Incentive Licensing Retrospective

Discussion in 'Amateur Radio News' started by K3UD, Dec 21, 2005.

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  1. K3UD

    K3UD Guest

    There has been much discussion on QRZ and eHam about the effects of Incentive Licensing in the late 1960s. While many here would like to relegate this subject to the dustbin of history I felt that a somewhat comprehensive review of what happened, why it happened and how it is still affecting us today might be of interest. A lot of what follows is purely my opinion that is driven by the research I have done on the subject.


    The stated reasons for the ARRL making and supporting incentive
    licensing proposals was related to the perceived decline in the number of amateurs who actually used CW on a regular basis, the increase in poor operating habits, declining courtesy on the bands, and lack of ongoing technical development among amateurs as a whole. This last reason actually boiled down to the noticeable decline in amateurs who did not homebrew much gear.

    As I have stated in several posts on the subject, the 50 Years Of ARRL book indicated that the 50s was the era of the greatest technological advances by amateurs. Three years later they implied that the situation had reversed and painful medicine was needed to put things right.

    There have been some connections made between the perceived technology lead that the Soviet Union had in the late 50s that resulted in the launching of Sputnik and the incentive licensing proposals of 1958 and later in the early 60s. This is certainly debatable although my research into the genesis of the proposals has not revealed an outstanding link, however, it is reasonable that the US would do whatever it took to catch up with the Soviet technology gap.

    It can be argued that IF there was a technology gap it was small. The US was concentrating on weapons of war development and building the finest cold war arsenal. Although latter day critics have denounced this effort, it did lead to some of the best military hardware ever produced to that point. This could have led to discussions at the FCC concerning perceived declining technical expertise of the existing amateur radio operator pool. I should point out that the initial request for IL proposals came from the FCC itself and the ARRL signed on with an initial proposal back to the FCC.

    It needs to be noted that one of the main purposes of the Amateur Service was to provide a trained pool of qualified operators in time of national emergency. Of course the term "qualified operator" at that time probably meant CW ops and those who could build and service equipment if called to do so. It can certainly be argued that since the Soviets had a satellite in space the time was coming when they would have more with perhaps some being able to carry weapons of mass destruction. There was probably a real fear of an impending national emergency where we would need that trained pool of operators.

    I have an extensive collection of QST from the mid 30s to the present, 73 from the first issue to about 1987 and CQ from 1951 to the early 90s. Incentive licensing has become a fascinating subject for me and I believe a lot of the directions amateur radio took or did not take came as a direct result of it. This library has enabled me to read every article, editorial, and letter to the editor that was published about incentive licensing from its first discussions to its post mortems in the mid 70s when many of the American radio manufactures were either out of business or struggling. As you may have guessed I have my own theory as to why this happened:

    1. The ARRL in its earlier history never really endorsed phone operation. In the late 30s they had a short-lived section in QST called "With The Phonies" The implication being obvious. In the 40s they changed it to "Phone Band Phunies" The ARRL was mostly a CW oriented organization with a nod given to RTTY every now and then. This made some sense though when you remember the stated purpose of the Amateur Radio Service was defined as a pool of trained operators, which meant CW operators.

    2. In the immediate postwar period the ARRL began to push SSB as a much more efficient means of communication than AM phone. They were right and the SSB articles and primers written for QST during the period were magnificent and most likely some of the best technical writing ever produced for QST. The problem was that Amateurs were not changing over at a fast enough rate, it was thought to be too complicated, too expensive, difficult to build and debug, and finally, difficult to receive correctly on the receivers of the day,

    3. In 1951 a new system of licensing went into effect establishing the Novice and Technician licenses but more importantly in 1953 the FCC ended up granting full amateur privileges to General Class license holders. Overnight the Generals invaded the hollowed ground of the Advanced and Extra class. At the time, in terms of privileges the Advanced class (or class A) was at the top of the heap. The Extra did not have any additional privileges.

    Since I was not there at the time (only 2 years old) I can only
    relate to what I read about what was taking place during this time period. It seems that many in the Advanced and Extra classes were outraged at the FCC and the ARRL for allowing this to happen. Of course it could be argued that opening all the bands up to Generals, establishing the Novice and Technician license eventually led to the period of great amateur technological achievement that the ARRL was proud talking about in the 50 years of ARRL retrospective that came out in the 80s.

    4. By the end of the 50s AM was still the major player on the phone bands. During this time period there were calls for the FCC to outlaw the use of AM below 30 megacycles. All of the pushing of SSB by the ARRL was having limited effect.

    I first became licensed as a novice in 1964 at age 13 and although I was an ARRL member this issue was completely over my head at the time. Any changes would not affect me for a long time. 1964 - 1968 is an eternity in the life of a 13 year old. As I got older and upgraded my license I started to see some of the implications of what might happen. In the end I ended up taking the Advanced test primarily to retain some VHF privileges I was going to lose if phase 2 of the incentive licensing proposal was implemented.

    Yes, there were two phases of this. The first one, which took away many privileges from the General, Advanced and Novice went into effect in 1968. Phase 2 was going to be more onerous for the General and Technician class operators. It is interesting to note that phase 2 was never implemented. It is my opinion that the ARRL realized that they had created a Frankenstein's monster and convinced the FCC not to go ahead with it.

    Many never upgraded and were herded into band slices packed with QRM. Some nights it was difficult to operate. Many just gave up. Hamfests of the period 1969 through about 1973 were packed with gear as hams that had given up sold it off. Used equipment markets became flooded. As this happened, activity levels dropped, AM ops switched to SSB and QRM levels on HF became manageable.

    It is my opinion that the main reason for incentive licensing was a means to right the perceived wrongs of 1953 and force the use of SSB. The latter being accomplished by forcing Generals into very crowded band segments where the only alternatives were to either give up AM and switch to SSB in order to have a fighting chance at a Friday night QSO or upgrade and use the relatively QRM free bands of the Advanced and Extra classes.

    Studies that were done during the time period prior to the first incentive licensing proposals suggested that Advanced and Extra class operators who used phone (many were CW only) were migrating to SSB in much larger percentages than General Class operators. It was thought that this was because the higher classes were more technically oriented than the General class. The thinking seemed to be that all that was needed was an upgrade of the General's technical skills and he or she would suddenly see the value of SSB and convert to it. If they did not, then they would be confined to the QRM purgatory of very limited phone bands segments until they finally saw the light.

    My opinion is that it was not a technical skill situation as much as it was an economic one. Older Advanced and Extra class operators most likely had more dollars to spend as individuals than the demographically younger General class hams. The irony was that technical advances and manufacturing efficiencies collaborated to bring to the market very good and very affordable SSB gear. There was not much affordable and utilitarian gear available prior to about 1962 with Collins, and Johnson leading the way with rather high priced SSB equipment.

    The advent of the SBE-33, The Swan and Heath single banders and later the Swan 350, Heath 100 series all band units, the National and Hallicrafters units eased the way in. There were also low priced two and three band radios from WRL and Galaxy and the high quality lower priced alternative to Collins....Drake. these and other manufacturers brought the SSB mode into the realm of
    most amateurs by 1970 when there was a good amount of used SSB gear around.

    In the end, the only things that incentive licensing accomplished were the generation of ill will among the amateur community, very crowded sub bands that served to limit traffic net operation and having a number of amateurs drop out of the service. We also saw a slow down in equipment purchases for a time period long enough to hurt the major American manufacturers and a sizable decline in the average page count of some ham magazines, especially CQ from about 1971 - 1975.

    The largest negative impact of incentive licensing was probably the caste system that was set up in the Amateur Radio service. This most likely led to the perceived (but not real) slowdown in the growth rate in Amateur Radio in the 70s. From the mid 70s the ARRL has endorsed almost every proposal to distance the ARS from the impact of incentive licensing.

    Since then we had increased privileges for General and Advanced licensees, Novice enhancement, the creation of the no code Technician license which in 1997 was cited by the ARRL as reason to change the licensing system once again which then led to the 5-WPM General and Extra. In the end we find ourselves in a for real no growth (actually a deflating) situation. If this is not irony.......

    Thanks for reading!

  2. WA4GCH

    WA4GCH Ham Member QRZ Page

    We need to move on and drop the code and at the same time allow the no-code techs LIMITED use of HF.
    If we are to even be here in 20 years one must remember the internet has relpaced HAMS in the minds of the public ..... even if we know that is not true.
    I think the FCC made a mistake not allowing no-codes on 10 meters 3 years ago when the ITU droped code but we still have the chance to correct that if the in fighting would stop long enough to THINK what would be best for all of us who CARE about this hobby.
    CODE is a great mode but like ATV, RTTY and PSK-31 not of intrest to the vast majorty of new commers and we need to aim at them and PAST that thoes who have a intrest in CW ect get out there and mentor the new comers rather than demand they comply with something of no intrest to them.
    I would hate to think i will live long enough to see the last ham contact from my nurseing home. [​IMG]
  3. KC7JTY

    KC7JTY Banned QRZ Page

    Hail ARRL. (sarcastic of course)
  4. KY5U

    KY5U Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    To the FCC:

    Every time the ARRL does something, they say its because they're getting hints from you that you want them to act as they have. Yet, when the ruling comes out it is never what the ARRL proposed. Now, I know the ARRL officials would never lie to us so I have a favor to ask.

    When you give your hints to the ARRL, please tell them exactly what they must do. They are not smart enough to figure it out on their own!
  5. K0RGR

    K0RGR Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    I think we waste too much energy revisiting this terrible debacle. It was a road paved with good intentions, and it was not a complete disaster. I certainly would not be an Extra now were it not for Incentive licensing, and I would probably be in a different line of work. But ARRL came away with the general lesson that you never take away priveleges that have been earned.

    If we are going to revisit the misadventures of yesteryear, we should probably focus on what happened in the early 50's, when we distorted our license structure to make accomodation for the 13 WPM code test, which had been stiffened just prior to WWII. 13 WPM was now considered too tough an entry level test, so the 5 WPM Novice was created, with all its restrictions, and we still have the hacked-up band plans to prove it. Many Novices could never get over the plateau from 5 to 13 WPM, and the VHF-only Technician license became their home, and we still have this distortion.

    Maybe it's time to fix all this stuff? And I don't mean by reinstating the 13 WPM code test. A simple entry-level license, and a more advanced one that grants all priveleges, not unlike what existed prior to WWII. No voice priveleges for the lower class licensees on the 'prime' phone bands, but all non-voice priveleges and just enough phone to give them a 'taste'.
  6. K3UD

    K3UD Guest


    When I think back over all the times the ARRL or another group has pushed something I realize that there has been a commonality that crops up every time.

    What do we usually hear?

    We need to make changes or we will cease to exist.

    There is a slowdown in the growth rate and we need to address it.
    (whether or not there is an actual slowdown. We did not have any significant slowdown in the 70s or the 80s)

    We need to streamline the process required to be licensed.

    The code is a hardship and if we dropped it we would see explosive growth.

    The NCT will get us the techies that we have been missing.

    The grandfathering of certain license classes to a higher class will have a beneficial effect on the ARS.

    Regulation by bandwidth will allow us to get more techies into the ARS and develop more and better modes.

    Everyone has a perceived solution to problems that may not exist and as such, are more of agendas then comprehensive proposals that would actually fix something.

    As far as Incentive Licensing is concerned, it too was most likely agenda driven and a solution looking for a problem.

  7. AC3P

    AC3P Ham Member QRZ Page

    I was a kid in school when Sputnik went up.

    There was such a panic in the US that science courses in all schools were beefed up.

    Prior to Sputnik, the elementary school I went to had no science classes. The following year I had a science class in 7th grade.

    I would not be suprised if there was a link between Sputnik and incentive licensing.

    In context though Sputnik was launched just before the International Geophysical Year 1958-1959. The US was scheduled to launch the first artificial satellite as part of the IGY. The Ruskies made political hay by doing it first.

    1958-1959 was also the year of the legendary sunspot maximun when a ham with a milliwatt and a piece of wet string could get WAS WAC and DXCC all in one week. [​IMG]
  8. W5HTW

    W5HTW Ham Member QRZ Page

    A point to be made. Perhaps I will make others later as time permits.

    I was there. First licensed in 1956 as a Novice, then a Tech (the old style Tech) later that same year, and General in 1957. As a General I had all privileges. I saw no reason to upgrade to either Advanced or Extra. Neither offered me anything I didn't already have.

    At the time Incentive Licensing began, I suppose I griped. But I was in a unique position. I used CW professionally, in my career. I also was a professional HF radio technician, so practical radio theory and troubleshooting was no problem for me. Consequently, without much - or perhaps any - fanfare, I simply studied a bit, upgraded first to Advanced, and then to Extra. I had re-acquired what I had lost, and I honestly do not remember griping about the loss.

    Many years later, though, I do know I looked back through different eyes. In that day many of us simply accepted the FCC as being GOD. We feared it, we expected to be monitored, even at 2 am on 75 meters, and a single "damn" was going to get us nailed. We believed in the "infinite wisdom" of the FCC in determining how ham radio was to be run. So when they said "Bark" we said "Woof."

    It would have been so much better had Incentive Licesning, speaking now through the eyes of hindsight, had a new carrot to offer, instead of pieces of an old one that was taken away, and then offered back if one could pass the grade. Kind of like having made it into 9th grade and now they demote you to 7th grade and tell you that you have to do it all over.

    To me that was the single biggest problem with Incentive Licensing, though at the time I could not articulate that. In fact, I didn't honestly give it much thought. Equally, the friends I knew in ham radio were involved, as I was, in professional HF communications. So we did this for a living. The idea we could (a) argue with the government, or (b) that the government didn't know what was best, was simply foreign to us. Those of us who advanced became the new ham radio teachers - Elmers - of the day, and life went on.

    Now, to address that pool of operators. That rule is so critically outdated today it should be in the King of Jokes book. We have no such pool. We haven't had for many years. And such a pool isn't needed.

    But following World War II, what we had were a good many hams who had served in the war, and a good many more were still in the military, though the war had ended. All of these were experts, yes, experts, on the military style of communication, and the mlitary needs, of that era. Many had actually served under fire, in combat, with the radios of the day, which were not Japanese rice boxes with digital programming.

    Hams had a hugely valuable capability. They could be plopped down in a muddy field, with a tube-type (all we had, folks) portable HF radio. They knew how to operate it, and they knew how to fix it. They knew how to string up a quick random wire, and tune that little (?) rig into it. And they knew military voice and CW procedures - after all, they were the same procedures we hams used! They knew prosigns, and how to use them. Draft a ham off the street, give him four weeks of how to shoot a rifle, hand him a radio, and he was a professional military communicator. No radio school needed. Give him a broken radio and he would put it on the air. And he would communicate.

    CW was the mainstay for much of that military communications, so the ham already knew Morse as well. And he knew it well. He could handle traffic the military way, and he could do it proficiently.

    This carried through the Korean War era. HF radio was still largely the backbone of military communications, and VHF was barely being formed. We hams were invaluable as a military communications resource.

    By the beginning of the Vietnam War, technologly of the 20th century was coming upon radio. It was slow, and those who look back in history, but who were not there, will be amazed that there were pretty much no VHF/UHF repeaters, no autopatches, no APRS, no Internet Gateways, in the Vietnam War. What we had were HF radios. But we were seeing some changes. The Manpak radio, for example, and the beginning of satellite voice operations. I was fortunate to have been in on the ground floor of pioneering that technology (not as a ham, but as a professional.) It was, though, new. CW was still, though no longer THE master, heavily used. Voice sideband in government radio was the new and now well-established commo means for rapid operations. RTTY and encrypted TTY and voice were truly taking over.

    By the end of the 1960s, computers were becoming king. Again, I had the opportunity for some communications pioneering work in that arena as well. They were far, far out of reach of hams. The first one I worked with, in 1968, cost three million dollars (1968 bucks) but it was a massive (four rooms) communications machine that made all previous methods pale.

    The need had begun to change. Skipping to the early or mid 1990s, we find the Army wants specialists. They no longer need that Jack of all trades ham. They want a Keyboard Operator. Or a Receiver Tuner. Or a Crypto Setup Operator. Or a Transmitter Tuner-Upper. Or a crew to string up a rhombic. Or someone to check on the leased lines. But they don't want a combination of ANY of those. Each person is a specialist. They do not want a guy who knows Morse code AND how to write a batch file. No, let the Batch File Writer do that.

    They also want college degrees. The self-trained ham is very passe. The day of the shade tree mechanic doing professional work is over and will never return. Now it is specialists.

    So the need for that guy you could hand a half-working radio to, stick him into a muddy field, and tell him to get it on the air and handle traffic is completely over. The need no longer exists.

    We try to roll it over and kick life into it, as we play quasi-cop today, but that is not the intent of that obsolete FCC rule. The FCC has been happy to downgrade ham radio from a technical support hobby and service to one of plug it in, do your own style of operating, use your own phonetics, use your own language, forget about anything standardized, and just have fun.

    Well, maybe that isn't wrong. I do think ham radio is fun and should be fun. But it no longer has the foundation to play serious. We today think a "highly skilled electronics tech" is someone who can turn on the two meter radio and actually knows how to change channels. And the fact is, that is what the military would want if there was a disaster, so maybe that's what ham radio actually should be - a group of people who know how to press the PTT switch and say "Be there in a minute."

    But the pool of trained radio OPERATORS is gone.

    The need is gone.

  9. WA4RYW

    WA4RYW XML Subscriber QRZ Page

    Ham radio is dead. The amateur radio of the earlier days will never exist again. No one wants to buy expensive equipment, fight lunatic covenants to install the required antennas, and have to actually exert himself or herself to “pass a test”, just so they can engage in the science of the 1950s. Gone are the days when ham radio was the hotbed of technology, and our present and future engineers engaged in experimentation and fellowship within the service.

    Today’s amateur intern comes from two pools; either the people that truly love, and are fascinated with the principles of RF and enjoy playing with the technology (there are very few of these), and those that are tired of the confinements and restrictions that 11 meters has to offer. Almost all of the new blood comes from the 11-meter pool. In fact, I haven’t met a new ham in the last 15 years that didn’t spend time either as a freebander, truck driver, or both. There’s your new novice class. The two services (CB and HAM) are with every passing day becoming realistically tiers of the same service. I actually heard someone on 75 meters last night that was “destinated and on the by”, whatever that hacked-up piece of psudo-English means.

    Tired old hams such as myself that actually think the ham radio experience can be prolonged by keeping the code, or not publishing the answers verbatim to the question pool are living with their heads in the sand. The old technologists and operators of the service are heading the way of the WWII vets, and the new breed is on the Internet. Is ham radio worth saving? The ham radio experience we keep trying to save is already dead, or at least in its dying convulsions. It’s a new environment now. Adapt or perish. So what does “destinated and on the by” mean, anyway?
  10. NY7Q

    NY7Q Guest

    Ya know ED, you are always 100 percent right...I agree with you on this one. [​IMG]
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