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?