Monday, June 25, 2012

Over and over again in various online Amateur Radio forums I read the same (elitist) lament from our "regulatory fundamentalists" how "horrible" it is that some of today's Extra Class operators need "hand-holding" to build such things as an ordinary dipole antenna.

To me, what's really "horrible" about such comments is that they reflect the myopic expectation that our licensing system is (or should be) the sole source of learning in our Service.  

For some reason, this nonsense seems to run rampant in our Service (particularly among our "regulatory fundamentalists"). Apparently, in the narrow minds of this crowd, once a newcomer successfully passes an Extra Class exam, there should be absolutely no need for such newcomers to learn anything else...and certainly not to (gasp!) ask "dumb" questions in online forums about "basic" things...like how to build a simple dipole.

Clearly, such comments are the amateur radio version of, "Back when we went to school we had to walk uphill both ways in the snow".  Or, more to the point, these comments are yet another reflection of this crowd's extreme displeasure at what they see as an overall "dumbing down" of the US licensing structure.

Unfortunately, the whole idea that our licensing system teaches us everything we need to know about our hobby is absolutely ludicrous on its face. And it always has been.

Indeed, if the material that's examined on the Extra Class exam is so absolutely ESSENTIAL for safe and courteous operation in our Service, why, then, are some 83 percent of all US licensed hams allowed to self-select themselves OUT of taking it?  

Or, to put it another way, if that so-called "Extra Class" material is so essential to maintaining a high level of technical competence (not to mention good order and discipline) in our Service, then it seems to me that only about 17 Percent of all US hams have now demonstrated their mastery of these subjects because only about 17 percent now hold Extra Class licenses.

Or, to put it another way, it would now seem that there are a whole lotta folks out there "dropping thru the crack"...and probably always have been...ever since the FCC hatched their stupid "incentive" licensing foolishness.

The bottom line here is that the Extra Class exam has always been nothing more than an "achievement" test vice an exam to determine one's mastery of essential competencies. That reality, in turn, makes the whole Extra Class nonsense an "unnecessary regulatory barrier" (to use the FCC's legal terminology) to full access to supposedly otherwise already qualified (i.e. General Class) applicants to the PUBLIC airwaves that are the Amateur Radio bands.

And, once again, it's THAT inconvenient truth that now makes the Extra Class exam systemically discriminatory (and therefore patently illegal to both maintain and administer) under a whole plethora of 1990s-era US equal access laws.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Some in our highly vocal "regulatory fundamentalist" crowd say that, "Nobody really knows the "average age" nor the "death rate" or anything like that of people in our Service. And we haven't known it for many years, because the FCC has stopped asking for birth date info."

The truth is that the FCC no longer needs to have us write down our birth dates on our application forms in order for them to obtain this information. 

That's because everyone applying for a new, renewed, or upgraded, FCC-issued Amateur Radio license these days must list their US Social Security Number (SSAN) or their FCC Federal Registration Number (FRN…an FCC-assigned file number that's originally based on one's SSAN) on their application forms.  And the US Government's SSAN database contains one's birth date.

So the FCC already knows how old we all are.... and so do the Volunteer Examiner Coordinators who handle all of our licensing paperwork.

Then there's the argument that, "We Americans are living longer and, more importantly, staying active longer than ever before. The 55-year-old empty-nester who gets into ham radio may have 30+ years of hamming ahead of him/her."

All of which is certainly true. 

And as long as we continue to have "55-year-old empty-nesters" entering the "pipeline", all might be well.  

But, on the other hand, how many youngsters of today have even HEARD of amateur radio, let alone tried to jump through all of the FCC's systemically discriminatory, 1950s-era "hazing rituals" just to obtain a license that grants them full HF privileges? 

Clearly, it's a fool's errand to myopically believe that by the time those same youngsters turn 55 that their expressed disinterest today in participating in all that systemically discriminatory nonsense will somehow miraculously change.

Then there's the same, old, worn-out argument that the…"growth limiting factor isn't the license. It’s other things, which are much harder to fix" that's at the root of the continued "graying" of our population.

Admittedly, the anemic growth of Amateur Radio (or lack of it) is probably due to a combination of factors, the least of which is the notion that instant, non-commercial personal communications via the Internet and cell phones have now become mainstream with today's youth. 

But, by the same token, continually placing "needless regulatory barriers" (to use the FCC's own legal term) in front of people that are not in any way based on safety or non-interference concerns and over material relating to operating privileges that have already been granted to lower class licensees most certainly remains a contributing cause. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Those who don't agree that our Service is in deep trouble over the long haul  counter those thoughts with the argument that our license totals have ALWAYS included Silent Keys (hams who have passsed on) and those who have become inactive for some reason.

All of which is absolutely true.

However, when you toss in the fact that, according to the ARRL, the average age of even our newly licensed hams is now over 50, and the average age of the rest of us was already pushing 60 the last time the FCC publicly released such statistics, it seems to me it's only a matter of time before our death rate outpaces our newcomer rate.

And it's THAT element that is present today in the statistics I'm citing that that wasn't in play when most of us were first licensed.

Unfortunately, nobody lives forever.  Not even me!

Some like to say that, "Despite my (your) dire predictions, our numbers keep on growing."

Which is also absolutely true.....for now.  

However, the latest overall stats I've been looking at (particularly those for newly licensed hams and "upgrades) indicate that even our aggregate "growth" rate may very well have peaked.  

As I've said before, I hope I'm absolutely, dead wrong on all of my "Chicken Little" predictions.

But, on the other hand, this myopic "all is well" attitude that sweeping regulatory changes to our arcane licensing structure in the USA are not needed so as to attract (and keep) many more youthful newcomers than we are now doing may very well prove to be our "Swan Song".

Only time will tell.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

There are those in our ranks who will tell you all is well in Amateur Radio using sweeping statements like: "Since 2007, the number of US hams has grown by more than 50,000. And that doesn't include licenses in the grace period" as "proof" to back up their case.  

What such myopic statements don't take into account is the fact that nowhere in those totals do we know how many of those 50,000 actually got on the air!  

Unfortunately, the REST of the story buried in such aggregated numbers is the fact that, according to statistics compiled by the ARRL and released at the 2012 Dayton Hamvention, the number of newly licensed hams in the USA actually PEAKED in 2009 (at 30,144) and has been headed downward ever since.  Specifically, in 2010, that number was down to 27,528 and in 2011 it was down again to 24,072.  

So, any way you cut it, the newly licensed ham tend in the USA is now very clearly headed in a downward direction.  And if you add in the numbers of "upgrades" to these newly licensed ham numbers since 2007, that aggregate trend, too, is very clearly headed downward as well...from a peak of over 50,000 in 2007 to just over 35,000 in 2011.  

My hunch is these recent statistics reflect a "pent up demand" of people who waited to get their licenses (or to "upgrade") until the FCC's Morse testing nonsense was (finally) dropped back in 2007.  But it would now appear from these numbers that that demand has now "run out of steam" and, once again, our overall licensed ham numbers are headed for the toilet.

The other number the "all is well" crowd like to continually cite is that the aggregate total of US Licensed hams is now at an all-time high....just over 750,000.  But even that number has now started to tip slightly downward in recent months as well.

However, here again, because our FCC licenses are all on a 10 year renewal cycle, all of the FCC's licensing statistics for our Service (including that 750+K number) were only completely accurate ten years ago!  We have absolutely NO idea how many more hams have died (or walked away from the hobby never to return) since then who aren't being accounted for in the aggregate license totals that the "Morse testing and Incentive Licensing Forever" crowd like to continually hold up as "proof" that our systemically discriminatory licensing system in the USA is working "just fine".

Clearly, if the "graying" of attendees at ham radio gatherings, the increasing silence on our bands, and the increasing numbers of "Silent Keys" now being listed month after month in QST Magazine are any indication, I remain firmly convinced that we are now (or soon will be) on the cusp of a steep decline in our numbers.

Or, to put it another way, everything I see, read and hear these days tells me that the numbers of newcomers to ham radio in the USA isn't growing nearly as fast as the rest of us are dying off.  

Indeed, as I see it, it's now only a matter of time before that fact also begins to show up in our overall US licensing statistics.

Monday, June 18, 2012

In various online forums related to Amateur Radio, I continually see posts asking the question as to when Advanced Class licensees in the USA will be "grandfathered" to Extra Class.

As I've noted in previous postings in these and other forums, there is virtually no difference between the operational privileges granted to any of our license classes that grant HF access in the USA (i.e General, Advanced and Extra).  

Rather, those differences are all based on granting more and more artificially walled-off slices of radio spectrum to those who "achieve" the so-called higher classes of license (Advanced and Extra).  But, even though the FCC eliminated all testing for the Advanced Class license nearly a decade ago, those who still hold an Advanced Class license can continue to renew it indefinitely.  

As I see it, there are several reasons why the FCC has been reluctant to "grandfather" Advanced Class licensees to Extra Class and, short of a GAO audit or class action lawsuit, are not about to do so in the near future.  

First (and foremost) such and action would completely undermine their so-called "incentive licensing" nonsense that was put in place in the USA's amateur licensing system over 50 years ago and which still forms the basic regulatory underpinnings of the entire Amateur Radio licensing structure in the USA.  Indeed, to now grant Advance Class licensees privileges for which they did not "earn" would be blasphemous to those Extra Class operators over the years who jumped through all the FCC's stupid "incentive" hoops in order to "upgrade".  

That action, in turn, would create unwanted controversy in the form of reams of letters to (and investigations from) various Congresspersons about why the licenses of or more of their constituents are being "cheapened" in such a way.

And if it's one thing US Government bureaucrats (including those at the FCC) wish to avoid at all costs, it's Congressional investigations.

Second, as there are virtually no differences between the operational privileges granted to Generals, Advanced and Extras (other than access to artificially walled-off slices of spectrum), then if Advanced and Extras are granted equal privileges, why not Generals?  Do also do that would then call the regulatory underpinnings of their entire "incentive" nonsense into question.  For, if all three of these license classes are granted equal privileges, where's the regulatory need for three of them?   

Unfortunately, to correct THAT issue would necessitate a  complete re-write of the "educational" basis and intent of the Amateur Service as now promulgated in in Part 97.1(c)...an intent, by the way, that has absolutely no regulatory basis whatsoever in the International Telecommunication (ITU) Rules  that govern our Service internationally. 

Clearly, the FCC is loath to "grandfather" Generals and/or Advanced Class licensees to Extra unless higher authority (or a legal class action lawsuit) forces them into it. For, in their bureaucratic minds, is far better to simply let "sleeping dogs lie" than to initiate changes that would create controversy and therefore add to their workload in the form of increased Congressional oversight.  

Or, more correctly, it's "better to let sleeping dogs DIE" as those who hold Advanced Class licenses are now dying in ever increasing numbers.  Indeed, if the risk-averse bureaucrats at the FCC wait long enough, this "problem" will eventually take care of itself.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Over this last weekend, Kate and I were once again in Dayton.  This time, our reason for the trip was to fulfill a request by the DARA folks to make a presentation about AMSAT to their June membership meeting.

I used a (slightly modified) briefing about our new FOX project that our VP of Engineering (Tony Monteiro) gave to the Dayton AMSAT Forum a week or so earlier.  As most of the DARA people in the room were working the Hamvention, most had not seen it.  I also set up some poster boards about our ARISSat project as well as FOX and passed out membership forms and our old (May 2011) laminated frequency charts.

Needless to say, both my presentation (and me personally) were well received by the some 250 persons present.  I was particularly impressed by their efforts to involve youngsters in the hobby as several of the door prizes they routinely give away were aimed specifically at new (or budding) youthful hams.

I was particularly honored to be presented with a lifetime membership in DARA. Who would have known when I first joined the organization back in 1977 that I would be so blessed?