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ARRL Responds to FCC's NPRM Calling for New Rules on Vanity and Club Call Signs

04/07/2010

In November 2009, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) -- WT Docket No 09-209 -- seeking to amend the Commission's Amateur Radio Service rules in an attempt to clarify certain rules and codify existing procedures governing the vanity call sign system, as well as revise certain rules applicable to club stations. In March, the ARRL submitted comments and additional proposals to the FCC to update the Amateur Service's call sign assignment system and provide for continued growth of the Amateur Radio Service, as well as enhance the pride and satisfaction of licensees in their personal achievements in the radio art. The ARRL's positions were developed by the Executive Committee at its March 13 meeting.

Saying that the ARRL "is supportive of most" of the proposals contained in the NPRM that have to do with vanity call signs, the ARRL recognizes that "this proceeding is intended to codify those administrative policies related to the vanity call sign system that have, for the most part, been utilized as a matter of fact up to the present time, but which have been announced only in 'starting gate' public notices that were issued at the inception of the program and not mentioned otherwise. The program is now mature, and those public notices are no longer sufficient to make interested parties aware of the mechanics and application procedures utilized in the program. It is timely indeed to codify those policies and to take all other necessary steps to increase the transparency and fairness of the program for all concerned."

The ARRL also noted that with the resumption of club station licensing through the vanity call sign system in 1995, "there are rules unique to those licenses that should be updated at the same time. There are aspects of Amateur club licensing that should be changed, especially related to club trustees...With respect to the Notice proposals regarding club licensing and club call signs, ARRL is generally in agreement, again with but a few clarifications."

The League's "greater concern" are issues that were not raised by "or addressed specifically in the NPRM, but which pertain to the sequential, vanity and special event call sign programs." Noting that the ARRL has recently studied these programs -- as well as their rules and assignment policies that have been in place for many years -- The League's study identified several changes that could be made "that would increase the number of desirable call signs available for assignment, both sequentially and in the vanity call sign program, and which would provide greater flexibility in the temporary assignment of special-event call signs in the Amateur Service."

The League's comments reflect that there are aspects of all three Amateur call sign assignment systems that justify additional revisions in the rules that would eliminate "certain inequities" that now exist. "These issues are, as will be seen, not specifically related to the proposals contained in the Notice, but they derive from the same circumstances."

There is a scarcity of -- and thus competition for -- "desirable permutations" of call signs in the Group A call signs (these are in the 1×2 and 2×1 format, as well as a 2×2 format beginning with AA-AG and AI-AK prefixes that are not sequentially assigned). "For this reason, and because there are historical reasons for certain policies pertaining to call sign formats and assignment mechanisms which need not continue, it is timely to address additional issues in this proceeding," the ARRL said.

Additional issues as expressed by the ARRL "relate to updating, clarifying and improving the various call sign assignment systems. This proceeding, in ARRL's view, provides an appropriate and timely vehicle for additional rule changes in call sign assignment processes in the Amateur Service." As such, the ARRL offered some additional proposals. "Some of these [additional proposals] can be implemented in a report and order in this proceeding. Some might perhaps be reserved for a further Notice of Proposed Rule Making in this proceeding in the near future. Each of these proposed changes, however, is sufficiently related to call sign administration in the Amateur Service as to make them appropriate suggestions for consideration herein."

The League noted that the Commission is in the process of developing a new comprehensive database system in the near future that will replace the ULS: "It may be that some of the ARRL's additional proposals for call sign administration changes contained herein will be best implemented at the time the new licensing database system is implemented. In that case, the rule changes proposed herein should be adopted in advance of that replacement system, so that the software development associated therewith could at the outset take into account the Amateur call sign assignment changes proposed herein."

Vanity Call Signs

In order for a vanity call sign to be assigned to an amateur, the call sign must be assignable at the time the application is processed. Even if a licensee is deceased, the call sign is not available if the license is still active in the FCC database. When the FCC receives what it calls "proper documentation of the licensee's passing" (a signed request for license cancellation accompanied by a copy of a death certificate, an obituary or data from the Social Security Death Index that shows the date of death), it then cancels the license as of the licensee's date of death. "We propose to amend our rules to codify these procedures by adding a new paragraph to Section 97.21," the NPRM states; currently, the procedure for canceling a license due to the grantee's death is outlined on the FCC's Web site, but is not codified in their rules. "We believe that this will make our cancellation process more equitable and transparent, and facilitate the availability of desirable call signs." This, the ARRL noted in its comments, has been the consistent policy shown in the Public Notices, and the ARRL concurs that the process is appropriate.

The FCC calls its rules "ambiguous" concerning call signs that become available for reassignment "as to whether the waiting period runs from the date of death or the date that the Commission cancels the license in light of the licensee's death." As such, they propose to amend the rules "to clarify that a license that is canceled due to the licensee's death is deemed to have been canceled as of the date of death, regardless of when the licensing database is updated to reflect the licensee's death." In the NPRM, the FCC proposed to modify their processes to ensure that the deceased's call sign is unavailable to the vanity call sign system for at least 30 days after the staff updates the licensing database to reflect the licensee's death. The ARRL is supportive of this change, as it creates a fair and transparent system for call sign assignment.

The FCC also proposes to amend Section 97.3 to define the term "in-law" to include only a parent or stepparent of a licensee's spouse, a licensee's spouse's sibling, the spouse of a licensee's spouse's sibling or the spouse of a licensee's sibling, child or stepchild. The ARRL agrees with the FCC's definition of "in-law" as a as one of the "close relatives," saying it "is specific, objectively determinable and appropriate."

The ARRL, however, had questions concerning the FCC's proposal to limit the availability to clubs of a deceased licensee's call sign (so-called "in memoriam" call signs) to those clubs of which the deceased was a member: "The Commission has been allowing an exception to the two year waiting period to apply for a canceled call sign for club stations requesting the call sign of a deceased licensee. A prerequisite for this exception to the two year waiting period is that the club station trustee applying for the call sign must have the written consent of a close relative of the deceased. The exception was intended (according to the Notice) to be available only to clubs of which the deceased was a member, but that eligibility criterion was never incorporated in the rules. While the Notice characterizes this as codifying existing policy, the proposed clarification raises other practical questions."

Saying that this proposed rule change would likely prompt an individual or another club who wants that call sign to challenge the granting of an in memoriam call sign, the League suggests that the proposed rule needs some clarification: "It might be asserted, for example, that the decedent was not actually a member of the club at the time of his or her death. It is not clear from the Notice proposal whether or not the phrase "was a member of the club" requires that the decedent's membership was current as of the time of the holder's death."

In its comments, the ARRL stated there could be several reasons why a membership might have lapsed prior to the death of the licensee whose call sign is at issue "that would not be relevant to (and should not bear upon) a club's desire to honor the individual in memoriam, and it appears that the decedent's club membership need not be current at the time of his or her death, as long as the decedent was a bona fide member of the club at some time during his or her life. Neither is it clear from the Notice what evidence of membership is necessary to establish the club's entitlement to an in memoriam call sign. Would it be sufficient if the close relative providing the consent made such an assertion? Would the club trustee or an officer of the club's attestation be required? Some objective showing might avoid conflicts in the future."

When a vanity call sign application is granted, the call sign currently assigned to the licensee's station is surrendered and is not available to the vanity call sign system for two years. Occasionally, the FCC said, vanity call sign applications have been granted to applicants who "erroneously or fraudulently indicated that they fell within an exception to the two-year waiting period. Sometimes, after the situation is brought to the applicant's attention, the applicant applies for and is assigned another call sign, thereby surrendering the improperly obtained call sign." The FCC proposes to amend Section 97.19(c) to clarify that "a new two-year period does not commence when the most recent recipient acknowledges, or the Commission determines, that the recipient was not eligible to be assigned the call sign."

While the ARRL certainly agrees that a two year waiting period should not commence upon the surrender of a call sign that was erroneously granted to an ineligible applicant, the availability of these "recaptured" call signs should be withheld for a period of 30 days "so that everyone has a chance to know that the erroneously granted and recaptured call sign has become available again. The same justification, transparency and fairness, demands that everyone have a chance to know that the call sign of the ineligible person has become available again for assignment, so the 30 day notice period should apply."

To expand the pool of available call signs, the ARRL asked that the FCC permit the issuance of call signs with prefixes NA-NZ, WC, WK, WM, WR and WT and with three letter suffixes (such as NC1ABC). The ARRL also asked the FCC to revisit the issue of special event call signs at a later date to determine whether the public interest would be served by expanding the options for special event call signs beyond the current 1×1 format.

Amateur Radio Clubs

Clubs Holding More than One Call Sign

While the Commission's rules limit individuals to holding only one operator/primary station license grant and, therefore, one call sign, "there is no similar limit on how many license grants a club may hold," the NPRM said. "This affords club stations an advantage over individuals seeking desirable call signs, reduces the pool of vanity call signs available to individuals and other club stations, and increases the possibility of conflict over particular call signs."

In the NPRM, the FCC proposed to "limit club stations to holding one license grant and, consequently, one call sign. Clubs that currently hold more than one call sign would not be allowed to obtain any more call signs, but could renew or modify their existing station license grants." Saying that the proposal is a per-club limit rather than a per-trustee limit, the ARRL realizes that the principal abuse that the proposed rule change seeks to prevent the situation where a trustee holds a number -- sometimes a large number -- of preferred vanity call signs (typically Group A call signs, principally those in a 1×2 or 2×1 format), whether or not the call signs are in the name of the same club: "The 'hoarding' of large numbers of desirable call sign combinations is often arranged by the trustee for his or her own personal use. While ARRL is most sympathetic to the desire to stem occasional abuses, and is well aware of the acute shortage of Group A call sign combinations, the proposed remedy in the Notice is problematic, and ARRL recommends against it."

The League asserts that the problem with a blanket limitation on club licenses and call signs is that many clubs, for example, have more than one station (such as a club that operates numerous repeaters): "Those clubs have a legitimate need for more than one call sign. Furthermore, the proposed limit would not be sufficient to stem instances of 'hoarding' desirable call signs through multiple club licenses. A person could bypass this rule simply by creating multiple clubs. There is no limit on the number of clubs that a group of four persons can form."

Since the premise for this proposed rule is that there is a shortage of preferred format call signs, the rules should provide a means of inhibiting the perceived problem of an individual obtaining multiple vanity call signs in those formats in his or her role as the trustee of a club. As such, the ARRL offered that "the Commission should prohibit clubs from applying for new Group A call signs, with the exception of in memoriam call signs. Existing Group A call signs held by clubs should be grandfathered. The most direct method of stemming any abuses by club stations or trustees holding large numbers of preferred call sign combinations is to preclude clubs from applying for call signs in the Group A format, save for in memoriam call signs. This solution is significantly less burdensome on Amateur clubs than the Notice proposal would be, and it deals directly with the fundamental problem sought to be addressed."

Club Call Signs

Calling a change in club station trustee an "internal club matter," the FCC proposes to amend the rules to require that applications requesting a change in trustee include documentation signed by an officer of the club when the application is submitted to the Club Station Call Sign Administrator (CSCSA): "Additionally, we believe that by accepting applications only from the licensee the club station record in ULS shows is the trustee of the club station, the CSCSA can minimize the number of disputed applications that are filed with us."

The ARRL has noticed occasional instances in which a club trustee severs his or her relationship with the club, and a dispute arises over who is entitled to retain the club license and call sign. "This proposed rule would, without Commission intervention in the private affairs of an Amateur Radio club, and without adjudicating individual licensing disputes, avoid the situation in which a club and a trustee reach a parting of the ways," the ARRL noted in its comments. "The rule would prevent the departing trustee from making off with the club license and call sign, or refusing to agree to a change in trustee. It would also conveniently address instances in which a trustee becomes incapacitated. The presumption underlying this proposed rule is that the club should have the ability to protect its entitlement to (and control of) its own license, and ARRL suggests that this is the proper premise."

The existing Commission form requires the signature of a responsible club official other than the trustee, in addition to the trustee -- even though the rules apparently do not require it. "It is assumed that if the Notice proposal is adopted, the form will be modified appropriately," the ARRL said, but noted that the term "club officer" is not defined by the Commission: "In order to ensure that the 'club officer' is in fact representative of the club, and to ensure that the Commission's goal in enacting this rule is fulfilled, ARRL urges that in order to change a club license trustee, the Commission require not one but two 'club officer' signatures, neither of whom shall be the trustee being replaced, nor the replacement trustee." The ARRL reasons that this would "inhibit collusion between the replaced trustee and one of the club officers who may be seceding from the club together, without creating any additional administrative burden for the club, the Commission, or the CSCSA."

The FCC also proposed to permit Novice class licensees to serve as club station trustees. The Commission noted that there was an historical prohibition against Novice class licensees serving as club station trustees since Novice licenses originally were not renewable. Because such licenses now may be renewed on the same basis as any other Amateur Service license, "we believe that this prohibition is no longer necessary," the NPRM noted. The ARRL noted the practical effect of this proposed deregulation would be minimal, as few clubs would want a Novice class licensee to be the trustee of their club station: "Such stations would be subject to cumbersome station identification requirements when the station is operated outside the trustee's operating privileges by a control operator with a higher class of license, per Section 97.119(e) of the Commission's rules. Noting that the change would simplify the rules somewhat, ARRL advised the FCC that it does not oppose the proposal.

ARRL's Additional Proposals

The ARRL understands that the underlying premise for the proposed rule changes is the shortage of Amateur Radio call signs in the preferred formats and that there is "competition among radio amateurs for these call signs. Hence, there is a need for procedures establishing a fair assignment process and procedures that are transparent." As such, the ARRL submitted the following proposals (along with its Comments) that are, in the ARRL's view "a necessary adjunct to the clarifications and modifications set forth in the Notice. ARRL's counterproposal to the Commission's suggested limit of club stations to one license grant and one call sign per club is part of this plan to increase fairness in the administration of Group A call signs."

The first of the League's proposals is to expand the pool of available Group A call signs by permitting the first character of a two character Group A call sign suffix to be a numeral as well as a letter (for example, W23A). As the result of modifications to the ITU Radio Regulations adopted in 2003, such call signs are now available for assignment amateur stations in the United States. "Since 2×1 and 1×2 format call signs are at a premium in all call areas now (and some permutations are fully assigned), this would allow a substantial additional number of call signs in this format to be assigned as part of the vanity call sign blocks available to Extra Class licensees," the ARRL maintains. "

The League noted that though call signs such as W23A are consistent with the International Radio Regulations, the Commission would have to change Section 2.302 of the their rules, as that rule Section does not permit amateur call signs in the two-number format. "This proposal would not create any confusion relative to television broadcast translators or low power television stations, which use two-letter suffixes after the two numbers, which signify a television channel number," the ARRL put forth. "Nor would it conflict with FM broadcast translators, which utilize three numbers (ranging from 200 to 300, designating FM broadcast channel numbers), followed by two letters. It is desirable and possible to increase the pool of Group A call signs by adding this new format to the pool of available call signs for assignment to Extra Class licensees."

Section 97.23 of the Commission's rules require that each license grant must show a mailing address in an area where the Amateur Service is regulated by the Commission and where the licensee can receive mail delivery by the United States Postal Service. Calling this "an important requirement for licensing," the ARRL pointed out that the requirement of a mailing address for a licensee "does not, however, justify the total withholding of assignment of large blocks of call signs using prefixes that are now associated exclusively with offshore areas, such as United States territories, where a licensee cannot receive mail. There are numerous call sign blocks that are not assigned by the Commission because the prefixes presently designate uninhabited areas where mail is not delivered. This makes large numbers of call signs unavailable for assignment to anyone."

Given this, and given the need to expand the blocks of desirable call signs, the ARRL maintains that the Commission should allow assignment of the AH/KH/NH/WH and KP/NP/WP prefix call sign blocks not already subject to assignment in offshore areas that do have postal addresses, and suggests the following assignment allocation of additional prefixes: 

  • Guam: KH1, KH2, KH3 (and AH1-3, NH1-3 and WH1-3)
  • Hawaii: KH4, KH5, KH6, KH7 (and AH4-7, NH4-7 and WH4-7)
  • American Samoa: KH8 (and AH8, NH8 and WH8 -- this represents no change in the current call sign block for American Samoa)
  • Marianas KH9, KH0 (and AH9, AH0, NH9, NH0 and WH9, WH0)
  • Puerto Rico: KP3, KP4, KP5, KP6, KP7, KP8 (and NP3-8 and WP3-8)
  • Virgin Is: KP1, KP2, KP0 (and NP1, NP2 and NP0, and WP1, NP2 and NP0) 

The ARRL noted that this plan would permit call sign blocks that are now not assigned to be deployed efficiently and is "entirely consistent with Section 97.23 of the Commission's rules requiring the availability of a usable mailing address before call signs designating certain locations are assignable."

The ARRL also maintained that the Commission should require -- by affirmation on an application -- that applicants for Group A vanity call signs are United States citizens. Existing Group A calls are being assigned regularly to non-US amateur licensees, "who hold them as a matter of prestige, but might only use them occasionally; only on a single occasion; or not at all, ever. This problem is most significant in the Pacific Islands."

In some of the AH/KH/NH/WH call sign blocks, non-US citizens now have assigned to them more than half of the permutations in the Group A format. The League proposes that non-US citizens who obtain United States amateur licenses could be assigned call signs in the 2×3 or 1×3 call sign formats without any difficulty for them, and the Group A block would be reserved for United States citizens. Noting that the proposed affirmation of citizenship in the vanity call sign application form is not a burdensome requirement, and in general should not require the expenditure of Commission enforcement resources, the ARRL suggests that the application should have a check box to indicate United States citizenship, constituting the applicant's affirmation; proof of citizenship need not be required at the time of the application. The ARRL is not asking that call signs held by those non-US citizens be withdrawn, "but only that henceforth, no new Group A vanity call signs in the Group A formats would be issued to non-US citizens."

Finally, "perhaps in a later, separate proceeding, but soon," the ARRL recommended that the FCC should examine the call sign formats available for special event call signs, with an eye toward modification of Section 97.3(a)(11)(iii) of the rules to expand the blocks available for such call signs beyond the 1×1 format. "While there are sufficient special event call signs for temporary assignment by the private sector special call sign administrators now, the one format now permitted for such is limiting for those amateurs who wish to have a call sign that can be used to commemorate a particular event," the ARRL noted. "International Radio Regulations are very generous with regard to special event call signs. At WRC-03, the ITU Radio Regulations concerning this were amended to read: 'On special occasions, for temporary use, administrations may authorize use of call signs with more than the four characters referred to in No. 19.68.' The Commission's regulations, by contrast, are quite restrictive in this respect. It is time to reexamine this program to determine where deregulatory changes can be implemented to increase flexibility in the program."



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