Monday, December 18, 2006

End of an Era: FCC to Drop Morse Testing for All Amateur License Classes

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In an historic move, the FCC has acted to drop the Morse code requirement for all Amateur Radio license classes. The Commission adopted, but hasn't yet released, the long-awaited Report and Order (R&O) in WT Docket 05-235, the "Morse code" proceeding. The FCC also has adopted an Order on Reconsideration in WT Docket 04-140 -- the "omnibus" proceeding -- modifying the Amateur Radio rules in response to an ARRL request to accommodate automatically controlled narrowband digital stations on 80 meters in the wake of rule changes that became effective December 15. The Commission designated the 3585 to 3600 kHz frequency segment for such operations, although the segment will remain available for CW, RTTY and data as it has been.
So far, the FCC has only issued a public notice and not the actual orders detailing the rule changes. The effective date of both orders is not yet known, but it appears likely at this point that it will be sometime in February. Currently, Amateur Radio applicants must pass a 5 WPM Morse code test to operate on high frequency (HF). The FCC's action will eliminate that requirement all around.
"This change eliminates an unnecessary regulatory burden that may discourage current Amateur Radio operators from advancing their skills and participating more fully in the benefits of Amateur Radio," the FCC said. The ARRL had asked the FCC to retain the 5 WPM for Amateur Extra class applicants only. The FCC proposed earlier to drop the requirement across the board, however, and it held to that decision. The FCC's action in WT Docket 05-235 will grant limited HF privileges to all Technician licensees, whether or not they've passed a Morse code examination. Once the R&O goes into effect, all Technician class license holders will be able to enjoy current "Tech Plus" HF privileges in addition to their current VHF/UHF privileges. The FCC said the R&O in the Morse code docket would eliminate a disparity in the operating privileges for the Technician and Technician Plus class licensees -- something the ARRL also has asked the Commission to correct following the release of its July 2005 Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in WT Docket 05-235.
"With today's elimination of the Morse code exam requirements, the FCC concluded that the disparity between the operating privileges of Technician class licensees and Technician Plus class licensees should not be retained," the FCC public notice said. "Therefore, the FCC, in today's action, afforded Technician and Technician Plus licensees identical operating privileges."
Technician licensees without Element 1 credit currently have operating privileges on all amateur frequencies above 30 MHz. Technicians with Element 1 credit (ie, "Tech Plus" licensees) have limited HF privileges on 80, 40, 15 and 10 meters. Under the Part 97 rules the Commission proposed last year in its NPRM in WT Docket 05-235, current Technicians lacking Morse credit after the new rules went into effect would have had to upgrade to General to earn any HF privileges. Privileges will remain the same for Novice, General, Advanced and Amateur Extra class licensees.
Typically, the effective date of a FCC order comes 30 days after its publication in the Federal Register. If that's the case, the new exam requirement and the revised 80-meter segment for automatically controlled digital stations would likely not go into effect until sometime in February, 2007. At the time the rule changes adopted in the R&O are published in the Federal Register, the effective date also will become known (it is included in the Federal Register summary). In any event, the new rules will not go into effect anytime before they show up in the Federal Register.
The FCC has clarified that there will be no changes in the administration of Amateur Radio examination elements and in granting a Certificate for Successful Completion of Examination (CSCE) for General and Extra class until the new rules go into effect. CSCEs are only valid for examination credit for 365 days from date of issuance; applicants cannot use CSCEs older than that to upgrade. Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (VECs) will handle all upgrades through volunteer examiner teams.
Candidates for General or Amateur Extra testing between now and the effective date of the new rules will still have to pass Element 1 (5 WPM Morse code) to obtain new privileges. Those earning Element 3 or Element 4 credit between now and the effective date of the new rules will receive a CSCE from the VE team. Once the new rules are in place, anyone holding a valid CSCE may apply for an upgrade at a VE examination session and will have to pay the $14 fee.
The wholesale elimination of a Morse code requirement for all license classes ends a longstanding national and international regulatory tradition in the requirements to gain access to Amateur Radio frequencies below 30 MHz. The first no-code license in the US was the Technician ticket, instituted in 1991. The question of whether or not to drop the Morse requirement altogether has been the subject of often-heated debate over the past several years, but the handwriting has been on the wall -- especially since the FCC instituted an across-the-board 5 WPM Morse requirement effective April 15, 2000, in the most-recent major Amateur Radio licensing restructuring (WT Docket 98-143).
The FCC said the R&O in WT Docket 05-235 will comport with revisions to the international Radio Regulations resulting from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) World Radiocommunication Conference 2003 (WRC-03). At that gathering, delegates agreed to authorize each country to determine whether or not to require that applicants demonstrate Morse code proficiency in order to qualify for an Amateur Radio license with privileges on frequencies below 30 MHz. The list of countries dropping the Morse requirement has been growing steadily since WRC-03. A number of countries, including Canada, the UK and several European nations, now no longer require applicants for an Amateur Radio license to pass a Morse code test to gain HF operating privileges. Following WRC-03, the FCC received several petitions for rule making asking it to eliminate the Morse requirement in the US. The ARRL will provide any additional information on these important Part 97 rule revisions as it becomes available.

PERSONAL NOTE: I passed the General Test in September, 2005 (at the Shelby Hamfest) in hopes that the NPRM for WT Docket 05-235 would be issued prior to September, 2006. Looks like I was a few months early -- and will need to pass the exam again. BUT, that's a good reason to start studying again! This ruling will likely mean a huge boon for amateur radio -- one that is sorely needed.