What's the goal? Amateur Radio license changes

August 02, 2020

The ARRL appears to be embarking on a campaign to provide more spectrum access to Technician Class Hams. (It's impossible to find any mention of this on their website, but that's a different blog post.) This is the most significant and potentially game changing task the ARRL can take on as the biggest lobbying force for the hobby.

What's the goal?

Before getting into whether or not this draft plan is good or bad for the hobby, we need to ask what the goal of all this is. I assume the ARRL has communicated their goal somewhere, but again, impossible to find on their website. Do we want more people to join the hobby (growth)? Do we want more existing Hams to participate within the current framework (retention)? Do we want to maintain the status quo?

What do we want the future of the hobby to look like? Do we want to see real increases in participation and diversity, beyond the stagnant 1% annual growth rate? Or do we want to continue on the current path of a small, homogeneous, yet tight-knit community that we see today?

The current barrier to entry

The current license class system is an arbitrary barrier to entry. The chasm of privileges between Technician and General Class licenses is the biggest road block to both entry and regular participation in the hobby, and this is coming from personal experience. Halfway through my Technician class in February of 2012, I realized that the Tech license wasn't going to be sufficient to allow me to play around with digital modes. My entire goal of going through the Tech license class was to play around with JT65 on 20 meters. The Tech license wasn't going to get me there, and a General license class wouldn't be offered for another year. To solve this, I promptly started memorizing General pool test questions on QRZ so that I could pass both the Tech and General tests on the same day.

There are a lot of problems to unpack from that experience. License classes and test sessions, in general, are slow to come by. A huge problem in today's world of instant gratification and attracting younger members (I was 32 at the time). I missed out on a proper education around General operating technique and precautions because I simply memorized the test. On the surface, you could argue it's dangerous not to have the proper education, but I think what it really says is there's not a good reason to have General privileges walled off behind another license class and test. (I have neither blown up my rig, or been contacted by the FCC due to non-compliance of the rules.) The upgrade system is broken, either way. I don't believe most people would do what I did. In that scenario, I believe most people would give up on the hobby if they learned halfway through the Tech class that they would only gain access to a sliver of what's possible with a General license.

Big changes equal big results

The only way to both cultivate and increase the size of the Ham community is to widen the entry path. We need the interest and participation from more people or this hobby will literally die off in another 20 years. There's no down side to giving Techs more access to HF. The Tech license itself provides enough checks and balances against the airwaves becoming a Citizens Band situation.

If we want to keep the status quo of a walled-off community with a slow drip of new participants, let's keep doing what we're doing. If we want younger voices with new thought leadership and new technology ideas, and simply more people to talk to on-air, let's give Techs more room to participate.

I know a lot of Hams that picked up their Tech license and promptly put it in a drawer never to be picked up again. I bet a few more privileges would encourage them to take a second look.

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