Monday, June 02, 2008

Studying for your extra?

Got your Amateur Extra license yet? If not, well, you have until the end of June before the new pool goes into effect. Depending on your knowledge base, this will either make it easier, or harder.

Of course, the question pools for the licensing exams in the United States are maintained by the National Conferece of Volunteer Examiner Coordinators, or NCVEC. They periodically revise the pools to reflect changes both in the regulatory regime and in what constitutes "good engineering and good amateur practice". The Extra pool was recently revised, with an effective date of July 1, 2008. So if you're planning to get your Extra license and you've been studying up on it, move now or you'll have to learn new stuff; on the other hand, if you're not quite ready I'll be telling you below what you don't need to study up on if you're going to test after the end of June.

The Question Pool Committee (QPC) added 160 new questions to the pool and removed 228 questions from the old pool in creating the 2008 pool; the remaining 576 questions were carried through either unchanged or revised somewhat or significantly.

Removed from the pool are:
  • all the questions about the exclusive privileges of Extras;
  • one question about procedural handling of harmful interference complaints;
  • all the questions the specific details of the spurious emission standards (replaced by a single question about spurious emissions generally);
  • one question about ITU allocation practices;
  • one about license modifications;
  • one about sharing requirements in 30 meters;
  • questions about the definition of telecommand and the related questions regarding encryption of telecommand transmissions;
  • questions about the "teacher exception" to the prohibition on compensation of operators;
  • the "PRB-1" question (old E1B08);
  • several questions about station control (in some cases replaced by new ones);
  • all of the questions regarding alien reciprocal operation;
  • most but not all questions about RACES (you don't need to worry about the President's war powers anymore);
  • some but not all questions about the amateur satellite service;
  • most of the questions about the volunteer examination process (but one question was added about the minimum age requirement for VEs);
  • questions related to CSCEs for the Morse Code examination (which is no longer offered);
  • one of the two questions regarding the National Radio Quiet Zone (the one about beacon stations, not the definition)
  • one of the several questions related to spread-spectrum;
  • all of the questions that test whether one can correspond the letters used for satellite service bands with frequencies; these were replaced with a pair of general questions about the concept without testing the detailed facts, and one that does test the details of practice;
  • several of the questions regarding to the details of slow-scan television, fast-scan television and facsimile;
  • most of the questions related to contesting (but new, different ones have been added);
  • most of the questions related to packet and to specific digital modes;
  • many questions regarding test instruments and their uses;
  • three of the PPM questions;
  • several questions about receiver design and performance: two about blocking dynamic range, two about sensitivity, two about intercept points, one about selectivity, and one about IF filtering;
  • several questions about noise in mobile installlations;
  • three questions about direction-finding;
  • the question about surface mounting;
  • two questions about principles of resonance;
  • some, but not all, of the questions requiring the computation of resonant frequencies (and a few new ones were added, same idea but different numbers);
  • some, but not all, of the questions related to RC tanks and time constants;
  • some, but not all, of the questions involving phase angles; notably, the ones involving admittance are gone;
  • three of the skin effect questions;
  • all of the questions regarding the Q of RLC circuits;
  • most, but not all, of the questions requiring the computation of ERP given various losses and gains;
  • several questions regarding photoconductors and photovoltaics (replaced with new, different questions);
  • the infamous E6B17, which has the same answer for A and C and for B and D;
  • many, but not all, of the specific electronic design theory questions;
  • several questions about product detection in SSB and FM;
  • several questions about sine waves, square waves, and sawtooth waves;
  • several questions regarding RF amplifier efficiency;
  • all questions related to ITU emission designators;
  • the questions related to pulse modulation (replaced by two newer, quite different questions in the new pool)
  • some questions related to spread spectrum (replaced by new, different questions)
  • most but not all questions regarding antenna theory, design, and construction (notably, the four questions about "symmetrical pattern antennas" are gone).
In place of this long litany of deleted material, we have new material on:
  • safety, both RF and general electronic;
  • restrictions on operating near the edge of an authorized band;
  • the unusual operating restrictions in 30 meters and 60 meters;
  • a new question on marine mobile operation;
  • a more general question about spurious emission (as mentioned above);
  • a replacement question on Part 17 (antenna height and siting) compliance;
  • several new questions on third-party traffic and international communications;
  • replacement questions about station control, with more emphasis on the specific regulations regarding remote and automatic control than in the old pool;
  • new questions about the regulatory requirements that apply to repeater stations, auxiliary stations, and space stations;
  • two replacement questions about VEs (number of VEs required, and minimum age of VEs);
  • one replacement questions about spread-spectrum, specifically authorized frequencies;
  • one question about STAs (STAs have replaced modifications to some degree);
  • several questions about satellite operation practice (replacing the four or five that were in the old pool);
  • a few questions about the theory of fast-scan television and slow-scan television, replacing the practical detail questions in the old pool;
  • two questions about Digital Radio Mondiale;
  • several new questions about contesting, including one about "acceptable" use of spotting networks and one about Cabrillo;
  • several replacement questions about digital modes that are more theory-based than the removed practical questions;
  • several replacement questions about test equipment that may better reflect common uses of test equipment in the ham shack than the old pool did;
  • two questions about the -174 dBm/Hz noise floor;
  • several replacement questions about receiver performance that are more theoretical in nature than the removed ones;
  • several questions about noise rejection that are more general than the old ones about removing noise in mobile stations;
  • a few new questions about identifying and removing RFI;
  • several questions about digital signal processing, software defined radios, and digital waveforms;
  • one electrical theory question which I am pretty sure is copied from the General pool;
  • some new questions about semiconductors, mostly theoretical except for the one about the typical voltage of a photovoltaic cell;
  • a few new questions about RF amplifiers, including microwave applications;
  • some new questions regarding circuit design;
  • a few questions regarding multiplexing;
  • one question about JT65;
  • replacement questions of a more general nature for the removed ones regarding antenna theory, along with a few regarding antenna modeling;
  • several new questions regarding feedline matching that replace older ones that use terminology which seems to have fallen out of favor;
  • one question about Wilkinson dividers;
  • one replacement question on direction finding.
In summary, the QPC seems to have made the test significantly less mathematical, and has in many cases replaced the old math-heavy questions with questions that target whether or not the examinee understands the underlying principle at play. The regulatory focus seems more centered on responsible operation and on the limits of authorized operation rather than on minutiae of the regulatory regime that are of no pertinence 90% of the time anyway. And they've added an entire new section on safety.

I suspect that the new pool will be easier than the old one, but may actually force people to learn more information that they should know anyway as part of being responsible hams. There is, in my opinion, an inordinate focus on contesting, but I understand that for a lot of hams this is the main focus of their activities, so perhaps that is appropriate. And I'm a bit peeved at the inclusion of Digital Radio Mondiale considering the current patent and copyright status surrounding DRM that makes it basically impossible for hams (in the US, at least) to homebrew a DRM system without breaking some law or another. DRM relies on MELP, which is subject to a restrictive patent, and the DLL being used by most amateurs to implement MELP is actually pirated. And they got rid of some of the worst questions in the old pool, especially the symmetrical pattern radiator questions, which were copied from one of the old commercial radio operator tests and serve to test whether you've learned a specific heuristic rule of thumb having no direct relation to theory anyway. So overall I think the new pool is a good thing, but it'll probably create some difficulty for those who've been prepping based on the old one. Quite a bit of new material.

For a complete breakdown of the changes in the pool, go here.