Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Operator licenses, station licenses, and licensing-by-rule

The astute reader will, by now, have noticed that most of the recent articles on this blog have been related to questions on the amateur radio licensing exams used in the United States.  This one is no different, but I'm going to get to where I'm going a bit circuitously.  Bear with me here, there really is a point to all this.

In the United States, federal law (47 USC §301, the Communications Act) requires that any person who use a device which emits electromagnetic energy for the purpose of communications must do so pursuant to a license issued for that purpose.  The FCC issues a large number of different licenses for various different uses; the different categories of license are grouped into what are called "services", which is a term that itself derives from the international Radio Regulations, which govern radio worldwide under the auspices of the ITU (which I've talked about earlier).  However, some of these services include things like the Citizen's Band service and the Family Radio Service, which are commonly spoken of as being "unlicensed".  How does this make sense, given that the Communications Act requires a license for everyone who uses a radio for communication?

Well, the FCC has a clever way around not bothering with issuing individual licenses to everyone with a CB radio (which they used to do) or FRS radio.  The FCC declares that anyone (other than an agent of a foreign government) who possesses (for example) a Citizen's Band radio manufactured in accordance with FCC regulations is, by virtue of possession of that radio, "licensed by rule" to use it for the purpose of communications in accordance with the relevant regulations (in this case, Part 95 Subpart D, §95.401 through 428).  As a result, persons licensed in services which are licensed-by-rule do not receive individually identified licenses.

Amateur radio, of course, is not a license-by-rule service; amateur radio licensees are individually licensed and do, in fact, receive individually identified operator licenses.  And that's how we come back to the exam questions that I'm writing about:  Question T1D01, on the Technician test, gives a list of radio services regulated by the FCC and asks which one is issued an "operator station license".  Two of the services listed are "license-by-rule" services: the Family Radio Service and the Citizen's Radio Service.  The third, the General Radiotelephone Service, does issue licenses (the General Radiotelephone Operator License, or GROL) to individually-identified persons, but this license does not entitle one to establish a station, only to operate, repair, maintain, or adjust stations already licensed in some other service; such licenses must be independently obtained and maintained.  A GROL, or any other license under the General Radiotelephone Service, is an operator license only.

The amateur radio service is unique in that the license grant is a dual grant, both of an operator license and a primary station license, which is what the NCVEC is, somewhat inaccurately, calling an "operator station license" (the actual language in §97.5 is "operator/primary station license grant" and the NCVEC really should, but for some inexplicable reason did not, use the same language in the question as in the regulation).  So this question, as inartfully worded as it is, is really testing on whether one understands the duality of the license grant in the amateur radio service, and (for that matter) if one recognizes that the amateur radio service is, in fact, called the "Amateur Radio Service".  Not the best question, I must admit.  I have to wonder if it'll be carried forward into the next version of the pool.

This post has been brought to you by pool question T1D01.  Section references above are to Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations, browsable via the GPO Access eCFR service.