Monday, May 28, 2012

Last weekend, my wife Kate (KB1OGF / VA3OGF) and I attended the annual Dayton (Ohio) Hamvention.

The Hamvention is, by far, the largest Amateur Radio gathering in North America, if not the world.  The some 500 volunteers of the Dayton Amateur Radio Association (DARA) do an absolutely wonderful job of putting on this yearly "granddaddy" of Ham radio shows, and my continual praise goes to all of them for the outstanding work they do in support of the hobby.

During the show, I could usually be found helping out at the AMSAT booth. But, occasionally, I wandered off to "politic" for AMSAT with some of Ham Radio's "movers and shakers".  I also spent about 45 minutes being interviewed by Ted Randall live on on his QSO Radio show. While I was being interviewed about my (and AMSAT's) various Ham Radio-related activities, the show was being broadcast over two international shortwave stations....one in Monticello, Maine (WBCQ) with 50,000 Watts of power as well as a new 100,000 Watt station in Lebanon, Tennessee (WTWW).

Clearly, Dayton offers Hams a chance to get "pumped up" about the future of our hobby.

But, all the same, while this year's Hamvention attendance was up some 20 percent over last yar (to over 25,000) the telltale signs of the eventual demise of our hobby were still very clearly on display for all to see.

First, the ARRL Volunteer Examiner Coordinator folks have published some recent data that clearly shows that the number of newly licensed Hams in the USA continues to decline from its peak in the 2007-2008 time frame.  While that decline is not (yet) steep, the overall trend is still very clearly downwards.

Second, while standing at our AMSAT booth, I couldn't help but again notice the overwhelming number of graying and balding heads (not to mention expanding waistlines) of the (predominantly male) attendees.  The number of people in electric "scooters" (the scooter concession occupied  fully one quarter of one of the large exhibition areas!) was at an all time high.  And, sadly, while there were a number of  "under twenty somethings" wandering about, they were vastly outnumbered by us aging "oldsters".

As I've said, because our licensing system is on a 10-year renewal cycle, I fear that we are poised for a steep decline in our numbers as time goes on.  And the demographics of the crowd at Dayton was simply more evidence of that notion.

Clearly, decades of "eating our young"...caused by our collective insistence on keeping such arcane "hazing rituals" as Morse code tests and stupid "Incentive Licensing" nonsense firmly in place LONG after they had outlived any semblance of usefulness...are now starting to come home to roost in the form of a continually aging (and dying) Ham population.

Or, to put it another way, it would now appear that we are finally reaping what we, ourselves, have very clearly sown.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Despite the fact that "incentive licensing" is such a failed idea,  we still have far too many in our ranks who share an "I've got mine so who cares?" attitude among those who fervently believe that sweeping changes to the system are sorely needed.

Unfortunately, that "fire in the belly" simply isn't there for enough people to make enough noise to their Congressional representatives and others who DO have the power to actually change things so that the next person seeking full access to our Service won't have to also jump through those same, baseless hoops.

That is, simply saying "let's get on with our lives" can't (and won't) change a thing!

And, unfortunately, it's THAT attitude among the REST of us in the hobby who see all that "incentive" nonsense for what it is...but who also remain unwilling to actually make enough noise to do anything about it that's now killing the hobby.

That's because more and more of those potential newcomers (mostly youngsters who are the future of the hobby) are now making a conscious choice not to join us as a result of all the increasingly meaningless (to them) 1950s-era "hazing rituals" they still have to jump through in order to be fully licensed in our Service.

I would also say that most of our so-called "growth" statistics that the ARRL and others keep trotting out to assure us that "all is well" in our Service consist largely of aging "boomers"...people who, for one reason or another (work, family, etc.) either were Hams at one time and let their licenses lapse, or who "always wanted to be a Ham" but things like the increasingly baseless Morse testing requirements kept them out.

As I've said in previous posts, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of "under twenty somethings" I've administered an exam to in the last five years.  And, believe me, since the early 1990s, I've administered a LOT of exams to a LOT of people...on both sides of the US/Canadian border!  However, even if you aren't a VE, all you have to do these days is to simply look around at the graying, thinning, and/or balding heads (not to mention the ever-expanding waistlines!) at ham radio gatherings to see where our hobby is currently headed.

The bottom line here is that our Service simply isn't attracting enough youngsters to keep pace with the number of us oldsters who are now dying in ever-increasing numbers...and it's THAT clearly obvious trend that will eventually prove to be our downfall if it isn't reversed in a big hurry.

I would also say that there's been a fundamental sea change in what motivates people in our society.... particularly younger people.... to become members of a closed, secret "fraternity".

When I was growing up...which was about the same time our FCC hatched heir stupid "incentive" nonsense for our Service...there were any number of formal, "exclusive" organizations one could join....DeMolay, Rainbow Girls, Eastern Star, Masons, Knights of Columbus, Eagles, Elks, Odd Fellows...and Amateur Radio.....in order to have one's ego's stroked.

We were a nation of joiners back then.

However, the days when exclusivity alone was a motivator for people to do whatever it took to become a member and then advance within the "secret club" are now also long gone as well.  This may help explain why most of those organizations are now aging and "dying|', perhaps right along with Amateur Radio itself.

We, as a culture, simply don't satisfy our "belongingness" needs that way any more.

But, what about the fact that the number of US Hams is at an all time high, you say?

What these myopic arguments (that are often trotted out by the "all is well" crowd)  fail to take into account is that population of the USA is at an all time high as well.  And, as I've said, nobody seems to want to talk seriously about the advancing age of the proponents of our hobby.

It is a fact that our average age continues to get older.  More and more of us are dying off, and more of the younger set are rejecting the FCC's failed "incentive" nonsense in favor of more readily available ways to communicate (like cell phones and the Internet).  And unless that trend quickly changes, the proponents of OUR hobby will continue age and die, despite the fact that the number of people holding valid ham licenses in the United States today is still far larger than it was in the 1950s.

What's more, even after almost 50 years of these so-called "incentives", I find it absolutely fascinating that the vast majority (almost half!) of those persons licensed in our Service in the United States still only hold a Technician license.  When "grandfathered" Novices are tossed into the mix, that number rises to well over half of all US hams!

If that fact alone isn't a stinging indictment of "incentive licensing", I don't know what is!

It is now painfully apparent that all those "incentives" have since proven to be nothing more than "unnecessary regulatory barriers" (to use the legal term for such regulatory malfeasance)..all of which were clearly designed to keep ordinary people out of the mainstream of our Service

As a result, planning for our future has now become an exercise much like "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic".  Such plans are all predicated on a growing and vibrant Amateur Service.  But, as I have said, right now, we aren't even holding our own in the "staying meaningful and viable" department largely because we have yet to figure out a way to attract (and keep) youthful newcomers.

The other bottom line here is that, in order to further "educate" people, you FIRST have to motivate them enough to walk through the door of your "schoolhouse".

Right now, that isn't happening because our failed, 1950s-era, so called "incentive" licensing requirements have since become a huge turn-off to younger people.  Indeed, for decades now, we have been turning our potential youthful newcomers "off" (and/or away) in droves....long before we've gotten the chance to even begin sharing the wealth of "hands on" knowledge that's present in our hobby with them.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The more I listen to the "Morse testing forever" crowd, the more I'm convinced their arguments have more to do with perpetually regurgitating ancient dogma than in any kind of rationality.

In fact, I’m now convinced that arguing such points with the Morse-testing-and-incentive-licensing-forever crowd is a lot like wrestling a pig in mud—after a while you begin to think they actually like it!

The truth is that requiring a Morse test for a full featured Ham license was a lot like having to know how to shoe a horse in order to get a driver's license to drive a modern day automobile.

Sadly, the Amateur Radio Service in the United States is now reaping the rewards of the ARRL’s and FCC’s decades-long underwriting of such "caste-like" garbage via their continued, highly discriminatory regulatory approaches to licensing in our Amateur Radio Service.

For, in their desperate attempts to keep the “riff raff” out of the hobby, the Morse-testing-and-incentive-licensing-forever crowd has successfully lobbied their willing partners in the ARRL and the FCC over the years to continue using Part 97’s blatantly discriminatory “incentive licensing” foolishness to turn off (and then turn away) thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of newcomers…the very lifeblood of our service. 

These are the newcomers who may have tried jumping through some (or all) the FCC’s stupid “incentive” hoops, but who, for many years, only managed to succeed in getting a codeless license….if that. 

And what did these new folks find when (or if) they finally got on the air? 

FAR too many were greeted with arrogant, condescending rants from the big-mouthed "Old Farts" in our ranks who've made it their life’s work to make absolutely certain such “lazy low life” fully understand they could NEVER be “real Hams” unless and until they also passed a stupid Morse test and then “upgraded” their licenses to something that was at least comparable in class (a.k.a.“caste”) to their own. 

Quite naturally, many of these new folks responded by simply "voting with their feet", never to be heard from again. 

And then there were the tens (hundreds?) of thousands more who listened to (or read) some of the vitriol spewing forth from the mouths and keyboards of this crowd and simply elected not to even try getting a license in a so-called "public" radio service whose arcane advancement requirements have, for going on nearly 60 years now, clearly enabled such blatant bigotry. 

Unfortunately, we’ll never know just how many otherwise well-qualified people our resident regulatory fundamentalists have managed to run off as a direct result of their arrogant, condescending rants.  However, all we need do is look at the advancing age of the licensees now left in our Service to see the overall (sad) results of their handiwork. 

As I've noted previously, several years ago (prior to such information being withheld from the public) the average licensed ham in the USA was approaching 60 years old.  It is most likely well north of that number by now. And, according to the ARRL, the average age of our newcomers these days is still up around 50.

What’s more, while the number of licensees in the FCC's database has been growing modestly as of late, my hunch is that the actual number of  active Hams has been steadily shrinking.  With the possible exception of 75 Meters (or during a few contest weekends) our bands are now virtually empty from end to end. 

As a result of all this, it shouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Amateur Radio in the United States is now dying a slow death from lack of activity and youthful growth. 

And, I firmly believe that a leading cause of that lack of activity is the decades long regulatory efforts of the FCC and the ARRL to keep Amateur Radio a closed, country-club-like radio service where ordinary (spelled “non-technical”) people of average intelligence and ability need not apply.

Indeed, in the extremely small minds of our resident regulatory fundamentalistsvarious “hazing rituals” (like Morse tests and "incentive licensing" schemes) needed to be forever perpetuated in our Service to make absolutely certain that only "gifted" people like themselves…that is…persons who possess far-above-average intelligence and who can also regurgitate increasingly irrelevant knowledge of complex radio theory (most of which now goes well beyond what’s minimally required for safe and courteous operation in our Service)…got to be “real hams”. 

But, in my mind, what is absolutely inexcusable is the fact that the ARRL and the FCC have been advocating and then underwriting all of this garbage for decades by continually falling back on their same, old, worn-out excuse that they (the ARRL and the FCC) are only advocating and then enabling ”what we Hams really want” when it comes to licensing and regulating our Service.

Unfortunately, what the FCC is hearing comes from the ARRL membership, which has traditionally been made up of only a fraction (today it's about 20-25%) of all licensed US hams. And (also unfortunately) it would now appear that both the ARRL and the FCC very conveniently forgot (back in 1967 when they crammed all that nonsense down our throats) that the Amateur Radio Service isn't just some private "country club" funded by member donations!

Rather, the Amateur Service in the United States is administered by a US Government agency (the FCC) that’s publicly funded with tax dollars!  And the frequency spectrum they administer (and which we Hams now freely use) belongs to all of us, whether we’re licensed to use it or not. 

As I've said, that fact also makes the FCC’s rules and regulations for our Service now subject to a whole set of 1990s-era federal equal access laws…some of which (like the Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995 as amended and the Rehabilitation Act) now expressly prohibit federal agencies from perpetuating blatantly discriminatory access requirements to federally controlled resources…like the Ham bands. 

Clearly, the ARRL and FCC got away with foisting all their “incentive licensing” foolishness on the Amateur Service back in the 1950s because laws granting far more open access to publicly funded services like ours to persons with multiple learning or other disabilities weren’t even on the radar screen at that point, let alone the law of the land as they are now. 

And the dirty little secret (which I'm sure the FCC's lawyers would rather we not discuss in public) is that the application of these laws has since become a mandatory federal requirement that must now be reflected in the rules that regulate all federal activities…including those rules that regulate our Amateur Radio Service.

By now, those same FCC lawyers are probably well aware that even a mediocre class-action law firm could make an open-and-shut case that the thoroughly entrenched way the FCC still regulates and grants access to frequencies in our Service (by license class and operating mode) has now become patently illegal under these new laws.

Specifically, those class action lawyers would (I believe successfully) argue that the entire 1950’s-era FCC "incentive licensing" system for the Amateur Service is now legally systemically discriminatory because it forces all applicants (disabled or otherwise) who desire even minimal access to the mainstream (HF) frequencies and modes of our ITU allotted spectrum to demonstrate skills and knowledge that are either long since outdated or that go well beyond the minimal required knowledge (as spelled out by the ITU) for safety or courteous operation in a Service...a Service whose licensees now almost exclusively use commercially built equipment of modern, 21st Century technical design. 

That is, continuing to test for complex electronic construction theory simply to “keep the standards up” (or the "riff-raff" out) has now become legally discriminatory under the US Code.  That’s because, under these new laws, there has to be an absolutely clear and demonstrable operational need  for every single test question placed on every single exam. 

And, because of this requirement, I also believe that leaving it all up to unpaid (and therefore “uncontrolled”) volunteers (i.e. the VECs) to collectively decide what gets put on which FCC Amateur Radio Service exam (and what doesn’t) isn’t going to fly any longer in the face of these new anti-discriminatory laws either.  

So, as I've said, unless and until these things quickly change, I believe those pesky class-action lawyers will also be able to (successfully) argue that the current way the FCC allows such discriminatory written theory examinations for full and equal access to all of our publicly-owned spectrum are anything BUT fair and equally applied across the board. 

Again, this is something these new US equal access laws also now clearly require.

Needless to say, I remain hopeful that when the most vocal of the "Morse-testing-and-incentive-licensing-forever" crowd finally die off, and/or the FCC does an immediate overhaul of their current incentive licensing structure (or someone with deep enough pockets finally successfully brings a long-overdue class-action lawsuit against the FCC’s arcane and clearly discriminatory licensing practices for the Amateur Service) perhaps things will change. 

But, regardless, I fear these long-overdue changes (if they do, in fact, come) will be far too little and way too late to amount to much because the mortal damage to the growth of our Service over the years at the hands of these self-serving regulatory fundamentalists has already been largely done.

Indeed, the FCC’s former Special Counsel for Enforcement, Riley Hollingsworth, speaking at a recent Dayton Hamvention put it most succinctly when he stated, “If there’s a downfall in Amateur Radio, it won’t be caused by the no-code Technicians or codeless anything else,” he said.  “It will be caused by the microphone---no doubt in my mind.”

And, unfortunately, there are still far too many self-serving, arrogant, FCC-enabled, "exclusive clubbers" in our ranks who, via their microphones (and keyboards), have all too frequently managed to drive away thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of budding young Hams with their arrogant and condescending vitriol.

That's because, such persons STILL firmly believe that people who…for any reason…were (or are) unable to pass a stupid Morse test or regurgitate reams of obscure (and therefore largely irrelevant) facts about complex radio theory are all “lazy low life” and certainly not worthy of full and complete access to their ostensibly “private” little slice of the public's radio spectrum. 

Sadly, as a direct result of the all-too successful work of such persons (and their willing accomplices in the ARRL and the FCC over the years) it would now appear we are well on our way to “exclusive clubbing” ourselves right out of existence.