Letter Re: Amateur Radio Licensees

Hello Hugh,

I’m a ham radio operator, and in my monthly ham radio magazine, QST, I saw a chart of ham radio licensees by year. See http://www.arrl.org/news/amateur-radio-showing-steady-growth-in-the-us. It is amazing. Take a look at the chart at the bottom of the page and observe the steep increase in licensees, after four years of decline. What’s the pivotal year? 2008! That coincides with the point in time many of us first took an interest in preparedness, coincident with the acceleration of the political decline in America.

It appears that SIXTY THOUSAND people have received ham radio licenses during the Obama administration, including several in classes I have taught. We don’t discuss preparedness so much in our classes, but it’s on their minds.

How encouraging that 60,000 new licensees are better prepared to communicate after SHTF and better prepared to rebuild our great nation! – CJ

Hugh Replies: While I’m sure that as the “preparedness attitude” increases with the general population, they tend to look at Ham radio as a primary form of practicing communications, but I don’t think it’s the primary motivation in the increase of numbers. Only about 17 percent of the U.S. population is concerned with prepardness beyond about three days. There is some ambiguity in those numbers, and they are hard to verify, so don’t take them too seriously. Personally, I tend to think that they are on the high side. Ham radio operators that I have spoken with feel that that is a good percentage number to use when speaking about Hams who utilize the bandwidth to prepare for communications when the SHTF. Most Hams that are involved in the emergency communications part of the hobby do so as part of an American Radio Relay League (ARRL) affiliated American Radio Emergency Service (ARES) club or possibly the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) or similar organizations. Their participation in emergency communications tends to be centered around government priorities– mostly local, county or state. For several years, FEMA has pumped dollars, not just into local emergency organizations like fire, ambulance, and police, but also support organizations like ARES clubs. The next time you are on a “field day” exercise, ask to see one of the local Ham’s “go bags”. What you will most likely find is an assortment of communication gear, connectors, coax, power wiring, et cetera. Very seldom will you see a “go bag” that is actually oriented towards survival. They are mostly concerned about having the right connector to hook any antenna up to any radio in the field. It is an appropriate bag for the goals that they have.

A bit of history here might help. Citizens Band (CB) radio was initially required to operate only with a license. As deregulation began, the requirement for licenses for CB radios was relaxed and the flood began. In the late 70’s Amateur Radio was booming as CB became congested and “unruly” in its operation. As pagers and cellular communications became common though, Ham radio licenses began to decline. Around the same time, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) came up with the idea of auctioning off spectrum licenses to generate income. The Ham bands, originally occupying what was considered unusable bandwidth, now was in possession of prime radio frequency (RF) real estate. The ARRL needed more Hams to justify to the FCC why that spectrum needed to remain untouched. Thus began the process of the removal of licensing requirements from Ham radio. The ARRL, as the primary voice of Ham radio in the U.S., worked with the FCC to restructure the system. Many changes were enacted, from the FCC handing the testing for licenses over to clubs, to the removal of the code requirements and simplification of the testing questions. I should also mention that the ARRL is also a private company that sells publications. They have a vested financial interest in having a large base of Hams to sell their publications to.

When you speak with an old-timer Ham, you will often see torn loyalties. They readily recognize that if those changes were not made, the user base would have declined to the point where there might not be such a thing as Ham licenses, with the FCC grabbing of spectrum. On the other hand, the license does not represent what it once did. In the 1950s and 60s, most Hams built their own equipment from scratch and had a full understanding of how it worked. Often, Ham radio was the pioneer on proving new communications techniques, like spread spectrum, digital, and slow scan. Today, most Hams buy their equipment and have a rudimentary understanding of RF (if any at all).

In any event, the result is that it is easier than ever to obtain a Ham license today. You can practice communications on a personal level and in real or simulated events, if you are part of an ARES organization. Some times local governments don’t even deal with ARES (due to legal questions in activating them), and they just want individual Hams to participate in their organization. Regardless of the reason for the increase in the number of Hams, we should take advantage of the opportunity and license now, so we can be practicing prepardness communications.

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