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The League is wrong on this one

I’m an ARRL member, have been ever since I got my ticket back in 2013.  And I generally support the League kind of like I support the NRA — I don’t necessarily agree with them 100%, but they’re out there doing the work I don’t have time to do myself.  In the case of the NRA, protecting the 2nd Amendment, and in the case of the ARRL, protecting amateur spectrum from being overrun by commercial interests.  Both organizations educate their constituencies and those who would like to be part of those constituencies.  Typically they do less harm than good, and to repeat myself, they keep a watchful eye on things I don’t have time to keep an eye on.

But the League’s new advocacy of expanded HF privileges for Technician Class hams is going a bit too far.

The League proposes to “expand HF privileges for Technician licensees to include limited phone privileges on 75, 40, and 15 meters, plus RTTY and digital mode privileges on 80, 40, 15, and 10 meters.”  Why?

“This action will enhance the available license operating privileges in what has become the principal entry-level license class in the Amateur Service,” ARRL said in its Petition. “It will attract more newcomers to Amateur Radio, it will result in increased retention of licensees who hold Technician Class licenses, and it will provide an improved incentive for entry-level licensees to increase technical self-training and pursue higher license class achievement and development of communications skills.”

Excuse me?  I thought that’s what incentive-based licensing was all about already.  You get a Technician license, rapidly discover (if you didn’t already know) that you’re limited to 6M and above except for a tiny phone segment on 10M and some CW frequencies on 15M, 40M, and 80M, and you’re supposed to be “incentivized” to study for and pass the General license exam so you can widen your horizons.  And then, if you’re really smart (or can study and retain the material long enough), you can pass the Amateur Extra exam and all of the keys to the amateur radio kingdom are yours.

The fact is, too many hams are stuck at Technician as it is.  Why would the League think it a good idea to expand their privileges rather than incentivize them to upgrade?  I’m living proof (even as an Extra) that you can get stuck in the digital modes for a long time without doing anything else in radio.  I don’t do code, I get tongue-tied on phone, and I’m not a repeater guy.  Plus I don’t have a lot of time to spend on the air, so I get on, make a few quick digital Q’s, and then I’m off to do something else.  That said, I got WAS in about a year mostly doing digital.  But that’s me.

If FT8 is such a big deal, and Technicians want to get in on the FT8 bandwagon, the League ought to be telling them to study up and pass the General — not giving them yet another excuse to put off (likely forever) an upgrade to a level where they have very nearly all privileges available.

Besides, what are they going to do with an HF transceiver once they get bored with FT8 and the other digital modes?  I mean, that microphone is just sitting there…and if you think they’ll confine themselves to 80, 40, and 15 meters, you’re dreaming.  I mean, the serious ones will (I would have), but soon enough, we’ll see the same issues across HF that we see now on the repeaters.  (As if we don’t already, but happily that seems to confine itself to a few watering holes rather than being spread all across the bands.)  To date, HF seems to have been less affected by that than the repeaters, for probably several reasons, such as cost of entry, antennas, etc.  But open up even a small part of HF to Technicians and the repeater abusers will undoubtedly come along — they’ll find a way.

“Now numbering some 378,000, Technician licensees comprise more than one-half of the US Amateur Radio population.”  OK — so tell them to upgrade.  But hmm, that isn’t the real problem, is it?

ARRL said that after 17 years’ experience with the current Technician license as the gateway to Amateur Radio, it’s urgent to make it more attractive to newcomers, in part to improve upon science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education “that inescapably accompanies a healthy, growing Amateur Radio Service,” ARRL asserted.

ARRL said its proposal is critical to developing improved operating skills, increasing emergency communication participation, improving technical self-training, and boosting overall growth in the Amateur Service, which has remained nearly inert at about 1% per year.

Then the ARRL isn’t doing something right.  There are lots of smart kids out there.  Almost all of them have computers (or at least access to them) these days.  There is so much going on in ham radio that uses computers.  It’s just another way to communicate without wires — and unlike your cell phone, you can talk to people on the other side of the world without having to rely on a technical infrastructure run by faceless corporations.  (Yeah, OK, hyperbole, and don’t get involved in DMR if you are looking for an infrastructure-free method of communications.)

Although, it’s possible that the ARRL is doing everything it can, but outside influences are preventing the expansion of amateur radio.  Fifty years ago, you could probably put up a 40-foot tower and hang big antennas off of it without causing anything more than maybe a little grumbling from your next door neighbor, or some bitching about RFI on channel 6 during Jeopardy.  Today, doing the same thing runs you into a maze of zoning laws and HOA rules and neighbors who know their rights and think you’re running down their property values.

Ground-mount verticals, stealth wire antennas, and even the suddenly-popular cobweb antenna might help solve that problem, but for the average new ham living in a HOA neighborhood, trying to get around the rules can be pretty daunting.  The Amateur Radio Parity Act tries to help, with a “reasonable accommodation” rule similar to the existing PRB-1 that mandates “reasonable accommodation” for TV antennas and dishes, but the Act is stuck in Congress and there’s a vocal group of hams who oppose it on the grounds that it constitutes an end run around HOA rules that you should have known about (and agreed to) when you bought your home — even if you weren’t a ham then and suddenly decided, years later, that you wanted to be one.

But these issues can be dealt with; join a club and use their station, operate mobile, use stealth methods and operate at night, whatever.  And they really don’t affect the ability to use the repeaters when you can put a J-pole in the attic or disguise one as a garden decoration or something like that, so there’s no real excuse even in a HOA to grouse that you can’t get on UHF or VHF.

No, I think the main problem is that ham radio has simply become overshadowed by newer and flashier technologies, and most people think of CB when you talk about amateur radio.  The reason for that is poor or (let’s be kind) ineffective public relations and marketing on the part of those who care.  And when I say “ineffective”, I don’t mean that the PR effort is either weak or no good, I mean that it simply tends to get lost in the noise.

For example:  During the recent natural disasters that have occurred over the past year or so, there have been some real gems come out, showing how important the Amateur Radio Service is during emergencies — particularly in Puerto Rico, but also in Florida and Texas, and in California during the big fires there.  But it doesn’t seem to me that this information got any major play.  It tended to get stomped on by the general human tragedy and the fecklessness of government, particularly that of Puerto Rico.  Because after all, ham radio operators restoring communications in the aftermath of a disaster doesn’t sell newspapers like stories about the suffering and deprivation of the region’s inhabitants, or stories about a corrupt commonwealth government that’s holding money and badly-needed supplies back from the professionals who can use them, to the point where FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers need to step in and be the adults in charge so power can be restored to the island.

The Force of 50?  What’s the Force of 50?  No habla inglés, señor.

If amateur radio can’t get a boost out of stories like the Force of 50, what the hell can it get a boost from?

I can tell you right now, expanding the privileges of the Technician license is not going to cause that many more people to wake up one morning and decide, hey, I think I’ll study up and get a ham radio license.  As far as privileges go, there is already so much that a Technician can do at VHF and above.  In the modern era, the one thing that really gave ham radio a bump came in 2005, and that was the FCC dropping the code test requirement.  People like me — who had thought about getting into ham radio for years — no longer had to learn code, and frankly, that was my big stopping point.  Well, that, and the high price of entry; we didn’t have the money when I was a kid.

There is no comparable “bump” left, short of dropping the testing altogether.  But at that point, we’d all become glorified CB operators.  Luckily, I think the FCC, while it would love to rid itself of oversight of the Amateur Service, would still find itself bound by the IARU agreements that require amateurs to be licensed by their government.  Frankly, I think that’s the only reason we still have testing, but the FCC already handed that part off to the VECs years ago, and don’t involve themselves in that aspect.

So, whither amateur radio, in a world of cell phones, the Internet, and satellite TV?

I mean, even a TV sitcom with a popular actor (who happens to be a ham) about a father and family man (who happened to be a ham) that uses ham radio as a major plot device didn’t manage to turn that many new people into hams, did it?

There are all kinds of celebrities out there who are ham radio operators.  Does that get the interest meter off the zero peg?  Nope.

So what I’m going to tell you now, after all that’s gone above, is that I don’t have the answer.  If I did, I’d use it to double the membership of my Scottish Rite valley.  And I don’t think the ARRL has the answer, either.  But I know at least part of the answer is going to involve a lot more concentrated PR effort than I’ve seen since I became a ham five years ago.  Ham radio just isn’t a piece of the culture like it was in the mid-20th century, when it often appeared as a matter of course in movies and science-fiction novels, and the Radio Merit Badge was a big deal in Scouting.  I don’t even know if it can be taken back to that level, and frankly, I doubt it.

But one thing I do know is this:  There is not a single high-school amateur radio club in any of the nine school districts comprising Marion County, Indiana.  And if you don’t get them young, good luck getting them when they’re older.