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FCC Looks to Revise, Clarify Vanity Call Sign Rules

12/02/2009

On Wednesday, November 25, 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 to clarify certain rules and codify existing procedures governing the vanity call sign system, as well as revise certain rules applicable to club stations.

According to the FCC, almost 80,000 licensees have replaced their sequentially issued Amateur Radio call signs with a vanity call sign since the program began in 1996. When the program began, the Commission established what they called "the broad outlines" of the vanity call sign system, concluding that call signs generally should not be available for reassignment for two years following the death of a licensee, or expiration or termination of the license for that call sign. In doing so, the Commission made exceptions for former holders of the call sign, close relatives of a deceased former holder and club stations of which a deceased former holder was a member.

The Commission did not, however, specify all of the procedures governing the vanity call sign system, but indicated that the procedures "would be set out in the Public Notices announcing 'starting gates' for the groups receiving initial priority and that the procedures would be adjusted from gate to gate as experience dictated." The procedures announced in the Public Notices announcing the gates are still in effect, but they are not set forth in the Commission's Rules. The NPRM states that the FCC "now believe[s] that certain provisions should be codified in our rules, and others added, so that the vanity call sign system will be fair, equitable and transparent to all amateur service licensees. The Commission also decided in the Vanity Report and Order [issued in 1996] to resume issuing new club station licenses. We believe that certain rule changes to the club station licensing rules may be appropriate."

Availability of Call Signs Assigned to Stations of Deceased Licensees

Normally, the call sign of a deceased amateur is unavailable to the vanity call sign system for two years after the license expires or is canceled. With the NPRM, the FCC wants to clarify the process by which such call signs become available for reassignment.

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 they call "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 [SSDI] that shows the date of death), they then cancel 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," according to the NPRM.

The FCC calls their 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 are proposing 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."

But according to the FCC, this "can create an arguably inequitable situation. We often receive a request from an unrelated person to cancel the license of a licensee who died more than two years earlier, and a vanity application from the same person requesting the deceased's call sign." The Commission stated in the NPRM that since the cancellation request is not usually processed before the application requesting the call sign is received, only the applicant knows that the deceased's call sign is about to be available for reassignment.

The FCC proposes 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. "Specifically, we propose to amend the rules to provide that the call sign shown on a license that is canceled due to the death of a licensee more than two years earlier remain[s] unavailable to the vanity call sign system for 30 days following the date the staff takes action to cancel the license. Providing a short period after we process a cancellation request would allow the assignability of a desirable call sign to become known, and would provide an opportunity for other licensees to apply for the call sign. This would further the major concern expressed by the Amateur Service community that the vanity call sign system be fair."

Exceptions to the Two Year Waiting Period

In certain situations, the FCC will issue a vanity call sign to an amateur before the two year waiting period has expired. Back in 1996 when the vanity program came into being, the FCC made exceptions, allowing those licensees who formerly held a call sign to apply for that call sign ahead of other licensees. The Commission noted that such an exception "was perceived as fair by the amateur service community generally, and this exception has been included in various public announcements detailing the procedures of the vanity call sign system." Since this exception is not noted in the FCC's rules, the NPRM seeks to amend the rules reflect this exception.

With the advent of the vanity call sign program, the Commission also decided to allow close relatives of a deceased former holder of a call sign to apply for that call sign ahead of other licensees, provided that the relative holds the requisite class of operator license. The Commission defined "close relatives" to include, among others, an in-law of the deceased former holder. In order to avoid any confusion, the FCC 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 other "close relatives" are the deceased former holder's spouse, children, grandchildren, stepchildren, parents, grandparents, stepparents, brothers, sisters, stepbrothers, stepsisters, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.

Another exception to the two year waiting period applies to licenses for club stations who request the call sign of a deceased licensee "when the club station trustee has the written consent of a close relative of the deceased. The exception was intended to apply only to clubs of which the deceased was a member, but this limitation is not reflected in our rules (though it is specified in other Commission pronouncements regarding the vanity call sign system)."

Ineligible Applicants

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."

Under the usual procedure, the FCC stated that the improperly obtained call sign would not be available to the vanity call sign system for another two years, but because this additional delay would be "unfair to prospective applicants who expected the call sign to become assignable at the end of the original two-year period, the Gate 3 and Gate 4 Public Notices specifically stated, 'Where a vanity call sign for which the most recent recipient was ineligible is surrendered, cancelled, revoked or voided, the two year requirement does not apply.'

The policy mentioned in the Gate 3 and Gate 4 Public Notices is not codified in the Commission's rules. As such, 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. Information regarding the acknowledgement or determination of ineligibility will be posted to the license in the Commission's Universal Licensing System (ULS) so that other licensees will be able to recognize that the surrender did not commence a new two-year waiting period."

Other Club Station Licensing Issues

For purposes of club station licensing, the FCC defines a club as "a group with at least four persons and that has a name, a document of organization, management, and a primary purpose devoted to amateur service activities consistent with Part 97." A licensee trustee is designated by an officer of the club to hold the club station license grant.

The NPRM stated that sometimes the Commission receives disputes regarding just who is the club's trustee in the context of a contested application to modify the license to change the trustee: "In order to avoid Commission involvement in what are essentially internal club matters, and to ensure that an application changing the trustee of a club station reflects the intent of the club, we propose 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."

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. We therefore propose 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."

The FCC also proposes 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.

FCC Seeks Comments on Proposed Changes

In its NPRM, the Commission said that it is their belief "that the public interest will be served by amending certain rules in order to make the Amateur Service's vanity call sign system more equitable and transparent. We also propose changes in the rules governing club station licensing, to promote equitable and administratively efficient processes. We therefore seek comment on these proposed rule changes. In addition, we invite commenters to propose any other amendments to the rules governing the vanity call sign system and club station licensing."

The comment period for WT Docket No. 09-209 will extend for 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register. Historically, items appear in the Federal Register approximately 7-10 days after they appear on the FCC Web site. Reply comments can be made up to 75 days after publication in the Federal Register. Information on how to make comments can be found in the NPRM.



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