electronic design and construction. Some people enjoy Amateur Radio with only a small amount of technical knowledge and others use Amateur Radio to advance their electronics. It is not possible to present a full understanding of electronics in an exam preparation book like this and we have not attempted to do so. For that you should consult text books and talk to other active hams. This book is designed to prepare you for the entry level FCC amateur license(s). We hope your new Amateur Radio License will open doors for you in the Amateur Radio community, whether they be through community service, operating or electronic design and construction."
QST (I think) in one of its WARC reports (of maybe 10 yrs ago) reported the remarks of a representative of a govt which didn't allow amateur radio for their citizens. His response to the amateur radio representative who was putting forward our case for band space was a polite but unsympathetic, "you're just a bunch of appliance operators".
I would agree with this particular representative and think we are very lucky to have the band share we already have. While our technical contributions to the world are not zero, they are very small. Cutting edge electronics can no longer be done in a basement as a hobby and to construct a moonbounce grade station from scratch you need the same access to lab equipment and technical knowledge as people who work in the electronics as a career.
Emergency and Community service is one of the major points that the ARRL uses to justify our band privileges. This point is important to US hams, because the legislative justification in USA for the Amateur Radio Service is message passing, hence the "Radio Relay" in the ARRL. Other countries have a different legal foundation for ham radio. In Australia the ham radio license (at least in the '60s) was given for experimenting - ham radio is not a service, and you weren't allowed to help in town parades or athletic events. Presumably because of the difference in legislative justification for ham radio in the two countries, the Australian ham is technically more competent, while the US ham has more visibility in the community.
The legal basis for amateur radio in other countries is different to that in the US. Perhaps we should not lean on community service so heavily and instead find out how amateurs in other countries have justified their licenses.
(Mar 2004) The area where I live (Durham, NC) has domestic power lines above ground. We loose power here for about a week a year, due to falling trees from winter ice storms and summer hurricanes. People cannot go to work, and schools are closed, when otherwise normal life would have continued. (Sydney, Australia with neither hurricanes nor ice storms, has domestic power underground.) From the newspapers, hams are not involved in emergency communications in any of these many outages (they may not be involved at all, certainly I don't hear anything about it and I'm on local ham list-servers). 9/11 was the big one; I didn't see any mention of hams being involved in this either. Presumably members of the NC public, wouldn't list hams as being part of out emergency communication infrastructure. Currently in NC, the power companies are installing BPL (broadband over power lines). On NPR (National Public Radio) the other day, I heard a NC representative of the ARRL saying that BPL would compromise the ability of ham radio operators to do emergency communication. It's hard to imagine the ham's plight resonating with the public. The ARRL regards BPL as a lost cause and doesn't bother with the emergency communication sympathy tug. It would appear that hams in the US have given up on emergency communications as a justification for their existance.
International friendships are touted as a big benefit of ham radio. Have we prevented any wars? It's unlikely. I don't see that we are doing any better than other groups of people with a common interest, like school bands or student exchanges. We shouldn't throw it out, but it's nothing to make a big deal about. Certainly the ARRL did not think it necessary to consult with the sister ham organisations in other countries when putting forward its proposals for restructuring of ham radio in the US.
Put Hiram Percy Maxim in front of a modern HF setup. After a being impressed with the nice panels, the lack of on-air carriers and the low price of the equipment, how much would Hiram have to learn before he could operate in a manner that he wouldn't be detected as Rip van Winkle by the guy at the other end? SSB was current in the 1930's, CW is the same now as then and HF propagation was understood before WWII. None. Unlike medical doctors who have to keep up with advances in medicine, car mechanics who have to understand fuel injection and in-car computers, students who have to learn more each year to be competitive for jobs and companies which have to produce better products each year, hams are doing the same thing as 50yrs ago and feel less need for qualification to do so. Every 10yrs manufacturers produce a new generation of equipment for us to use, so it looks like ham radio is moving ahead, but how much better is today's ham?
Hiram would say "This is your father's ham radio".
The licensing scheme was an administrative and examination nightmare, with privileges that made no sense and a convoluted and inconsistent upgrade path for the multiple entry level licenses. At the time I was a member of the Laurel ARC in Maryland, the VEC for the 3 area, and I was told that the new scheme had arisen because an extra field was available in the FCC database for a new license level, but that the database programmers weren't sufficiently skilled to change the entries in the current license fields. Hams were being asked then by the ARRL to accept that the lack of skill in the govt database programmers presented an opportunity for hams far better than any we could make ourselves.
For several years the League commented favorably in QST about the large number of new people that were entering ham radio as a result of the new scheme.
Then without warning, in QST Sep 98, the ARRL announces that the Novice/Tech+ scheme has been a failure in bringing in new people to amateur radio. The FCC webpage acknowledges the administrative nightmare for examiners. The ARRL concludes that exams which can be passed by 5yr olds are failing to bring in hams.
The solution proposed, to lower the exam standards yet again, is the same one that just failed. That the ARRL was on public record accepting without reservations a licensing scheme 10yrs ago that was a path to failure, indicates that the process that the ARRL used to come to its public stand on the matter should not be used when re-addressing the matter of licensing.
The incentive licensing scheme introduced in the 50's in the US affected great changes in ham radio ("killed it" is the phrase I most often hear). Part of the discussion as to what we should do next should also include the various positions taken back then (including the ARRL's) and a re-evaluation of what happened and who predicted what.
That the matter of incentive licensing carries so much vehemence 50yrs later would indicate that people will also remember the consequences of the decisions made on licensing in this restructuring for at least that long. The ARRL has not made any attempt to reconcile itself with the people it alienated in the restructuring of 50 years ago. These people have since gone on to be amateur radio club presidents, teach in the VE program, construct and contest, are active in the community, and as good a ham as any member of the ARRL or its officials. These people will not have "that rag" (QST) in their house and are still around and making themselves heard. It appears that the ARRL is as little concerned for the number of people it alienates with the current restructuring as it was in the restructuring of 50yrs ago.
The position of the ARRL in the new scheme should be clear as to what stand they made, what parts of the scheme they did not like and why and what they did to try to make it what they wanted, for it will be remembered for 50yrs.
There is no mention in QST Sep 98 of trends in ham radio in other countries that were considered when making this 50yr plan. The ARRL acted in a vacuum, ignoring the international ham friendships that have been forged over the last 60yrs. Any leap to a new license structure that could be difficult to reverse, should include consideration of other countries and their plans for the next 20-50yrs. If they have similar concerns, then we should join in action. If they have different concerns, then we should see why our problems are not considered problems elsewhere.
Since the entry level exam for ham radio is already so low that it can't be lowered any further, the defining feature of the new licensing scheme is access to the Extra License. ARRL wants to lower the code speed for the Extra License but doesn't tell us why, what good they expect to come of it and why lowering the code speed is better than maintaining or increasing it. The ARRL should give the results of their analyses and surveys which lead them to this conclusion.
The ARRL is proposing increasing the technical level of ham exams. However no explanation is offered for why this would be good when previously the ARRL held that the opposite, decreasing the level, was good for ham radio.
The FCC webpage indicates that a majority of commenters (about 60\%) wanted the code speed for the extra license decreased and that the FCC is inclined to give hams what they want. (The govt does not ask the general populace whether they want taxes or their vehicles to pass inspection every year.) If you only allow a person to express their desires for the future of ham radio by allowing them to respond to one question, you may not get the information you wanted and the respondent may not have been able to express what was important. Control questions were not asked: do these same people want to lower the requirements for their own ham radio licenses or only for others? Do they think that their medical doctor should have been allowed to set the requirements for his degree?
No-one asked why people want to lower the code speed. Is it because
In the last 50yrs, learning CW has gone from an era where tape recorders only existed in recording studios, to the current era of readily available code training cassette tapes that you listen to at home any time you want to. It would seem reasonable then with the reduced difficulty of learning morse code to consider increasing the code speed requirements.
The article in QST, Sept 98, and the web page at http:www.arrl.org, proposes a restructuring of amateur radio licensing to address several issues:
The ARRL does not see the accumulated experience or resources of such a group, or the connections available within the community, built by people who have lived and worked together for a lifetime, as an asset. These people are a direct asset to the community and can seed ham radio back into the younger generation. I spent my younger years in youth groups (e.g. Scouts) devoid of experienced, knowledgable adults and learnt electronics on my own. Now that I'm in a group of people (older, experienced) with access to resources unavailable in my youth, the ARRL tells me that this is a problem, not an asset to ham radio.
The ARRL did not offer any support for the position. They did not present an analysis of the cause of the aging of hams, nor any numbers/graphs showing the change ages of hams over the last 40yrs, alongside comparable socio-economics groups in the rest of the population. The average ago for amateur astronomers, home machinists, private pilots or members of some other suitable hobbies chosen for comparison was not included. The ARRL then is prepared to chart a new course that will set the stage for ham radio for the next 20-50yrs based on this observation without any understanding of its cause. No evidence was presented that the aging of the ham population was connected to the licensing scheme put into place 10yrs ago, or will be cured by the next restructuring or that it indicates a problem within ham radio.
It is possible that the aging of hams is symptom and not a problem. The population of the US is aging too, but the US govt is planning for it, rather than rushing to bring more children into the population. The US and most of Europe dropped below sustainable birth rate (2.05 children per woman) about 1970 and are not expected to return to sustainable rate till 2030. In the meantime, the population will drop (unless countered by immigration) and the population will be dominated by older people.
(Nov 00) The membership of the Lions Club presumably is ageing too. What has the ARRL learned from the Lions club's efforts to be stay viable with an increasingly aging membership? Is the Lion's club even concerned?
Solutions from the ARRL included attracting young people into ham radio. Why might young people not be interested in ham radio?
An intelligent teenager who has an understanding of electronics at the level of a 5yr old would not be able to interact with their equipment in any meaningful way. They would not be able to change it or get it to do anything it wasn't already designed to do. It would just be another appliance with knobs that they could turn.
A teenager, with a 5yr old's understanding of electronics, couldn't build their equipment and couldn't afford to buy an HF setup. An HF setup would have to be given or loaned to them. The ARRL has no proposals for equipping the young hams that have been attracted by the easier licenses. There are no estimates of the number of people that would be attracted, nor for the number of HF setups are available for loan to teenagers (probably no more available now than there were for me as a teenager 35yrs ago). Most adults have problems assembling one setup for themselves in their lifetime. A teenager could afford a used Icom-2AT, but won't have a driver's license or car to put it in. They would only be able to talk, from their bedroom, to the middle aged adults, who hang out on repeaters and who they won't easily be able to meet. What estimates does the ARRL have for the number of teenagers who want to do this? A teenager in this situation will leave ham radio. Lowering the license level will not have changed the number of young people in ham radio, but will only further dilute the technical standard of others entering ham radio.
Learning electronics by yourself in high school, without any help is more than hell. You walk around for years with questions in my mind till you find someone to answer them. In the meantime you live with errors and holes in knowledge, which you can't check, because you don't have any equipment or tools to test your knowledge. The ARRL has no plans or infrastructure ready to help the new young people who are expected to arrive in ham radio after having passed easier exams than those of the present time.
Amateur Radio Trader (Vol5, num 3, 1st issue Sep 98,p 44) under an article by Gordon West WB6NOA titled "FCC asks hams to write their own ticket" has a photo of a ham showing a teenage girl how to press a mike button. The caption says "A 5wpm General code test might attract more kids into the hobby". The teenage girl presumably is one of the many people who isn't interested in the current codeless licenses, but who would be attracted to ham radio by a 5wpm HF license. But after she has mastered the mike button, who is going to help her, till she is financially and technically able to stand on her own feet as a ham?
Where are the photos of all the teenage girls who have made it as hams? Or woman for that matter. What lessons do they have for us? There aren't many females in ham radio. We could double the number of hams overnight without any restructuring at all, if we understood why women are staying away. We should find out why before we drop the code speed for the Extra in the hopes of more of them joining us. The advocates of restructuring are silent on the issue of women and are not expecting any to join ham radio because of the lowered CW requirement.
Hard to counter this one, since by definition all hobbies are non-essential, but since you can get all your information on the radio, TV, internet, newspater and you can communicate via a cellular, then you don't need ham radio. There must be other personal reasons for doing it.
The Sarex project is designed to introduce amateur radio to high school students. We've all read in QST the news of 2 hams, with consecutive 2x3 call signs issued just before the shuttle launch, being embraced as members of good standing in our ham fraternity. I was involved in a Sarex effort in Maryland where the audio would have been shipped to us from NASA by land-line, to be relayed the last step into the classroom by 2mFM. I had expected to track the shuttle with a yagi. I left the project not wanting to be involved in a charade.
The Sarex project has been well publicized, and has been going on long enough, that there should be statistically useful information about the number of people that have come into ham radio as a result of it. The numbers are not available in QST (are we just transmitting and not listening?). Does anyone know if high school kids are impressed by a 2m FM link through a HT to NASA? If no-one is keeping track of whether presenting ourselves to the public in this way is attracting anyone to ham radio, commensurate with the money and effort that is being put into it, then the project should be dropped.
To do anything that hasn't already been done by most hams in the last 50yrs, you need a top notch station. Most adults don't acquire one of these in their lifetimes. You can't build an SSB exciter in your basement if you are 15yrs old - you just don't have the test equipment. The same person would have been able to build an AM transmitter 50yrs ago and use a SW radio for receive and not be too much behind everyone else. This problem will not be solved by lowering the CW speed for the ham license.
Computers are cheap, there's lots of help, you don't need to spend half your life to get something useful to work and there's lots of parts. Entry level is zero in any house that has an old PC and internet connection is only $19.99 month. A used 486PC can be had for only a few $100.
Young people are flocking in droves to computers. Unlike building a set of EME yagis, which can take a year to design, construct and test, and which require accurate milling equipment, in the computer world, interesting or useful programs can be written in a matter of days to weeks. These programs will be incorporated into larger projects and the author will be part of a world wide community of people with their own web pages, who communicate daily about the project they're working on together (sound familiar?). No-one on the internet can tell how old you are. Computer parts that were cutting edge 2 years ago are free today. The same programs that are used in commercial settings (unix, compilers, databases) are free or else free for personal use. With computing as a hobby, teenagers have for free in their homes, the equivelent of the ARRL instrument lab that Zack uses. Computer nerds are tolerated or encouraged by parents who see a clean hobby and future employment opportunities with minimal inconvenience to them. A teenager involved a similar level in ham radio needs hard to obtain expensive parts from many different places, a workbench, tools to make cases and needs to modify the house to put up antennae.
How many computer games advertise "so easy a 5yr old can do it"? The popular game Myst takes weekends to play. One of the great educational problems is dealing with students who are bored out of their brains in class. People want challenges. How many of these people are we going to attract to ham radio and how much good-will are we going to create by an easy ham license, only to leave them to discover by themselves the height of the bar to do anything interesting and to discover that they won't have any help. These people have already voted with their feet.
The Intercollegiate Amateur Radio contest asked to be included in the results of the november sweepstakes. This contest was of long standing and organised independantly of the ARRL. The ARRL did so, but changed the rules removing essential parts of the Intercollegiate contest. On protest by the students, the ARRL told the students that if they wanted their own rules, they could go organise their own contest.
It should be no surprise, then that the lowering of standards 10yrs ago in the licensing scheme have not attracted young people to ham radio. The changes did not address the root cause. Lowering the technical level again now, will have no more effect now than it did 10yrs ago. But it will take away that part of ham radio that attracts the current ham and we will have nothing. We may as well be scanner buffs or CB'ers. Our social coherence will be lost. We will have thrown away our inheritance for a bowl of pottage.
When ham radio is designed for dummies, only dummies will be hams.
If the ARRL really wants to decrease the average age of hams they could
A couple of these people in every club would be a wonderful resource. Technical issues would be resolved in seconds, bogged down construction projects would start moving again, we'd be able to take our equipment to labs with network analyzers, noise meters and spectrum analyzers. Why are these people not in ham radio? K1ZZ didn't ask. We proudly hand them a copy of QST. They see an article on the battery charger of the month and another on constructing your own web page without understanding html. They can't get outta here fast enough.
If the ARRL hopes that these young people will stay in ham radio, then ham radio will have to be a hobby that is technically challenging. For suggestions see The ARRL 50yr Technical Program for Ham Radio".
If the goal of the ARRL then is to lower the average age of hams, they would have more success attacking the problem at places like this, than encouraging young people, for we know that these old people exist. The evidence about young people shows that there are none available to enter ham radio at all.
If we decide, after analysis of properly designed surveys, that all the young people, who could be interested in ham radio, are already hams, then what should we do? Dropping the entry level exams below the current standard won't get any more people. We could leave things as they are and allow ham radio to age gracefully into a quieter hobby with fewer adherents, in which case we would require and accept less band space.
Certainly a lot worse could happen to ham radio than decreasing numbers.
We could lower our standards.
Or we could do something else.
Ham radio trains people in electronics, communication and operating.
If lowering the entry level to ham radio cannot attract more people to ham radio, and leaving the situation as it is will result in a gradual decrease of number hams, then we should think about the effect of increasing the technical and operating level of those people already in amateur radio and those coming into it. The entry level could stay as it is, while the levels for the higher licenses could be increased. We would then have to take steps to increase the skills of hams.
One of the problems of teaching classes, to new and potential hams, is the poor foundation of physics that participants (including the teachers) received at high school. Many do not understand the elementary mechanical concepts of work, power, force, velocity, heat, pressure, energy (kinetic and potential) and more advanced topics like simple harmonic motion and resonance. Many are confused as to the difference between power, work and force. When faced with the less familiar electronic equivalents - voltage, current and power, instead of a light turning on in the student's head, they are lost. It is not the student's fault, but someone has to pick up the pieces if we want a technically trained populace. No-one would expect a person to start carpentry on a house, when they had never seen a saw, hammer and nails, nor would we expect a person who had never been driven in a car to learn to drive without considerable effort. Yet we are expecting people who don't know what a volt is today, to be fully functioning hams putting up antennas tomorrow. It won't happen, they'll leave or they don't come in the first place.
A story from another area might be helpful here. In the early part of the 20th century, book publishers were looking for ways to sell more books. Publishers were in it for the long term and the solution chosen was to convince architects to design bookshelves into new houses (previously bookshelves were not standard in houses). This was a gradual process - it took 25yrs for most houses in the country to have bookshelves and another 25 to produce a generation that had grown up with books, and now everyone reads. The restructuring of Amateur radio planned by the ARRL will have effects on this time scale and an equivalent effort should be started for hams with an eye to ham radio in 50yrs.
One way of increasing the level of technical competence of hams would be to arrange for electronics to be a regular part of the environment of younger people. This would be a 25yr project, like anti-smoking, various heart and public health programs like lowering cholesterol and the environmental causes. A shorter program would not pay off, but the results should show in 5yrs. When I was in high school, electronics was not taught because the boys who already had it as a hobby would fare so much better in exams than those that didn't. (If similar restrictions had been placed on those trying out for the football team, I would have been captain.) So teaching electronics has at least been considered in the past and there is no reason why it shouldn't be in the future.
The ARRL could produce educational materials suitable for high teachers or local amateurs who wanted to teach after school or evening classes similar to those currently available for ham licenses. It should be possible to produce a book to accompany "Now you're talking". It should include all aspects of electronics and not be pitched to Amateur radio. It should include audio, CD, tape and computers and fit into a student's life in the same way that Boy Scouts, soccer and piano lessons do. The ARRL would distribute these materials near cost and would provide training courses (say 1 week) for almost free at ARRL HQ at suitable times throughout the year, for the (high school) teachers of these courses who wanted a refresher or brush up. Students in such classes should be able to communicate with each other via newsgroups on the internet. Questions and answers from such newsgroups should be incorporated into subsequent editions of the teaching material.
Eventually this material would be transferred to the high school curriculum. In the meantime, the ARRL should send a copy of its manual to every high school in the country, every year.
The FCC has recently (1998) said something like "We don't want to be bothered with examining hams and registering exam results". The ARRL surrendered without firing a shot, presenting the new situation to hams as being this year's golden opportunity for advancement of ham radio. Is the FCC saying that they think that hams should not require licensing or just that they don't want to carry the burden of doing it anymore? The ARRL should have been able, with the consensus of hams behind an agreement of "what is ham radio" to say something like "We would like a year or two to set up new structures to replace the ones that you want to remove and we would like regulations to give authority to the new structures we set up". The new policies could then be subject to public discussion and ratification by hams. Later ham volunteers could step forward to assume the new functions.
If membership is an issue here, then the ARRL has repeatedly chosen to exclude the people who left following the restructuring 50yrs ago, and who went on to contribute to ham radio outside of the ARRL. The ARRL has chosen instead to look for ARRL members amongst 16 year old girls who haven't yet mastered the mike switch and are unlikely to contribute anything to ham radio before they leave.
Before starting the last membership drive the ARRL should have had available sufficient information about the 2/3 of US hams who are not ARRL members, to know what the ARRL would have to do to bring them in as members. We don't know why the ARRL chose to continue its alienation with the people who left 50yrs ago.
The ARRL has made no effort to discuss or clarify the matter of whether its concern for the decreasing number of hams is really about membership numbers. No tables of number of hams or number of ARRL members were presented as part of the ARRL's proposal for restructuring to its members. The proposed restructuring, for all we know, could be designed to save the ARRL and not ham radio. If the ARRL was faced with a decision which meant the end of the ARRL as we know it or ham radio as we know it, could we count on the ARRL to preserve ham radio?
The role of QST and the ARRL should be reconsidered. Being pitched at non-technical ARRL members living in the US, the name QST (calling all hams) is inappropriate. Having lived and tried to read QST outside the US, I found QST of little relevence to my idea of ham radio - designing, building and operating ham radio gear. It was only after I moved to near the NE USA that I met enough of the people who contributed to QST for it to be relevant. A better name for its current role would be "Calling all non-technical ARRL members in the US".
As the ham radio organisation with most membership in the world, the ARRL should think of not only what is good for the ARRL and US hams, but also hams throughout the world. These other hams should be consulted in the proposed restructuring. QST should become a world oriented ham radio magazine.
Indicative of the ARRL's approach to technical matters, in the column "Test your knowledge" QST Sept 98, question 8 is about moonbounce, where readers of QST are expected to know that amateurs have made this method of communication more than a laboratory curiosity. You would not be able to answer this question if you only read QST, as seminal articles on antennas and front-end design that were required to make moonbounce practical for the well equipped ham were not published in QST. The personalities who tirelessly worked to get this knowledge out into the ham population have not been acknowledged by QST or their efforts detailed, an opportunity lost to enrich the amateur community and thank those who have helped amateur radio forward. Even after moonbounce became practical, QST has not had articles about moonbounce to popularize it amongst the next level of hams.
A possible technical issue now in moonbounce is digital coding. Tom Clark W3IWI has been a popularizer of this topic and could easily be interviewed for an article in QST. Tom and others know how few bits are necessary to be exchanged for a valid EME contact, and the power level that would be necessary to exchange that information in a reasonable time (say 30mins). It's not a lot. In a paper at the 16th ARRL/TAPR conference in Baltimore Oct '97, a student project presented Viterbi code that would overcome the strong QSB present in moonbounce. If the ARRL was interested in furthering technical matters in Amateur Radio a pair of articles, one interviewing Tom Clark and the other by this student, with the code on deposited on the ARRL ftp site, would provide an impetus to those thinking about low power EME.
The efforts of Rick Campbell who has won awards for his series of no-tune converters has gone unnoticed in QST.
Computers are being used to help ham radio. Hams have written and sell programs that log contacts, calculate antenna properties, audio processing and satellite tracking. Much freeware is also available and it seems every ham or club with a computer has a website. Some of the bigger websites give free e-mail accounts to hams and host mailing lists. Others have databases of ham calls and QTH's (one of them knows where I live to within 100ft) or calculate maps or propagation conditions. Electronic entries are required for contests, where database engines calculate scores, deduct points for invalid contacts and print out certificates, saving many man-months for organisers. These contest databases are a potential gold mine for people wanting to study propagation or plan dx-peditions for subsequent contests. Computers are used for high speed cw meteor scatter (HSMS), a mode that is well established in Europe but which has only a toe-hold in the US.
15yrs ago the first programs to calculate radiation patterns for yagis became available (e.g. NEC). These programs were non-optimizing (you had to feed in the new data each iteration, unlike today's versions), and man-years of evenings were spent to understand how these programs could be used to make a better yagi. These antennas are the current generation of ham moonbounce antennas and they were ahead of the commercially available antennas of the time.
What role for computers does the ARRL see? An article (QST Sep 98, p61) about defragging the hard drive of computers with poorly designed file systems, a topic which belongs in the "10yrs ago" section of a retro-computer magazine. An article (QST, Sep 98, p91) on constructing a web page using platform specific commercial software (whatever happened to doing it yourself?) to write html, a language simpler than BASIC, an article which would induce any internet-able teenager to flee from ham radio.
What does the ARRL do with its data from contests, and various DXCC and VUCC awards? These are another gold mine, containing information about contact rates for rare gridsquares and almost anything you want to know about hams working at the edge of propagation and their equipment. This information exists because ARRL members paid for it with their dues, and because ARRL members organised the contests. When a member asks for this information, you find "privacy concerns" and that the quality of ham radio would take a dive if anyone were to plot the number of times a grid square was contacted in a VHF contest or if we all were to know which grids had and hadn't been worked by VUCC award winners. Professional sports people watch videotapes of their competitors for hours without any deleterious effect on the sports. Even people outside the sport are able to watch these tapes. VE3ONT who operated the Canadian Govt radio telescope for several years in the EME contest, handed out their logs so that everyone would have the best chance of contacting them. But the ARRL has declared that this would be the ruination of contesting.
What about beacons: everyone wants to know where they are - information about them are not not available in a standard database format. What about repeaters in the ARRL repeater directory - again private information. Contest scoring? Is it done with a database to crosscheck results? No the ARRL uses methods that Hiram would remember all too well.
The League ignores requests over 6 months for the procedures to change this policy (e-mail to K1ZZ on 15 Jan 99 about the "Most Wanted Grid" project and posted to various internet reflectors).
The ARRL however proposes increased technical standards for amateur licenses, in exchange for a decreased code speed. The ARRL's proposal (ARRL restructuring web page) for a technical program to carry us forward for 50yrs and to justify the decreased requirement for code speed, is that repeaters be allowed to repeat digital signals.
That's the whole ARRL techinical program for 50yrs. What if no-one cares about digital repeaters? (note: Jul 2002, it seems no-one does). I have the internet and I don't care about digital mode repeaters. I'm not going to use ham radio when a phone call is better and cheaper. I use ham radio to do what I can't do anywhere else. What if other technically oriented people don't care about digital repeaters? How many hams have been surveyed and see this as a path that will carry ham radio forward for 50yrs? What if this technical proposal fails to rejuvenate amateur radio? There is no backup. We will have sold our inheritance of competence in code, for promises of increased technical standards made by people who have expressed loudly that they have no interest in technical matters.
If the League really is interested in increasing the level of technical competence in Amateur Radio, in exchange for lowering the code speed, then let it first announce a 5-10yr program of increasing technical standards, and following public discussion and agreement about its success, the ARRL will request that the FCC drop the code speed to 10wpm. This will at least require rewriting all the ARRL manuals and making QST a well regarded technical magazine. New editions of the manual should only come out when a new edition is ready (5yrs is enough for text books, the ARRL manual should not come out any more often than that). The content of the manual should be put on the ARRL web site for anyone to download, edit and return to the ARRL. This should fix up the cloudy thinking and misconceptions in the manual. The only ARRL publication I've ever seen in a commercial electronics lab was the "UHF/Microwave Experimenters Manual". It would be nice if other ARRL publications were to be seen more frequently in these labs. After all we are the ones who claim to be doing the experimenting and good at doing one-off jobs on the cheap.
No matter how much the ARRL pushes community and emergency service, the heart of ham radio is the radio. We all like them and we all think they are great gadgets. Sure we'll find something we like doing to use them and helping some else makes the world a better place, gives us a pat on the back and another excuse to use the gear. But it all comes back to the radio or something connected to the radio. Ham radio is a technical hobby.
There is always CB for those who want to operate radios and not know how they work.
A neighbour, a CB'er, when I lived on the west coast, spent the late afternoons 1.5sunspot cycles ago listening for Australia on 11m and many days made contacts with single digit Watts and a dipole. I asked why he wasn't a ham. He shrugged his shoulders and didn't really reply. He seemed to have all he needed and was very excited about the contacts he did make. On a technical scale he was right in with hams.
With the progressive decoupling of technical matters from ham radio, there is no longer any real defining edge between hams and CB'ers, like there was in the days when a ham had to be able to show that he could design and construct the SKT. The ARRL then should look for ways that CB'ers and hams can work together on matters of common interest for our mutual benefit.
Flying has been taken over by large corporations, as has electronics. However private pilots fly, maintain, restore and occasionally build kits or design planes from scratch. A private pilot's license exam is difficult. Flying is an expensive hobby. The average age is probably relatively old if not aging, but is not a matter of concern at least to the point of reducing the licensing requirements so that younger people become pilots. I don't know if pilots share the same sense of camaraderie that hams do, but I would expect that the small number of plane designers and builders might. Private pilots don't seem to worry about a continuing need for justifying their right to fly when the commercial world would have an easier time at airports if small planes didn't exist. The country feels gratitude equal to that felt for ham radio for the contributions made in WWII by people who learnt to fly privately, but private pilots don't justify their existance on emergency operating or international friendships.
This field matured 40 yrs earlier than electronics. Working on cars is a hobby or necessity carried out by many relatively unskilled people at home or a reasonable paying but not particularly highly regarded job. There is plenty of help available in this hobby. You can buy manuals to show you how to do anything on a car. Among the genearl population, there are people who know how to work on cars and the people behind the counter at the parts store will gladly instruct you about anything you can't figure out. Even though no license is necessary to work on your own car, the level of technical competence of home mechanics is at least as good as that of hams.
In USA, home mechanics is a flourishing business with a viable portion of the economy devoted to supplying parts and tools to the home mechanic. In other apparently comparable countries (e.g. Australia), it is illegal for anyone but a certified mechanic to work on a car and thus the distribution chain for car parts is different and the populace is much less mechanically competent.
The success of home car mechanics in the US depends on the financial rewards at every step, from all the sellers in the chain through to the home mechanic who saves a bundle. Even the gas stations don't care, they already have more work than ever they can do.
The entry to car mechanics is a handful of cheap tools, maybe $50 and the practitioners are young. The financial savings are large - with the cost of labor that you save, you can afford to buy all the tools for each job. You soon have a nice tool set.
Amateur astronomers run the full gamut of technical skills with the best having detailed knowledge of optics and astrophysics. They don't have licenses but require dark skies to see in the same way that we need spectrum. With the Milky Way no longer visible in the night sky to most people because of light pollution, amateur astronomers are taking the first steps to being politically active.
Amateur astronomers are a hobby offshoot of a professional occupation in the same way that amateur radio operators are. The entry level to amateur astronomy is a pair of binoculars for $200 or a telescope which can be had for about $400-600. The price of real telescopes is in the $1000's and amateur astronomy is a mixture of young people, starting or who can build themselves, or older rich people who buy their telescopes.
Amateur astronomy clubs are active in the community, holding telescope building classes, helping with "Astronomy Day" exhibits at museums, where club members show telescopes, mirror grinding, astrophotography, give presentations on the origins of day/night, the seasons and eclipses. Clubs hold public viewings for interesting astronomical events.
Amateur astronomers have increased their technical skills and popularised observing. In the 1950s, amateur telescopes were large, heavy and non-portable. You saw what you got from the dome you built in your backyard (with the light pollution of street lights). Building a telescope was a lifetime's work. A good mirror had 1/4 wavelength error. Now mirrors have 1/10 wavelength error, are portable (you can do to a dark site on a clear for an evening's viewing and you don't even need a dome anymore). Large numbers of people have flocked to the hobby, many of them young. With the purchasing power of the large number of adherants, the design of eyepieces was revolutionised with the result that professional observatories now use the amateur astronomer's eyepieces.
Amateur astronomer's don't have an organisation like the ARRL, claiming to represent them.
From the photographs in Machinists magazines, all practitioners are well retired. Radio controlled aircraft modelers are a mixture of teenagers and well heeled adults who can afford to build or buy the more expensive helicopters and build their own jet engines. They have competitions, and meetings, design and build things and presumably relate to each other in much the same way that hams who design and build things do. Machine tools are heavy, expensive and require substantial resources (cement floors). A hobby machinist has to have a reasonable level of skill and commitment before starting. They have to know their equipment as it will be bought used. This is another hobby with a high entry level. Presumably the skill attained by the old practitioners is well valued amongst the other hobbyists. No-one in the hobby machinists world seems to be unduly worried about their average age.
The same thing applies for home gardeners, plumbers, house fixers, soccer coaches... Take any one of them away and society would possibly not notice the difference. But let's say the broadcasting industry gets all the band space it wants and there is nothing left for hams, legislation is passed so that only licensed mechanics can work on cars, licensed electricians on house wiring, licensed carpenters on house frames, private pilot's licenses no longer exist and agribusiness convinces everyone that home-grown vegetables aren't as safe as USDA inspected pink tomatoes, then we'd be a helpless populace who needed a "qualified" person to drive and cook for us. We'd only be fit to watch TV and we'd be reduced to the technical level of China where driving a car is a skilled activity that takes 2 years of government training. The question then arises as to where our car mechanics and house builders would come from - we'd have to bring them in from Russia on special visas for highly trained technical personnel.
The technical aspects of Amateur Radio then should be a selling point for the hobby. The average ham isn't any better at electronics than a private pilot is at flying a 747, but we should be allowed to continue to do it anyhow.
(note added Mar 00)
Much of the restructuring discussion has been in terms of how to make ham radio better able to protect its rights (via political clout) and to make ham radio better for each person. The result has been lowering the standard for licenses at all levels. An alternative viewpoint would be to ask what would make ham radio stronger and then to ask if you wanted to be a part of it. As an example, a hobby with a powerful political lobby is the National Rifle Association (NRA). What would happen to the political clout of the NRA, if in an attempt to bolster its membership
When the next foreign govt representative says to an ARRL rep at a WARC conference "you're just a bunch of appliance operators", instead of a humiliated silence, the ARRL rep could brightly say "Yes, we used to be like that, but now we're going for quality: we've instituted country wide training programs in physics and electronics, giving nice certificates for every 5wpm above the Extra level of 20wpm, 15% of hams have passed ARRL sponsored exams on subjects beyond those required for the FCC licenses, our hams are sought after in developing countries for training people in electrification and telephone installation because of their ability to improvise. The retired hams are an enormous asset: this is the 4th year that a group of retired hams has gone with the Peace Corps for a tour. Within our own community the technical level has increased and engineers who shunned us for a generation are returning and having fun. Junior Colleges are using our teaching materials and we give ARRL manuals to the libraries of high schools with students in our classes. We have sponsored 25, 1 week courses in developing countries for high school teachers to learn about electronics. We are consulted on text books and curriculum for high school science classes. The foreign rep would put his WARC vote for band space for hams and be asking for hams to teach in his country next summer.
It is too early to ask what levels of exams we should require for hams, when we haven't agreed what should happen to ham radio in the next 40-50yrs. I am in favor of increasing the standards of ham radio to at least keep in step with the progress that comes with a technically and educationally advancing society. I would like to see ham radio continue as a hobby which educates technical people and gives them an opportunity to do practical things with this knowledge. Whether we choose to do this through a 3 level, 1 level or 0 level entrance exam is not very important by comparison.
73 de Joe NA3T jmack (at) wm7d (dot) net
I have since received 3 bulk mailings inviting me to send money to the ARRL to save amateur radio and one saying "You Spoke We Listened". In Oct 00, I received another bulk mailing saying "We want you back".