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In the United States, amateur radio licensing is governed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under strict federal regulations. Licenses to operate amateur stations for personal use are granted to individuals of any age once they demonstrate an understanding of both pertinent FCC regulations and knowledge of radio station operation and safety considerations. December 2012 marked one hundred years of amateur radio operator and station licensing by the United States government.
Operator licenses are divided into different classes, each of which corresponds to an increasing degree of knowledge and corresponding privileges. Over the years, the details of the classes have changed significantly, leading to the current system of three open classes and two grandfathered (but closed to new applicants) classes.
Amateur radio licenses in the United States are issued and renewed without charge, although the private individuals who administer the examinations may recoup their expenses by charging a fee. Licenses currently remain valid for 10 years from the date of issuance.
The current FCC classifications of licensing were not always the way they are currently and in fact have evolved considerably since the program's inception (see History of US amateur licensing, below). When the FCC made the most recent changes it allowed certain existing operator classes to remain under a grandfather clause. These licenses would no longer be issued to new applicants, but existing licenses may be modified or renewed indefinitely.
Any individual regardless of citizenship who wishes to apply for a US amateur radio license must appear before Volunteer Examiners (VEs). VEs are licensed radio amateurs who conduct examination sessions, frequently through permanently established teams on a monthly or quarterly basis. VEs are governed by Volunteer Examinator Coordinators (VECs), organizations that "coordinate the efforts of Volunteer Examiners ... in preparing and administering amateur service operator license examinations." Although the FCC currently recognizes 14 VECs, the two largest VEC organizations are the one sponsored by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) and the one started by W5YI, now sold and operated by another party. The ARRL VEC coordinates about two-thirds of all U.S. license examinations.
Prior to 1984, many Novice exams were administered by volunteers, but all other exams were taken at FCC offices. Some of the exam times were not always convenient for candidates, so a few exceptions were allowed in cases where candidates were physically unable to get to the field offices (such as the Conditional license, discussed elsewhere in this article).
In the 1950s and 1960s, Novice, Technician and Conditional exams were given by licensees acting as volunteer examiners. No Advanced and very few Amateur Extra exams were administered during this period, leaving the General exam as the only exam class regularly administered by the FCC.
The government's use of licensed amateur radio operators as voluntary examiners dates back to the founding of the Amateur Radio Service as a government-regulated entity in 1912 (Amateur Second Class licenses).
Established in 1912, regulation of radio was a result of the U.S. Navy's concern about interference to its stations and its desire to be able to order radio stations off the air in the event of war. U.S. radio broadcasting was first governed by the U.S. Department of Commerce (the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor until March 1913), then by the Federal Radio Commission, and finally (in 1934) by the FCC. The federal government's licensing of amateur radio experimenters and operators has evolved considerably over the century since the inception of licensing.
Under authority of the Radio Act of 1912, the Department of Commerce issued Amateur First Grade and Amateur Second Grade operator licenses beginning in December of that year. Amateur First Grade required an essay-type examination and five (later ten) words per minute code examination before a Radio Inspector at one of the Department's field offices. This class of license was renamed Amateur Class in 1927 and then Amateur First Class in 1932. Amateur Radio licensing in the United States began in mid-December 1912.
At first, the Amateur Second Grade license required the applicant to certify that he or she was unable to appear at a field office but was nevertheless qualified to operate a station. Later, the applicant took brief written and code exams before a nearby existing licensee. This class of license was renamed Temporary Amateur in 1927.
The Department of Commerce created a new top-level license in 1923, the Amateur Extra First Grade, that conveyed extra operating privileges. It required a more difficult written examination and a code test at twenty words per minute. In 1929, a special license endorsement for "unlimited radiotelephone privileges" became available in return for passing an examination on radiotelephone subjects. This allowed amateurs to upgrade and use reserved radiotelephone bands without having to pass a difficult code examination.
From 1912 through 1932, amateur radio operator licenses consisted of large and ornate diploma-form certificates. Amateur station licenses were separately issued on plainer forms.
In 1933, the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) reorganized amateur operator licenses into Classes A, B and C. Class A conveyed all amateur operating privileges, including certain reserved radiotelephone bands. Amateur Extra First Grade licensees and Amateur First Class licensees with "unlimited radiotelephone" endorsements were grandfathered into this class.
Class B licensees did not have the right to operate on the reserved radiotelephone bands. Amateur First Class licensees were grandfathered into this class.
Class C licensees had the same privileges as Class B licensees, but took their examinations from other licensees rather than from Commission field offices. Because examination requirements were somewhat stiffened, Temporary Amateur licensees were not grandfathered into this class but had to be licensed anew.
In addition, that year the FRC began issuing combined operator and station licenses in wallet-sized card form.
In 1951, the FCC moved to convert the existing three license classes (A, B, and C) into six named classes. Following the rule change, the classes were Novice, Technician, General, Conditional, Advanced, and Amateur Extra. Each license class required two exams, one on theory and one on Morse code, and each license was valid for five years (except Novice). Until the advent of incentive licensing in the late 1960s, the Technician, Conditional and General classes shared the same written examination and the Conditional, General, Advanced and Amateur Extra classes shared the same operating privileges.
In 1964, the FCC and the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) developed a program known as "Incentive Licensing," which rearranged the HF spectrum privileges. The General/Conditional and Advanced portions of the HF bands were reduced, with the spectrum reassigned to those in the Advanced and Amateur Extra classes. It was hoped that these special portions of the radio spectrum would provide an incentive for hams to increase their knowledge and skills, creating a larger pool of experts to lead the Space Age. It did not take effect until 1968.
Prior to the advent of incentive licensing, only a small percentage of General Class operators progressed to the Amateur Extra Class. After incentive licensing, a large number of amateurs attained Advanced and Amateur Extra Class licenses. Thus, incentive licensing was successful in inducing a large number of amateurs to study and upgrade their knowledge and license privileges. Incentive licensing was not without controversy; a number of General class operators, unhappy at having their privileges reduced, dropped out of the hobby rather than upgrade.
Prior to 1987, the only difference between the requirements for Technician and General licenses was the Morse telegraphy test, which was five words per minute (wpm) for Technician and 13 wpm for General. The written test, then called element 3, was the same for both classes.
In 1987, a number of changes, later called the "Novice Enhancement," were introduced. Among them, element 3 was split into two new exams, element 3A, which covered VHF theory and 3B, which covered HF theory. Element 3A became a requirement for the Technician class and element 3B became a requirement for General. Both classes also required candidates to have passed the Novice element 2 theory exam.
The changes also granted Novices and Technician classes limited voice privileges on the 10-meter HF band. Novices were also granted voice privileges on portions of the then-220-MHz (since changed to 222 MHz) and 1240 MHz bands using limited power. For the first time, Novices and Technicians were able to operate using single sideband voice and data modes on HF. It was hoped that this would prompt more hams to move up to General, once they had a chance to sample HF without a Morse key.
In late 1990, the FCC released their Report and Order on Docket 90-55. Beginning on February 14, 1991, demonstration of proficiency in Morse code telegraphy was removed from the Technician license requirements. Because International Telecommunication Union (ITU) regulations still required proficiency in Morse telegraphy for operation below 30 MHz, new Technicians were allowed all modes and bands above 50 MHz. If a Technician passed any of the contemporary Morse tests, he or she gained access to the so-called Novice HF privileges, essentially "upgrading" to what a Tech had before the new rules went into effect. This new, sixth class had no name until the FCC started calling them "Technician Plus" in 1994. With a code-free class now available, Technician class became a second entry class, eventually surpassing the number of Novice class license holders.
In 1999, the FCC moved to simplify the Amateur Radio Service operator license structure, streamline the number of examination elements, and reduce the emphasis on telegraphy. The change was titled a restructuring, and the new rules became effective on April 15, 2000.
The major changes were:
With the rule simplification, all pre-1987 Technician operators were now qualified to become General class operators, having already passed both the theory and code exams now required for the higher class. All that was necessary was to apply for the General license, usually through a "paper upgrade" (often done through existing amateur radio clubs) to achieve the license acquisition. The restructuring also enabled a pre-1987 Technician operator to become an Extra operator simply by passing the element 4 theory examination. Additionally, an expired or unexpired Novice class license could be used as credit toward the 5 WPM Morse code examination when upgrading.
With the change, Technicians who could pass the 5 WPM Morse code examination were given the same HF-band privileges as the Technician Plus class, although the FCC's callsign database no longer distinguished between those Technician licensees possessing HF privileges and those who did not.
In 2003, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) ratified changes to the Radio Regulations to allow each country to determine whether it would require a person seeking an amateur radio operator license to demonstrate the ability to send and receive Morse code. The effect of this revision was to eliminate the international requirement that a person demonstrate Morse code proficiency in order to qualify for an amateur radio operator license with transmitting privileges on frequencies below 30 MHz.
With this change of international rules, the FCC announced on December 15, 2006 that it intended to adopt rule changes which would eliminate the Morse code requirement for amateur operator licenses. Shortly thereafter, the effective date of the new rules was announced as February 23, 2007. After that date, the FCC immediately granted the former Technician Plus privileges to all Technician Class operators, consolidating the class into a single set of rules.
Each station is assigned a call sign which is used to identify the station during transmissions.
Amateur station call signs in the US take the format of one or two letters (the prefix), then a numeral (the call district), and finally between one and three letters (the suffix). The number of letters used in the call sign is determined by the operator's license class and the availability of letter combinations.
The format of the callsign is often abbreviated as X-by-X where a number in place of the X indicates the quantity of letters, separated by a single digit of the call district.
Currently there are 13 geographically based regions. There were 9 original call districts within the 48 contiguous states, also known as radio inspection districts.    The 10th district (with numeral 0) was split from the 9th district. Three additional regions cover Alaska, the Caribbean (including Puerto Rico), and the Pacific (including Hawaii).
In the last few decades the FCC has discarded the requirement that a station be located in the corresponding numerical district. Whereas at one time the callsign W1xxx would have been solid identification that the station was in New England (district 1), that is no longer the case, and W1xxx may be located anywhere in the USA. Even particularly distinctive calls such as KH6xxx which used to be exclusively in Hawaii, may be assigned to license holders on the US mainland. However, those licensees with KH6, KL7, KP4, etc., call signs must have been living in Hawaii, Alaska or Puerto Rico when they received those call signs.
A newly licensed amateur will always receive a call sign from the district in which he or she lives. For instance, a newly licensed Technician from New England would receive a call sign of the form KB1xxx. The amateur may thereafter apply for a specific or specialized call sign under the Vanity Licensing program.
Approximately 88% of all amateur radio operators have call signs that reflect the district in which they live.
An amateur operator with an Amateur Extra Class license can hold a call from any of the four call sign groups, either by keeping an existing call sign (indefinitely, since there is no requirement to change call sign upon license renewal), or by choosing a Group B, C or D call sign under the Vanity Licensing Program.
Likewise, Advanced Class licensees can hold Group C or D call signs, as well as Group B, and any operator may choose a Group D call sign (in reality, all new licensees, except Amateur Extra, are assigned Group D call signs, since the supply of available Group C "1x3" call signs was quickly depleted with the introduction of the elimination of the Element 1A Morse Code requirement for the Technician Class in 1991)
|Group A||Amateur Extra Class||Four characters||1-by-2||K, N, or W plus two letters||W1AW|
|2-by-1||AA-AL, KA-KZ, NA-NZ, or WA-WZ plus one letter||AB0C|
|Five characters||2-by-2||AA-AL plus two letters||AD0EC|
|Group B||Advanced Class||Five characters||2-by-2||KA-KZ, NA-NZ, or WA-WZ plus two letters||NZ9WA|
|Group C||Technician or General Classes||Five characters||1-by-3||K, N, or W plus three letters||K9DOG|
|KL, NL, or WL; NP or WP; KH, NH, or WH, plus two letters||KL5CD|
|Group D||Novice, Club, and Military Recreations Stations; and sequentially to Technician or General||Six characters||2-by-3|
(Novice or Club)
|KA-KZ, WA-WZ plus three letters||KA2DOG|
|KA-KZ plus three letters||KN0WCW|
|Source: FCC Callsign information|
The call district assignments are as follows (note that a station may not actually be located in the district indicated by the numeral in the stations's callsign) :
|District||Numeral||States and Territories|
|1||1||ME, NH, MA, RI, CT, VT|
|3||3||PA, DE, MD, DC|
|4||4||KY, VA, TN, NC, AL, GA, SC, FL|
|5||5||NM, TX, OK, AR, LA, MS|
|7||7||WA, OR, ID, MT, WY, NV, UT, AZ|
|8||8||MI, OH, WV|
|9||9||WI, IL, IN|
|10||0||ND, SD, NE, KS, CO, MN, IA, MO|
|11||L0 - L9||AK|
|12||P1 - P5||Caribbean|
|P1: Navassa Island||P3/P4: Puerto Rico|
|P2: U.S. Virgin Islands||P5: Desecheo Island|
|13||H0 - H9||Hawaii and Pacific||H5K: Kingman Reef|
|H1: Baker, Howland Islands||H6/7: Hawaii|
|H2: Guam||H7K: Kure Island|
|H3: Johnston Atoll||H8: American Samoa|
|H4: Midway Island||H9: Wake Island|
|H5: Palmyra Atoll, Jarvis Island||H0: Northern Marianas|
During the processing of a new license application, a call sign is selected from the available list sequentially using the sequential call sign system. This system is based on the alphabetized regional-group list for the licensee's operator class and mailing address.
As of March, 2010, the sequential system for Group C is assigning 2-by-3 formats beginning with the letter K.
The FCC offers amateur licensees the opportunity to request a specific call sign for a primary station and for a club station. The format of the call sign is limited to the same Group or lower, meaning a Technician Class operator can select an available callsign from Group C (e.g. a 1x3) or Group D (e.g. a 2x3), but not from Group A or B (e.g. a 1x2). RACES and military recreation stations are not eligible for a vanity call sign.
The FCC allows the use of special event "1x1" call signs to denote special occasions such as a club's anniversary, a historic event or even a DXpedition. As an example, the call sign "N8S" was used for the April 2007 DXpedition to Swains Island in American Samoa. These call signs start with the letters K, N or W, followed by a single numeral from 0 to 9 then followed by a single letter from A through W, Y or Z. The letter X is not allowed as it is reserved for experimental stations. Thus, there are 750 such call signs available. Each call sign may be used for 15 days from its issue. Each station using the special 1x1 call must transmit its assigned call at least once every hour.
Five coordinators (ARRL, W5YI Group Inc, Western Carolina Amateur Radio Society/VEC Inc, W4VEC Volunteer Examiners Club of America and the Laurel Amateur Radio Club Inc) are authorized to handle these call sign requests.