Incentives and Licensing

Jeff Davis, KE9V, wrote in his weekly letter, Quintessence, about something we’ve all heard on the air, the roundtable discussing and lamenting about those who are not real hams.  He posits this is one unintended consequence of incentive licensing, where new amateurs tend to stay on repeaters and not upgrade to acquire HF band privileges, creating this us and them mentality.  Newbies will always be on repeaters and the real hams are on HF.

Incentive licensing was introduced in 1964 by the ARRL and FCC.  I got my ticket as a teenager in 1984, but I don’t recall hearing the term incentive licensing or angst about it until perhaps ten years ago.  It never really occurred to me that there was something before incentive licensing in amateur radio.  It was always what I knew amateur radio to be, even when I was a budding radio artisan in the 70s.  License classes were an integral part of amateur radio, much like color television is in every living room today.

The original motivation behind incentive licensing was to get amateurs to increase their knowledge and skill.  While in theory it makes sense, in practice I don’t think it’s been very effective.  Today you can find Extras who are, well, quite simply, numbskulls.  While the exams can test for specific isolated technical tidbits, they never were able to test for operating skills, uncover deep understanding of topics, or examine practical skills like soldering a connnector.  Some would argue the CW exam tested for operating skill, but in reality it didn’t.  It tested operators copying CW for a certain period of time but didn’t really test whether they could copy weak signals, send code, or have a QSO.  It certainly didn’t test whether they were proficient operators or good and wholesome people.  A review of FCC enforcement actions and on air monitoring in which violators and LIDs most often are code tested Extras provides empirical evidence that exams and incentive licensing aren’t always effective at determining good operators or weeding out those guys.

Over the years I’ve found that license class has little to do with the technical proficiency of amateurs.  The biggest factor I’ve found has been professional experience and formal education.  The most technically astute amateurs are, ironically, professionals in telecommunications, electronics, and engineering.  Often these folks have access to equipment and resources that let them expand their knowledge, and amateur radio is a secondary technical endeavor.  The best of these folks seed the rest of the amateur radio community with technical know how.

Personally I’ve found passing amateur radio exams to be trivial.  While I’m a telecommunications professional with some schooling in electronics, I’ve thought tests were fairly easy to pass with just simple question memorization and very little, if any, technical study.  I’m not saying I didn’t know the material.  I could draw a bipolar transistor amplifier circuit from memory and do the calculations on a whiteboard or explain modulation.  Passing a test was merely an inconvenient formality.  Advancing my knowledge and skills in amateur radio has never been driven by a test or advancing in license class, like the original intent of incentive licensing.  It certainly wasn’t driven by getting an extra 20 kHz of space on 20 meters at the time.  Increasing knowledge has been triggered by my interests.  I really got into CW when I saw others using it and saw how quickly and efficiently QSOs could be had, not because I had to pass a 20 WPM test.  I took up rig building when I saw others making simple rigs from 2N2222s and it seemed cool.  I’m exploring satellites now because I find relaying a radio signal through a little box orbiting the Earth intriguing.

If incentive licensing isn’t really motivating amateurs to learn more and increase their skills, what purpose does it serve, other than supporting a needless hierarchy, one implemented back when post-war middle-agers and old codgers were bucking free love and turn on, tune in, drop out?  I think incentive licensing in the US has outlived its usefulness, and it’s perhaps time to eliminate it — one test and license class to rule them all.  What is the worst that could happen, someone new won’t be destined for that local repeater and its accompanying unfair stereotypes, and will instead make a QSO on HF, perhaps get interested in CW, build a rig, and then work through satellites or do moonbounce…and become… the proverbial real ham?  

7 thoughts on “Incentives and Licensing

  1. Well, back when it was implemented, it did serve a purpose.

    FM and repeaters were still a decade or more away, satellites were difficult to track so you could work them, and “digital” usually meant giving somebody the bird.

    HF was The Only Game In Town, and if you wanted to work the hard DX, you had to have access to the Advanced and Extra portions of the band. Many people were quite happy to upgrade from Novice to General, and only the more serious types would study for the Advanced and Extra exams.

    They guys who explored VHF/UHF and above would have done it regardless of license class, and the CW guys were just happy to use CW, and didn’t give a hoot about phone or any of the other modes.

    I found my Advanced written exam to be much harder than the Extra, but the Extra had the additional requirement of 20wpm code, which stalled me for years.

    And I totally agree with you about the license level and technical skill of individual Hams. I know Extra class licensees that will grab a hot soldering iron by the wrong end, are out-and-out LIDS on the air, and I wonder what they even “get” out of Amateur radio. I also know many Technician class licensees that are so far ahead of most Hams that you wonder why they even bother with Amateur Radio.

    I also feel that the current exams have been really dumbed down to the point that you really don’t need to know or understand any of the questions; just have a good memory and you’ll get your ticket. I guess it all goes along with being “PC”, and trying to be “fair” to everybody. The end result is the hobby now caters to the lowest common denominator, and we have people on the air that feel they “deserve” to be there, when in Ye Olde Days, you had to earn the privilege to use the spectrum.

    1. Hi Jim. Believe me, I’d love to make the tests much more thorough and a challenging. However, I don’t think it would serve amateur radio well. I don’t want to go into the usual list of why amateur radio sometimes struggles recruiting new people these days, but I think harder tests would aggravate this situation and ultimately be detrimental to maintaining numbers in the future. I don’t think it is driven by being politically correct, it’s just the reality of where we’re at today. If multiple test levels aren’t producing the desired goals and it’s not practical to enhance them to achieve these goals, what purpose do they serve? That’s the basic point I was making. 73

      1. Unfortunately I think I have to agree with you. I’ve seen this in many other hobbies that I dabble in. I used to build award winning static model aircraft, and all the modeling societies had the same cry….”HOW do we get young people involved?”.

        Same with model railroading, amateur astronomy, and many others.

        And just like most “technical” hobbies aren’t for everyone, Amateur Radio isn’t either.

        I see a great push into the “EMCOMM” area, and from what I’ve seen, and the people I’ve met, that’s definitely NOT for me. Maybe it’s different where you live, but out here in California, an awful lot of the EMCOMM people look and act like wannabe cops.

        Maybe Amateur Radio is past it’s “sell by” date, or maybe it’s not. I sure don’t know……..

  2. Once again you have written a thought-provoking post. In the spirit
    of FRIENDLY DISCUSSION I would like to make a few comments and
    ask a question or two.

    >>>Newbies will always be on repeaters and the real hams are on HF.

    Aren’t there hams who concentrate on EME or other less common operating
    modes? I don’t think that all of them are on HF.

    >>>Today you can find Extras who are, well, quite simply, numbskulls.

    Since when is this limited to any license class or anything else for that matter?

    >>>While the exams can test for specific isolated technical tidbits, they
    >>>never were able to test for operating skills, uncover deep understanding
    >>>of topics, or examine practical skills like soldering a connnector. Some
    >>>would argue the CW exam tested for operating skill, but in reality it didn’t.
    >>>It tested operators copying CW for a certain period of time but didn’t really
    >>>test whether they could copy weak signals, send code, or have a QSO. It
    >>>certainly didn’t test whether they were proficient operators or good and
    >>>wholesome people.

    It was always explained to me like this: The exam is designed to test if you have the
    MINIMUM knowledge be a ham. Passing the exam does not make you an expert, it only
    allows entry to the hobby. What you do after you are allowed entrance is your decision.

    >>>Over the years I’ve found that license class has little to do with the technical
    >>>proficiency of amateurs

    I agree with you on this point, although it applies to many areas, not just ham radio.

    >>>Personally I’ve found passing amateur radio exams to be trivial.

    The exam is designed to test if you have the MINIMUM knowledge be a ham. It is
    not supposed to be on the same level as passing the legal bar exam or obtaining
    an engineer license.

    >>>one test and license class to rule them all

    Have you looked back at the 1950’s and 1960’s? If I remember correctly, there were
    3 licenses. Are you suggesting we go back to that?

    >>>the proverbial real ham?

    What is a real ham? Ham radio has so many facets that you cannot say someone
    is not a real ham just because they are involved in a facet that does not interest you.
    In my opinion there is room for everyone.

    Thanks. Keep up the good work.

    1. Greetings. Thanks for your post. I wouldn’t get too hung up on my use of the term “real ham”. I personally don’t like the term, but you see it used a lot in amateur radio, and rather unfairly in my opinion. I would prefer we strive for well-rounded radio amateurs, where they experience many facets of the hobby, including different bands and modes. While some consider an amateur who uses CW to be a “real ham”, I would say someone who does only CW is not necessarily a well-rounded radio amateur and is missing out on a lot. The metrics many use for what is a “real ham” are short-sighted and faulty.

      You won’t get any arguments from me on numbskulls not being limited to Extras. My point was that Extras are supposed to be the top people, supposedly. I can understand a new technician not knowing much. That’s natural and to be expected. Someone with the same level of knowledge as an Extra isn’t acceptable, in my opinion.

      I’m suggesting we go to one license class.

  3. almost forgot. In the old days there were no volunteer examiners.
    Everyone was required to appear before the FCC to take the exam.

    Have a great day!

  4. After many (45) years of on-again/off-again interest in ham radio, I find that this whole discussion still leaves me with mixed feelings. I was first licensed as a Tech in 1969, because I had no interest in using CW. After literally years of virtually no activity, I started using CW on the low bands, and eventually got my CW speed up to 15WPM and got my General license, where I have stayed since 1983. People talk about what makes a “real” ham, and I don’t know that there is a single definition, but in my opinion, it is someone who has a predisposition to understand and use more than just the bare minimum of skills. I, too, have met many Extra class hams who knew nothing about how things actually work, and were content to use an HT on a local repeater. I have had people (other hams) ask me, “Why are you building that, you can buy it cheaper” when doing experiments, not understanding that learning how things work is part of what it meant to BE a ham operator. One of the purposes of amateur radio, as originally conceived, was to provide a pool of trained operators/technicians for times of war/emergencies. Radio equipment was much more “hands on” in those days, and radio operators were expected to be able to troubleshoot and repair the equipment. Nowadays, although EMCOMM has become more “visible”, the requirement for technically competent operators is much less necessary, as repairs are typically done by a shop, and defective equipment is just swapped out. I like using the radio, particularly HF, to contact people in other states and countries because of the satisfaction of doing it with just the equipment I have – not dependent upon another carrier. When I run the rig with solar panels and a battery, I don’t even need line power to communicate with others. That, to me, is what draws me to ham radio, with the ability to have emergency communications as a secondary bonus. I think that, regardless of license, a “real” ham is one who is in the hobby because of his/her desire to learn about technology and communications.

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