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A letter to the ARRL on the Restructuring of Ham Radio Licensing

Copyright Joseph Mack, NA3T, 1999


The ARRL (QST Sep 98) proposes a restructuring of the amateur license exams as a result of the failure of the last restructuring of the license exams 10yrs ago to attract young people to ham radio. A previous restructuring (1950's) of amateur licensing in USA is still a matter of bad feeling amongst those who remember it and has resulted in many from that era refusing to join the ARRL.

The current ARRL proposal for a restructuring of the amateur license exams has been done

In the following pages I give possible reasons for the high average age of hams and why young people might not enter ham radio and why technically oriented people are not joining ham radio, an understanding of which is necessary before any action can be taken to change the average age of hams. I discuss possible effects of moving the orientation of ham radio from a self-selecting and self-training technically oriented hobby, to a hobby primarily concerned with maintaining bandspace and ARRL membership.

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.


The requirements for entry-level licenses have dropped considerably in the last 50yrs and now 5yr olds have amateur licenses (a recent QST, not a April issue, showed a photo of a licensed 5yr old and a story about other licensed members of his school class). It is difficult to imagine that the average 5yr old ham has a sufficient understanding of ohm's law to measure voltage with a milliamp meter and a resistor or of the safety measures required to do so. This means that for any practical purposes there are no longer technical barriers for entry into (US) ham radio. The Extra exam is mostly administration questions and the most technical issue addressed in the amateur radio question pool is in a question in the Advanced exam about the Smith chart. There the question amounts to "what do you use it for?", they don't ask you to be able to use it.

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.

Some things have not changed in the last 50yrs.

What is Ham Radio

To function as an organised hobby, hams need to be able to differentiate themselves from people who don't participate in the hobby (=identify with each other) and to be proud of the difference. Currently (and historically) this difference has rested on

Technical Competence

The current level of technical competence required for ham license is low. The preamble to the question pool in "Now You're Talking" acknowledges that the exam can be passed by rote learning, but in its way of doing so ("Don't try to memorize all the questions and answers") insults the intelligence of reader who realise this is the only method for a set of questions based on theory which will take years to master and regulations that by nature are arbitrary. It would be more honest and give better credibility to the ARRL to say instead -

"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 Communications and International Friendship

10 yrs ago, most car breakdowns/accidents on the road were reported by hams. Now they are reported by regular people with cellular phones. We push ourselves as being a source of emergency communication, indeed a worthwhile service. We function just fine in train wrecks and other disasters. As time goes on the difference between a ham with an HT and an emergency worker with a cellular phone could become very small. I have worked in situations simultaneously with hams, the Civil Air Patrol and groups with CB's. The hams were more effective because of the better voice procedure and social coherence. In one situation where there were only a few hams, but all the participants in the event had a CB, the CB'ers were way ahead on communication and I recommended that in future the hams bring CB's as well. If the JC's or other community organisations bring cellular phones to the town parade and learn voice procedure they can do just as well as we can. People will all have personal communicators when they are cheap enough. We should not depend on emergency communication or community service as a justification for our existance - it may go away.

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.

How far have we come in the last 50yrs?

One of the reasons it's possible for hams to consider lowering standards for ham radio licenses is that we've accepted that hams don't need to increase their level of competence (you just plug this thing in!).

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 Recent Past - the last Exam Restructuring

About 10yrs ago the current Novice/Tech/Tech+ scheme was announced. At the time the League presented this as a way to introduce young people into ham radio and to bolster the numbers of hams, something that was needed to preserve ham radio (presumably ham radio as we knew it).

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

While I don't think any of these are reason enough to lower the standards for an Extra license, if the ARRL is going to give ground here, there are somethings I would rather give up than others. I have less problem with giving someone who can't be bothered learning code, theory and regs, access to the bottom 25kHz of 20m than having him declare that he has the same grade of license as I, who have put much time into mastering this material. What would be left for the Extra then if not that 25kHz on 20m? Pride, the ability to give exams, access to administrative roles in amateur radio, and the 2x1 calls which will become increasingly available with the expected ham population crash as the aged hams QRT.

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, proposes a restructuring of amateur radio licensing to address several issues:

The aging of the ham population

In QST Sept 98, this was viewed as a problem, without any explanation as to why this was a matter for alarm. No graphs of age-v-numbers were given to back up whether this was even true.

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?

This is a first attempt at an analysis of why young people are not hams. What the ARRL depicts as a problem, is a reflection of the well known fact that ham radio is not for people with limited technical, educational and financial resources. Nearly all young people belong to this category. Many adults belong to this category too - the uneducated and poor cannot afford hobbies of any kind - they are too busy trying to stay alive. The ARRL doesn't understand that you don't attract people whose concerns you trample or ignore.

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

young, rich, technically educated people

On the ARRL restructuring web page, K1ZZ comments on a plane trip sitting next to a senior electrical engineer who 45 yrs ago had been a ham. The engineer was surprised that hams were still using SSB and CW, modes from his early ham days, when better modes were available now. K1ZZ presents this as an indictment of ham radio (or the ARRL), but doesn't tell us what lesson he learnt. We don't find out why this engineer left ham radio 45 yrs ago and what changes in ham radio would have been necessary for him to have stayed, implemented and popularized the modes he likes so much at work. K1ZZ doesn't tell us. Didn't it occur to him to ask? There must be 100,000 technically trained engineers and degreed technicians out there who could pass the technical part of any amateur exam. Back when code was required for a license, many decided they weren't interested in ham radio. What are the statistics now that we have codeless licenses? Did any of these young people return to ham radio? Is the ARRL keeping a log? Would it be worth trading 10wpm of CW for a technical exam at the level of a college degree?

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".

stop old people from entering ham radio

The local 2m repeater club is composed largely of men who became licensed after they retired. I presume there some gung-ho person teaching classes, to bring them in, as their call signs are groups of consecutive 2x3s. They have a grand old time riding around in their vans talking to each other on the repeater and all seem to be great friends. Maybe they've known each other since kindergarten. The retired ones aren't technically oriented, but definitely enjoy being in this club. After the natural aging of already existing hams, these people and the clubs who encourage them to join ham radio, are probably the largest contributors to the increasing age of hams.

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.

Decreasing numbers of hams

The ARRL has not shown why a decreasing ham population is unexpected or a problem. We've had a 80-90yrs of a hobby where we were ahead of the general populace. Electronics research left universities at the end of WWII and is now done within the commercial world. Electronics is a mature field producing commodity items with decreasing opportunities for employment. It seems that computers provide the technical challenges and potential for a rewarding career in adulthood, for this generation's teenagers, that ham radio did, for us, in the era before it was repackaged as a non-technical hobby.

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.

Provide training

The main thing that ham radio provides, not available anywhere else, is education. Learning ham radio by myself out of ARRL manuals was hell. However if I had not had ARRL manuals and not had the opportunity to be able to exercise my brain by building something I had designed and understood, I would have had nothing useful to do with my brain during the long years of high school looking out the window. Ham radio was the sum total of my high school education.

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.

What is Ham Radio and what makes it good?

The matter of what makes ham radio better or a better hobby has not been discussed. The ARRL emphasizes service, this being a large component of the legal basis of ham radio in the US. Ham radio is a viable hobby in countries where service is not allowed. Some countries require the hams to be experimenters and be highly technically competent. The ARRL presents it as a hobby for 5yr olds. Is ham radio a better hobby if it has a large number of technically unsophisticated people with little social coherence or a small number of people who are highly trained technically and who know each other well? Which is more likely to be seen by regulators as worthy of bandspace? Since the matter has not been aired publically and the ARRL not formulated a policy, the ARRL is ill-prepared to handle the winds of politically and fiscally driven arbitrary changes in the regulations put out by the FCC, which affect US hams, nor is it able to present a picture of ham radio that is independent of the varied legal structures under which hams in different countries operate.

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.

ARRL membership

The ARRL has expressed concerns about the (decreasing) number of ARRL members and several years ago had a membership drive. Some hams, who would be otherwise happy to contribute money to the ARRL's efforts, find the magazine QST of no interest and would rather substitute QEX or the Contesting Journal. The ARRL would rather exclude these people from membership than to substitute QEX for QST. The ARRL's concession is to allow people members to not receive QST without any change in membership fees. I found their was no way of synchronising my payment for QEX with my membership subscription. My letter to the ARRL requesting to do so went unanswered. The official reason for the ARRL giving you what they want you to get, rather than what you want, is financial, presumably because the ARRL does not consider ill-will in their financial statements or calculating assets. (Note added Mar 00: the financial books of the ARRL are not open to the members. It is not possible to verify our employee's statements about the financial state of the ARRL).

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.

The Role of the ARRL

The ARRL has loudly declared (QST, Oct 98, p52 and many other places) that it is taking is a non-technical role in Amateur Radio. Technical matters are left to independent publishers, other Radio Societies (e.g. RSGB till they stopped publishing technical articles) or spin-offs such as the fitfully existing QEX (this has been true at least since my first ARRL manual in 1957). Indeed now technical publication in the Amateur arena is almost dead, with magazines that once published such things having folded or left to recycle articles from academics. ARRL has chosen lobbying and protection of privileges, at which I believe the League works hard, relentlessly and well. (Note Mar 00) I no longer believe that the ARRL works well on behalf of hams.

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.

Restructuring of the ARRL

In its concern for bandspace and regulation, the ARRL is not paying attention to the hobby it is serving - the members (and sister organisations in other countries). Perhaps in its concerns for the dire circumstances of band protection the ARRL has lost track with the wishes of the members. The League

I would like the ARRL to act carefully in the matter of planning the next 50 yrs of ham radio, and to not repeat the mistakes of the exam restructuring of 10 yrs ago or 50 yrs ago. The League should act after consulting members and other hams and not before

The ARRL 50yr Technical program for Ham Radio

The ARRL has not been a standard bearer for advancing higher technical standards at least since I have been involved in Amateur Radio ('50's).

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.

Hams and CB'ers

I've found CB'ers to work well with hams at community events. The people who are both CB'ers and hams who have written to ham magazines about the two different groups say that CB'ers converse, which they like and that hams have contacts, which they don't. They also don't find hams any better operators (at least in the sense of manners) than CB'ers.

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.


Without the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to image in what light ham radio will be viewed in 25-50yrs, but we should try. Some comparable hobbies that we might consider in looking to see what might become of ham radio might be: It would seem that by not capitalizing on the technical level of our hobby, we have tied one hand behind our back. It is as if we have a beautiful National Park, and we appreciate is for its beauty, but we forget that people can get healthful exercise and become self-reliant, independent and strong during long trips in the outdoors and so makes a better person to content with the vagarities of life. I doubt if home car mechanics makes anyone a better driver or helps the country in any direct way, but the confidence that comes from being accomplished in a field of one's own choosing is a good thing in itself and the competence gained will carry over into other aspects of one's life and work. When it comes to fixing something new (e.g. the house), a home car mechanic is faced with problems that look somewhat similar to problems already faced and he has an armamentarium of processes that work and processes known not to work, with which to face the problem at hand. So with Amateur Radio, a self regulating and self training pool of electronically competent people is available at no cost to the country except the small cost of band space. Possibly much of the community is not aware of the existance of these people, except that there exists a group of discerning purchasers of consumer electronics who help influence the market.

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

The same applies to ham radio. We will have little political strength if we present ourselves as a group whose basic requirement is an understanding of electronics at the level of a 5yr old, who can only operate commercial equipment and who have loudly declared our disinterest in technical training of our members. We would be better to take the route of political strength and on the side find a way to make room for those who have less interest in the technical side of ham radio.

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

Addendum Feb 00

I sent this letter to K1ZZ, who I've know personally for about 10yrs, in Dec 98. He wrote back shortly thereafter saying he would get back to me early in the New Year. I have not heard from him again. I dropped my membership in the ARRL after concluding that it didn't have a bona fide interest in fostering ham radio, only an interest in the ARRL.

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".