Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Incentive Licensing System

In the United States, at least, the amateur licensing system has always incorporated multiple classes of license.  A full history of the system is beyond the scope of what I want to write for this article.  For most of the last few decades the FCC's approach has been to use increased privileges as an "incentive" to upgrade, giving rise to the name "incentive licensing system".

Prior to April 15, 2000, there were six license classes that could be earned in the incentive licensing system.  These were Novice, Technician, Technician Plus, General, Advanced, and Extra.  It's not entirely possible to arrange these in terms of increasing privileges, because Novice and Technician (both considered "entry level" licenses) had different, incompatible privileges: Novices had limited HF privileges but relatively few VHF and UHF privileges, while Technicians had no HF privileges at all but full privileges above 50 MHz.  The Technician Plus license had exactly the combination of the Novice and Technician licenses and was earned either by upgrading from Novice or upgrading from Technician.  The General, Advanced, and Extra licenses all granted steadily increasing privileges.  The big step then, as now, was from the introductory licenses of Novice, Technician, and Technician Plus to the broader General license, which gave access to almost all of HF; the only operating privileges gained with the Advanced and Extra licenses were access to small slivers of reserved spectrum in certain HF bands.  (There are other privileges gained by virtue of holding Advanced or Extra licenses, but those relate mainly to reciprocal operation, the Volunteer Examiner system, and access to shorter call signs, all topics that I will cover in later posts.)

In 2000, the FCC semi-eliminated the Novice and Advanced licenses.  Existing holders of these licenses would retain their licenses and the privileges associated therewith, but no new licenses would be granted in these classes.  That reduced the number of license classes that one could obtain to three (or four if you count the "Technician Plus" license endorsement).  The 2000 revision also eliminated all Morse code tests other than the 5 word per minute test, which remained required for all licenses except Technician. 

Subsequently, in 2007, the FCC eliminated the Morse Code requirement from the licensing system.  This effectively upgraded all Technicians to the "Technician Plus" license (thereby granting all Technicians at least limited access to HF) and finally made the license privilege grants strictly increasing with increasing license class.  As a result, there are only three licenses that one can earn at this time: the entry-level Technician license (with full VHF+ privileges, and very limited HF privileges), the mainline General license (with the same VHF+ privileges as Technicians and a wide variety of HF privileges excluding only a few slivers of spectrum in four of the contesting bands), and the "elite" Amateur Extra license (with the widest range of privileges available to any amateur).

The historical status of the Novice license still shows up in a few other places; there are a few privileges that are granted to all amateurs holding a "Technician-class or higher" license, which seems strange in the current context but is necessary because there's still some 10,000 Novice licensees hanging around.  The main privileges granted to Technicians but withheld from Novices, other than full and unrestricted use of the VHF and higher bands, are the privileges of operating the various "special operation" stations (auxiliary, beacon, and repeater).  Novices are permitted to operate stations in the amateur satellite service (space, ground, or telecommand), but the very limited VHF privileges of Novices make it difficult to actually do this.  For example, a Novice would not be able to communicate with the ISS using amateur radio (under his own privileges) because a Novice has no privileges on 2 meters or 70 centimeters.  (By the way, this is something I learned writing this post.  I learned, while studying for my exams, that one had to be at least a Technician to work ISS, but didn't learn the reason at the time.  I had mistakenly thought that Novices couldn't operate stations in the amateur satellite service.  That would be wrong; I had the right answer but for the wrong reason.  Novices may indeed operate stations in the amateur satellite services, but are very limited in doing so by their really rather limited frequency privileges.)

There has been a great deal of criticism of the FCC's approach to licensing.  For example, Technicians are authorized 1500 watts on just about all amateur bands above 50 MHz, including the microwave bands, and so a Technician could legally build a "catcooker" by constructing a 1500 watt microwave transmitter.  While this is true, it doesn't appear to be a serious problem; there is not a rash of cats being inadvertently cooked by newly-minted amateur licensees running around with ill-considered microwave transmitters.  Another common complaint is that the step from General to Extra is much larger than the step from Technician to General, but the privileges gained from Technician to General are much larger than the gain from General to Extra.  This is true.  There's not much of an response to be had to this, either; unless you're a contester, the Extra license doesn't give you a whole lot beyond the General.  Still, enough people go for the Extra (myself included), so there must be something to it.

Many countries restrict power levels, modes of operation, and choice of equipment for introductory licensees.  For example, Basic licensees in Canada are limited to (in general) one-quarter the power of Advanced licensees, and in both the UK and Australia Foundation licensees are restricted to using transmitters that have been commercially manufactured (as opposed to homebrewed).  While similar proposals have been made from time to time in the United States, none of them has caught root.  This is, perhaps, a consequence of the Technician license having been originally intended for experimenters who would have been expected to build their own equipment. 

I'm personally not that thrilled with the incentive licensing system as it stands now, but at the same time I've yet to see a proposal to replace it with anything that would be better.  There's not enough evidence that it's currently broken, so I supose it's not really worth fixing.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A03, T2C03, and T7B04.