Backlogged, paralyzed, swamped, and overwhelmed. These are the words that described the FCC in January, 1977. The reason? Citizens Band Radio applications. The "CB craze" had started in 1974 with the first gas crisis. Fueled by top ten songs, TV shows, and movies, CB radio became an incredibly popular fad among the public in the days before computers, the internet, cable TV, or cellular phones. Prior to the gas crisis, the licensed CB population had stabilized at 800,000. Now, over 500,000 applications per month poured into the FCC Gettysburg Office. The peak was reached in January, when one million applications came in. By the end of 1977, over 10 million CB licenses were issued.
The explosive growth in 11 meter activity, coupled with the unresolved "Class E CB" issue, caused increased friction between CB'ers and hams. The ARRL was still fighting the proposed reallocation of 2 MHz in our 220 band to Class E. Instead, the League suggested a new CB band at 900 MHz. Then, on April 4, 1977, the Class E fight was thrust into the public spotlight. Jack Anderson, in his nationally syndicated column, charged that the FCC was staffed by "Ham Henchmen", who conspired with the 300,000 amateurs to keep 9 million CB'ers from getting expanded frequencies. The ARRL, along with dozens of hams, sent rebuttals to the media. The friction gradually subsided when the FCC announced the 27 MHz CB band would be expanded from 23 to 40 channels. The Class E question was settled on October 13, 1977, when the FCC dropped the idea. Our 220 band was safe--for now.
Ironically, the United States lost $200,000,000 on the CB boom. How? Well, late in 1976, a Federal Court overturned the FCC's license fee structure. Rather than appeal the decision and/or overhaul their fee assessment procedure, the FCC suspended collection of all license fees, effective January 1, 1977. A Class D CB license cost $20; you can do the math. Incidentally, amateurs benefited from the license fee suspension. A new or renewed license, except for Novice, used to cost $9; now it was free.
Amateur radio was growing in 1977. At the beginning of the year, there were 293,655 hams. By midyear, the number was 313,000 and on December 31 it was 327,000. This was a healthy 11% growth in 1 year, and a 25% increase over the 1974 census. The biggest single reason was probably 2 meter FM. Hundreds of repeaters, with the distinctive "WR" prefix, covered the country coast to coast. The pages of QST were filled with ads for crystal controlled 2 meter FM rigs such as the Midland 13-500 and 13-505, the Wilson 1402 and 1405, the Regency HR-2B and HR-312, the Genave GTX-1 and GTX-10, and the Heathkit HW-202. With crystals for 12 channel operation, these units cost about $250. Counting inflation, that's about $600 today. For the 1977 operator who wanted the latest in synthesized technology, Clegg had the FM-DX for $599 ($1400 today), and Heathkit introduced the HW-2036, which covered the 146-148 MHz FM segment of the 2 meter band.
For those on a tight budget, VHF Engineering had a 1 watt 2 meter transmitter kit for $29.95, a 2 meter receiver kit for $69.95, and a 2 watt, 4 channel, 2 meter HT kit for $129.95.
Technicians now had Novice privileges, but were still banned from 50.0--50.1 and 144--145 MHz. However, the 2 meter repeater segment at 146--148 MHz was becoming crowded. In response to several petitions, on November 4, 1977, the FCC opened a new repeater subband from 144.5--145.5 MHz. In addition, they deleted the separate station license requirements for repeaters. Any amateur, except for Novice, could now put up a repeater without prior FCC approval. Logging requirements for repeaters were simplified. Finally, Technicians were given full access to the new repeater subband, although the 144.0--144.5 segment was still out of bounds.
In other FCC news for 1977, on March 1 "instant upgrading" appeared. Licensed amateurs could immediately use new privileges upon passing the test for a higher class license, rather than waiting 6-8 weeks for the overloaded FCC to send the new license. On July 1, any Extra Class amateur could apply for a 1 x 2 call. Due to a 500% increase in amateur exams, as well as a massive workload, the FCC announced on August 18 that the CW sending test would be eliminated for all licenses above Novice. However, the FCC had one proposal that brought forth the wrath of the amateur community. Citing illegal CB operation on the "10 1/2" meter band (i.e. the frequencies between 27.405 and 28 MHz), the FCC wanted to ban commercial amplifiers capable of operation between 24 and 35 MHz, and to require Type Acceptance on any amplifier that operated below 144 MHz. Except for Novice VXOs in the early 70's, the FCC had never required Type Acceptance on any amateur transmitter. The amateur community strongly opposed this proposal. Hams were being punished for the crimes of others. The FCC promised an answer by 1978.
In summary, 1977 was a good year for amateurs, but there was still some unfinished business. Would Technicians get the full 2 meter band and, along with the Generals, regain the 50.0--50.1 MHz segment they lost under Incentive Licensing? Would CB radio continue its massive growth and make more demands on amateur frequencies? Finally, would the FCC ban 10 meter amplifiers? The answers lie in 1978.
Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY
All rights reserved.
These columns were originally written for the Schenectady Museum Amateur Radio Club.