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BE Informed No. 1.10

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What Was

 Incentive Licensing?

John B. Johnston W3BE

Q. Just what was incentive licensing?

A. SHHH! That term is so tarnished as to best not say it aloud in polite ham radio conversation. It can evoke painful memories and outrage. Its intent resides in Section 97.1 wherein our regulator pronounces that its rules in Part 97 are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in five lofty principles, one of which is: (c) Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communication and technical phases of the art.

Q. So, what was the uproar all about? 

A. It began with seemingly good intentions. Ground was broken in 1949 with FCC Notice of Proposed Rule Making in Docket No. 9259. The subsequent 1951 Report and Order adopted rules replacing the former Class A, B, and C operator structure with our contemporary Novice to Amateur Extra Class upgrading pecking order. Initially, however, General, Conditional, Advanced and Amateur Extra Class operators all had full privileges.

   It became of serious concern to our amateur service community, however, some dozen years later when petitions were filed calling for frequency privileges exclusively to our higher-class operators. Their underlying premise was that there should be rewards such as to encourage licensees to advance their individual communication and technical skills. From that, the term incentive licensing was coined.

   The ensuing Notice of Proposed Rule Making in Docket No. 15928 cited statements from a retired Chief Signal Officer of the U.S. Army, a bar association librarian of a large city, the president of a leading electronics manufacturing company, a college engineering instructor, and a state civil defense communications director. They all deplored the low level of technical expertise within our post-World War II amateur service community. It proposed spectrum access and class-designating station call sign as incentives. 

   This was the era when VHF television stations were popping up all over the broadcasting landscape. The RF susceptibility of the early consumer TV receivers coupled with unbridled radiation from homemade unfiltered/unshielded ham station apparatus made for the perfect TVI storm. Consumer TV receivers and ham stations were both in for some needed advances in the application of electromagnetic compatibility disciplines. Not only has that come about, but VHF TV broadcasting has been curtailed.

   Many in our amateur service community consider the follow-on 1967 Report and Order to be a most unfair and disruptive regulatory overkill. It withdrew sub-band segments from the privileges of General, Conditional, and Advanced Class operators, disrupting long-established HF operating practices. Only Amateur Extra Class operators were spared spectrum access loss. Incentive licensing’s infamous reputation resulted from that upsetting meat-cleaver transition. Still another chop originally scheduled for 1968 was wisely called off. 

Q. What was the upshot? 

A. Some General, Conditional, and Advanced Class operators reacted promptly to regain their lost privileges. They traveled to an often-distant FCC Office and passed a high-speed telegraphy examination and another written test. Others resigned themselves – often irately - to their diminished privilege status. Still others just gave up ham radio and moved on.

   Our critics and our amateur service community during that tumultuous episode had little comprehension of repeaters, satellites, personal computers, internet, systems, and the other capabilities that we now utilize in our intercommunicating. Their know-how was CW/AM station do-it-yourself vacuum tube, piece part, soldering iron, analogue technology. Many innovating newcomers have since joined our amateur service community and have helped to make it even more purposeful. Although it has undergone numerous - and usually contentious - rulemaking, the radio service that began as a telegraphy-driven operator/tinkerer structure has had to reinvent itself – somewhat awkwardly - into our present amateur radio community.

Q. Who was the culprit? 

A. No one has ever laid claim to being responsible for causing incentive licensing. That tells us something right there. Those who had some hand in the movement were reluctant to talk about it. There was a lot of finger pointing and their accounts were often conflicting. There probably was not a bad guy. They were members of our Greatest Generation. They had been there from the very beginning of radio. They had seen it evolve from being a mere novelty appealing to mostly eccentric tinkerers into becoming a segment of life for many. They were probably seeking greater respect for our hobby. 

   There were two Commissioners in 1967 advocating for a grandfathering transition. In the Report and Order in Docket No. 9295, Commissioner Frieda Hennock joined with Commissioner George Stirling – the only sitting Commissioner ever to hold a ham license (W3DF) – in an unsuccessful attempt to make the case for no disruption.

Q. Has Section 97.1 been effective?

A. At least there have been no outcries about our ineptitude like those heard from our 1964-era military, legal, manufacturer, academia, and civil defense critics. For some background on this topic, read What Was Incentive Licensing? BE Informed No. 1.10.

Q. Is incentive licensing still the government policy?

A. Yes. Section 97.1(c) still says that our regulator has designed its rules and regulations in Part 97 so as to provide for advancing skills in both the communication and technical phases of the art. Various provisions consistent with this commitment are codified throughout the document. They are most notably in Section 97.301 where transmitting frequency bands are made available to amateur stations according to the class of license grant held by its Section 97.105 control operator, be it Technician, General, Advanced, or Amateur Extra.

   Caution: FCC amateur service licensees should be aware that our regulator has informed Congress that it has tasked our amateur service with an awesome responsibility. It expects us to provide an alternative to the commercial communications infrastructure impacted by an emergency.

Q. The most persuasive incentive for advancing one’s skills may be that offered by the Section 97.3(a)(11)(i) sequential call sign system.

A. Exactly. Therein, the call sign is selected by the FCC from an alphabetized list corresponding to the geographic region of the licensee's mailing address and operator class: Group A for Amateur Extra, Group B for Advanced, Group C for General, and Group D for Technician. Read sequential call sign system.

   A call sign, therefore, can indicate to listeners just how far the Section 97.103 station licensee has advanced his/her skills in the communication and technical phases of the art. Such recognition of one’s achievement can be a very meaningful incentive to an amateur for advancing skills in both the communication and technical phases of the art.

Q. Does that also apply for a vanity call sign?

A. Yes. Section 97.19(d) says: The vanity call sign requested by an applicant must be selected from the group of call signs corresponding to the same or lower class of operator license held by the applicant as designated in the sequential call sign system.

Q. In 1949, I had to dump my 10-meter rig because of TVI to Channel 4. It is ironic that - after 60 years of having to accommodate VHF television - the FCC scrapped that ill-conceived analogue system of stations and receivers. The spectrum it formerly occupied now lies fallow. In its place, we have available dozens of UHF high definition over-the-air channels that we rarely, if ever, view.   

A. The taming of the UHF frontier and the development of communication satellites and digital technology has made it all possible. The passing of VHF TV channel 2 was especially good news for our 6-meter enthusiasts.

Q. I disposed of my station gear and let my license expire because I was so outraged at losing frequencies when incentive licensing came in. 

A. Many agree with you that the meat-cleaver transition to incentive licensing was unfair to persons such as yourself. It is hard to accept that at the stroke of midnight on November 22, 1968, you and many other amateur operators were suddenly and deliberately disqualified from using certain segments of our HF band segments. Under an enlightened grandfathering approach, we would probably be very close to where we are today but without the agony of the dark days of the late 1960s – early 1970s. It would have been far less disruptive to have created the ideal operator class structure for new hams and allowed those already licensed - such as yourself - to continue without having to enduring such upheaval. 

   So, the actions that you and other hams employed to call attention to the unfairness of the 1968 method may have benefited us all. Thank you for that, but it was a very heavy price for you to pay. It is clear in the outcome of numerous rulemaking proceedings over the subsequent years, the lesson of grandfathering has been learned well.

   If you are genuinely interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest – at least part-time - you are welcome to rejoin our amateur service community. It is still the greatest hobby in the world. Don’t miss any more of the fun. The best may be yet to come. Section 97.505(a) requires our VEs to give you examination credit for your expired license. You will have to pass their basic Element 2 examination, but their exams are vastly more accessible than back in the day. You might even be able to get your old call sign back under the vanity system. No longer do you have to have in-service time before advancing to a higher operator class.

   Many changes have occurred while you were away. The trend is toward a social media for as many citizens as possible. There are three times as many hams as when you were amongst us. Telegraphy skill is no longer required. The technology in use today exceeds anything most of us could even envision back in the day. There is considerably more spectrum for our use. The examinations are now prepared and administered by volunteer examiners. Monitoring for violations is our responsibility. Our VEs determine what it is that you must know to qualify for a license grant. The number of interests open for us to pursue is overwhelming.

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July 15, 2017

Supersedes all prior editions