The History Of Amateur Radio

This portion of my website was prepared with the help of Bill Continelli, W2XOY. Bill has prepared several articles in a series he calls "The Wayback Machine", in the hope to expand the knowledge of fellow hams, about Amateur Radio's unique and unchallenged history.

THE WAYBACK MACHINE #20    by Bill Continelli, W2XOY

In our last installment, we took a look at the new "dual ladder" licensing system proposed by the FCC late in 1974. In effect, there would be 2 parallel series of Amateur Radio Licenses, with 29 MHz as the Line of Demarcation. Series A covered the frequencies below 29 MHz, and included the Novice, General, Advanced and Extra Classes. The Conditional Class would be abolished, Extra and Advanced Classes received a power increase, the Advanced License would get access to the Extra phone bands, and Generals would lose power, frequencies, certain modes of operation, and the ability to be a Trustee of a Club station or a Repeater. Series B covered the frequencies above 29 MHz, and included 2 new license classes--the "Communicator", which would be FM only above 144 MHz, and the "Experimenter", which would offer all Amateur privileges above 29 MHz. Like Generals, Technicians would lose big. In fact, those who took their exam by mail (over 90%) would NOT be allowed to renew.

Reaction to the proposal was strong, but somewhat puzzling. Instead of a vehement output of negative comments from the 180,000 General, Conditional, and Technician Class Amateurs, (who stood to lose substantial privileges, and, in many cases, their very licenses), instead, comments concentrated on the "no code" Communicator Class. Amateurs were overwhelmingly against it. In fact, the Communicator License received the same amount of contempt and disdain that the "Hobby Class" proposal had received a few years back. However, while amateurs were debating the FCC Restructuring proposal on the air, and in letters to QST, the ARRL was unusually quiet. Why weren't they coming out with a position?

The answer, in a word, was "Incentive"--as in Incentive Licensing. The ARRL had learned its lesson back in the '60's, when it had submitted its proposal for restrictive phone bands. Now, before any response was made, the ARRL wanted to know exactly what the members wanted.

Thus, the League sent out a comprehensive survey to all 100,000 members. Fifty six percent, or 56,000 (myself included) returned the questionnaires. The ARRL tabulated the results, printed them in a multi page report in QST, and then, in the Summer of 1975, submitted their own proposal to the FCC.

The ARRL's plan kept the basic amateur structure that was in existence--but with a few changes. The League suggested a "Basic Amateur" License, which would provide limited VHF operating privileges. The "Basic Amateur" would not actually have to pass a code exam, but would have to be familiar with CW characters. The trick here, of course, is that once someone has memorized the letters, numbers and basic punctuation marks, they are at 5 wpm already. So, this wasn't really a "no code" license, but it did eliminate formal CW testing.

As for Technicians, the League once again asked that they no longer be burdened with the "experimenter" designation, that they receive Novice HF subbands, and that they receive full VHF privileges.

Generals would see their code requirement drop to 10 wpm, while the Advanced Class would be bumped up to 15 wpm. No major changes were proposed for the Extra Class.

Unlike the '60's, when the ARRL was blasted for shoving Incentive Licensing at the members, this proposal was met with overall approval and appreciation from amateurs.

In the end, although the FCC dropped the "dual ladder" idea, they did incorporate many of the ARRL's ideas into future rule changes. Technicians were mainstreamed into the amateur license structure, Novices received expanded privileges, to eventually include hf & vhf phone, and the FCC, after years of restrictive proposals, finally chose the path of gradual deregulation.

But the "dual ladder" story was not the only event of 1975. When amateurs weren't arguing over the evils of the "Communicator" Class, they were blasting the idea of Class E CB. What was it? In summary, the Electronic Industry Association, or EIA, proposed taking away up to 2 MHz of our 220 band, and turning it over to a new CB service. With 25 khz spacing between channels, the new EIA Class E CB could have as many as 80 channels. The EIA claimed that the 23 channel CB Band at 27 MHz was impossibly crowded, and worthless for local communication among legitimate users. Remember, this was at the time of the gas crisis and the "CB Boom". The EIA argued that a skip free area was needed for CB, and that the 220 band was underutilized by hams. The EIA's proposals, in fact were quite stringent and, had it not been for their unfortunate choice of frequencies, they may have received the support of the ARRL.

But, the EIA was trying to mix matter and anti-matter--in this case, amateur frequencies and CB. This had happened once before, in 1958, when Class D CB was created out of "our" 11 meter band. "Never Again" was the cry from hams. The explosion of protest from the amateur community was palatable. Amateurs pointed out that CB wouldn't be such a mess if everyone obeyed the Part 95 rules, and the FCC took some enforcement action. The ARRL stated that CB'ers themselves were opposed to 220 MHz CB--which was only partly true. The only CB operators surveyed were those who read hobby type magazines, such as S-9. They were opposed to anything that would take them away from the skip and DX zone into a tightly regulated land of local communications. Lost in the emotional shuffle was the logical point that CB did not belong in the HF spectrum.

In the end, with the strong opposition of the ARRL, and the indifferent support of CB'ers who really wanted to stay on HF, the FCC dropped the idea. Instead, in late 1976, the FCC expanded the CB band from 23 to 40 channels, and prohibited the sale of the older 23 channel units. This created a mini bonanza for hams, who snapped up the "obsolete" 23 channel units at fire sale prices, and converted them to 10 meters.

As a postscript, amateurs did lose 2 MHz of our 220 band in the early 90's. These frequencies are now in a no man's land, unused. Which is better--to lose 2 MHz to a service that hams and their families could use productively, or to lose it to something that is inaccessible--and doesn't even exist yet?

In our next installment, we will look at the war protest movement in 1970, and how it affected amateur radio. I hope you will join me.

Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY

All rights reserved.

These columns were originally written for the Schenectady Museum Amateur Radio Club.