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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 proclaims 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 such rewards to licensees in turn for advancing their personal 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.

   They may have been reacting to a brewing communal controversy. 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 applying electromagnetic compatibility disciplines. Not only did that come about, but VHF TV broadcasting has been curtailed. We may eventually find out whether or not the contemporary VHF users are compatible with our on-going transmitting practices.

   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. In 1983, those who had attained Amateur Extra Class were called upon to design and assemble our initial volunteer examiner system.

   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.

   As it turned out, additional frequency access apparently was not the primary incentive for which the upgrading advocates were aiming. The incentive that made it eventually catch on was the peer pressure evolving from the class-related call sign systems. The tipoff is when claims are made such as: “I like my call sign. I already know all that I want to know about ham radio. No upgrading for ME!” (Translation: I refuse to memorize the answers to any more of the VEs’ meaningless questions.)

Q. Is incentive licensing still with us?

A. There are two artifacts still with us. There is the three operator class ascending license structure artifact: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. Then there is our VEs’ examination momentum. Although Section 97.503 simply requires the examinations to be such as to prove the examinee possesses the operational and technical qualifications required to perform properly the duties of an amateur service licensee commensurate with the privileges authorized to the class of operator license, our VEs seem to be caught up in a 1967 time-warp. It is downright illogical, for example, to hold that the Section 97.105 control operator of an amateur station transmitting USB phone on 28.55 MHz must possess significantly more operational and technical qualifications that the Section 97.105 control operator of an identical amateur station transmitting USB phone on nearby 28.45 MHz.

Q. So what?

A. It brings about the unjustified burden of unnecessary answer memorization by those who have proven their possession of the operational and technical qualifications required to perform properly the duties of an amateur service licensee. It unnecessarily burdens our Section 97.509 administering VEs. It burdens our regulator with pointless tinkering with its ULS simply to chronicle that some hams have memorized a few more answers to unnecessary questions.

   Our Section 97.507 preparing VEs should prepare their questions based strictly on the operational and technical qualifications required to perform properly the duties of an amateur service licensee commensurate with each class of operator license. With half of our U.S. amateur service community content with stuck at Technician Operator class, more appropriate Element 3 and Element 4 examinations would remove the road block.

Q. But doing so would mean that the General and Extra exam would be much easier.

A. Obviously. Our VEs’ Element 2 questions establish the operational and technical qualifications of the Technician Class operator. Assuming they have done this correctly, their Element 3 questions should accurately cover the additional operational and technical qualifications required to perform properly the duties of a General Class operator. Then, their Element 4 questions should similarly cover the additional operational and technical qualifications required to perform properly the duties of an Amateur Extra Class operator. This should result in more HF ham radio apparatus sales and the competition in the expanded market should lower prices.

Q. Has Section 97.1 been effective?

A. That has never been an official cease fire declared. There have been, however, no noticeable outcries about our ineptitude heard from those 1964-era military, legal, manufacturer, academia, and civil defense critics. Either we are now meeting their expectations, or no longer matter to them.

   In fact, our regulator reported to Congress that our amateur service radio community and the emergency response and disaster communications communities all agree that amateur radio can be of great value in emergency response situations. That value, moreover, could potentially be increased through cooperation among government and amateur radio emergency communications associations and groups to develop future training protocols.

   Whether our continued existence is because of - or in spite of - Section 97.1 is debatable. The issue, obviously, is no longer one of whether or not critics consider our hobby as fulfilling our nation’s needs. Increasing the ULS numerical listings, rather, is now our self-selected preoccupation. Amateur operator license examination preparation administration has taken on a life of its own. Building upon the work of our 32,000 uncompensated volunteer examiners, there has emerged a tangential commerce in publishing, distributing, retailing, training, writing, and other marketable services.

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 on 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.

   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. They were, obviously, ahead of their time.

  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. There are three times as many hams as when you were among us. Professional communicators are among 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 our amateur service community. Monitoring for violations is our responsibility. Our VEs determine what it is that you have to know to qualify for a license grant. The number of interests open for us to pursue is overwhelming. The trend is toward morphing into a social media where members of the general public make contacts.

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.    

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January 26, 2017

Supersedes all prior editions