FCC Seeks to Change Amateur Radio Licensing Rules, Allow Additional Emission Types
On October 2, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in WT Docket No. 12-283 that seeks to change the Amateur Radio licensing rules, especially as they concern former licensees. Acting upon an April 2011 Petition for Rulemaking filed by the Anchorage VEC to give permanent credit to radio amateurs for examination elements they have successfully passed, the FCC proposes to revise Section 97.505 to require that Volunteer Examiners (VEs) give examination credit to an applicant who can demonstrate that he or she formerly held a particular class of license. In addition, the Commission seeks to shorten the grace period during which an expired amateur license may be renewed and to reduce the number of VEs needed to administer an amateur license examination. In response to a Petition for Rulemaking filed by the ARRL in March 2011, the FCC looks to amend the Amateur Service rules to allow amateur stations to transmit additional emission types in order to permit Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) in the Amateur Service. But in doing so, it denied the League’s request for a blanket waiver pending the resolution of the rulemaking proceeding.
Comments on these proposed rules changes will be accepted until 60 days after the NPRM is published in the Federal Register (this can take up to six weeks after release of the NPRM). Reply comments will be accepted until 90 days after publication in the Federal Register.
To be issued a new or upgraded amateur operator license, a person must pass an examination or otherwise receive credit for the examination element(s) required to qualify for the relevant license class.
Applications for new or upgraded licenses must be filed through a volunteer-examiner coordinator (VEC), which obtains the applicant information from VEs, who in turn administer examination sessions and issue a certificate of successful completion of an examination (CSCE) to an examinee who scores a passing grade on an examination element. A person also receives credit for an examination element if he or she presents either a CSCE for that element that was issued within the previous 365 days or an unexpired (or expired but within the grace period for renewal) amateur operator license for a license of a class that required passage of that element.
In its Petition, the Anchorage VEC asserted that it was unfair that after the grace period for renewal of an Amateur Radio license ends, a former licensee “loses all credit for any elements passed, and must start all over if they want to continue their Amateur Radio activities. Does the passage of time somehow invalidate a person’s knowledge? We think not. We believe that any applicant who can demonstrate that they have passed certain elements at some previous date or who have held a license grant for a particular class of license, again on or before various applicable dates, should not have to be re-examined on those elements before a new license can be granted. It seems unfair to allow some applicants to claim element credit for items previously passed and not others.”
The FCC stated in the NPRM that it recognized that the rules treat a former licensee differently than a licensee who passed the same examination(s) but who continuously renewed his or her license: “We also agree with Anchorage VEC that the fact that an individual allowed his or her license to expire more than two years ago does not necessarily mean that the person no longer possess [sic] adequate knowledge of the subject. That a license was continuously renewed does not establish that the licensee remained active in the Amateur Service, for amateur licensees are not required to operate their stations in order to remain licensed.”
In 1997, the FCC addressed a similar proposal. At that time, commenters generally opposed allowing examination credit for expired licenses, and the FCC declined to take action. “The Commission noted [in 1997] the opposition to the proposal to allow examination credit for expired licenses, and concluded that requiring licensees to either renew their licenses or retest before they may reenter the Amateur Service does not impose a hardship,” it stated in the NPRM. “While we continue to believe that requiring licensees to either file a timely renewal application or retake the necessary examination before they can be relicensed does not impose an unreasonable burden, we are skeptical that it is actually necessary to require former licensees to retest.”
With this in mind, the FCC is proposing to revise Section 97.505 to require that VEs give examination credit to an applicant who can demonstrate that he or she formerly held a particular class of license: “We believe [amending Section 97.505] will encourage former amateur operators to become involved again in the technical self-training and public service communications opportunities provided by the Amateur Service. It also could reduce costs (in time as well as money) incurred by former licensees seeking to reenter the Amateur Service. We ask commenters to address these costs and benefits.”
With one narrow exception -- expired Technician Class operator licenses granted before March 21, 1987 -- element credit is not given for an Amateur Operator license that has expired and is beyond the grace period for renewal. The grace period for renewal of an Amateur Operator license is two years, which is also the period of time after which the call sign associated with an expired Amateur Operator license becomes available for reassignment through the vanity call sign system. “We seek comment on whether we should retain this rule,” the FCC stated. “While we are not reconsidering the Commission’s conclusion that those former licensees should receive credit for the written examination required for a General Class license, we question whether the rule still has any practical effect. That is, are there any remaining holders of expired pre-1987 Technician Class licenses who intend to seek General or Amateur Extra Class licenses, or can we streamline the rule by deleting this provision as obsolete? Similarly, we seek comment on whether Section 97.505, as proposed to be amended in this proceeding, should make provision for expired Conditional Class licenses, which were phased out by renewing them as General Class licenses beginning in 1976.”
The FCC is also seeking to eliminate the element credit distinction between a person who passed an examination and kept his or her license current, and a person who passed the same examination but let his or her license expire. “Arguably, we should also eliminate the element credit distinction between a person who passed an examination and applied for a license within a year and a person who passed the same examination but did not apply for a license in that time, on the grounds that the passage of a year does not substantial [sic] affect the latter examinee’s knowledge,” the FCC maintained. “We note, however, that a CSCE also provides temporary authority for an upgrading licensee to exercise the rights and privileges of the higher operator class until disposition of the upgrade application or 365 days, whichever comes first. We are concerned that it may be anomalous or confusing to create a difference between the period during which a CSCE provides temporary operating authority and the period during which a CSCE provides element credit.”
Reduction of Two Year Grace Period
Section 97.21(b) provides that a person whose amateur station license grant has expired may still apply for renewal of the license during a two year grace period. According to the FCC, this allows individuals who forget to renew, or experience unforeseen difficulties in renewing their license, a period of time during which they may renew. The FCC noted that a principal reason for providing this grace period “is to allow amateur licensees to restore their operating privileges without sitting for reexamination.”
Given that the FCC is proposing to amend the rules to give former licensees examination credit for the element or elements they passed to obtain their expired licenses, it stated that that a two year grace period may no longer be necessary and proposed to reduce the grace period for renewal to six months (180 days), “which we believe is a sufficient period of time for individuals who forget to renew or experience unforeseen difficulties when renewing their licenses. Licensees who do not renew during the grace period would be able to obtain a new license under the rule changes proposed above and could then request their former call sign through the vanity call sign system if the call sign had not already been assigned to another licensee under the vanity call sign system.”
The FCC also wondered whether instead of amending the rules to allow element credit for expired licenses, it “should simply extend the renewal grace period for a substantial length of time (such as a 10 year grace period). Extending the grace period would provide former licensees with the same relief -- permitting them to reenter the Amateur Service without retesting -- with fewer administrative burdens on former licensees, VEs and VECs; however, extending the grace period could affect the vanity call sign system (see below).”
Reduction in Waiting Period for Vanity Call Signs
When the vanity call sign system was implemented, the FCC concluded that call signs 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; close relatives of a deceased licensee are exempt from this rule, following the licensee’s death. The FCC stated in the NPRM that it set the waiting period at two years “in part because it corresponds with the renewal grace period. Because we propose above to shorten the grace period to six months, we also propose to reduce the time before a call sign becomes available for reassignment to six months.”
The FCC also noted that correspondence with the grace period was not the only reason identified by the Commission for a two year waiting period: “Other reasons were ‘to avoid confusion in over-the-air station identification, to maintain accuracy in the licensee data base, and to accommodate QSL bureaus’ and to ‘preclude trafficking in licenses,’ where a licensee, in exchange for some type of consideration, vacates a desirable call sign so that another licensee could immediately apply for it before its assignability becomes known generally.” In addition, the FCC pointed out that the two year waiting period “provides ample time for a close relative of a deceased licensee to obtain the same class of license as the deceased held, in order to be eligible to hold the deceased’s former call sign. While the vanity waiting period should not be shorter than the renewal grace period due to the possibility of conflicting license grants, there is no practical reason why the waiting period could not be longer than the grace period.”
Administration of Amateur Radio License Exams
Currently, there must be three VEs at an exam session and they must observe the examinee(s) throughout the entire examination. The VEs are responsible for the proper conduct and necessary supervision of each examination. The VEs must grade the examinee’s answers immediately upon completion of each examination. When the administering VEs determine that the examinee has passed the examination elements required for the operator license sought, they must certify that the examinee is qualified for the license grant and that they complied with the administering VE requirements.
“Questions regarding whether three VEs are necessary to administer an examination sometimes come before the Commission in the context of claims that three VEs are not available at a particular location or time that an examinee would like to take an examination, or that an examinee must travel a great distance to a location where three VEs are available,” the FCC stated in the NPRM. “This requirement can also cause VEs to incur travel expenses that amateur examinees may have to reimburse. We note that unavailability of examination opportunities compromises one of the bases and purposes of the Amateur Service rules: To expand the existing number of trained operators, technicians and electronics experts.”
Upon establishing the VE system in 1983, the FCC noted that “[t]he use of three examiners provides for cross-checking to assure the correctness of answers to examination questions, to assure proper completion of license applications, and to minimize the likelihood of any possible fraud or abuse.” Since the VE system was established, the FCC pointed out that procedures have been developed by the VEs and VECs “that have almost eliminated examination grading and application completion errors and that fraud or abuse has been minimal. The VECs have VE manuals that provide specific procedures to be followed in preparing for, conducting, and reporting the results of an examination session. It is by hewing to these procedures that fraud and errors are avoided. We tentatively conclude that the required number of administering VEs can now be reduced without jeopardizing the integrity of the amateur operator license examination system.”
In order to increase the availability of examination opportunities, the FCC is proposing to reduce the number of VEs required to administer an examination to two: “We believe that reducing the number of required VEs can increase the availability of examination opportunities (by enabling VEs to offer more frequent examination sessions, or examination sessions at more locations, or both), while not compromising the reasons the Commission decided that more than one VE is necessary. This in turn would reduce the difficulty and expense that some examinees and VEs experience in traveling to an amateur radio license examination session.”
In the years since the VE system was established, methods that would allow a VE to observe an examinee from afar have been developed, such as audio and video links, either hard-wired to a site or available through the use of wireless Internet or satellite technologies. The FCC noted that such methods are commonly used by colleges to provide courses at locations around the globe and by businesses for teleconferencing among numerous locations simultaneously.
On very rare occasions, the FCC has permitted VEs to use such means to remotely observe examination sessions that are held at isolated locations. With this in mind, the FCC is seeking comments on whether or not to amend Section 97.509(c) “to provide that, at the option of the administering VEs and the VEC coordinating the examination session, the VEs may be ‘present and observing’ an examinee for purposes of the rule when they are using an audio and video system that can assure the proper conduct and necessary supervision of each examination. Commenters should address what, if any, specific requirements should be incorporated into the rule (such as requiring one VE to be physically present at the examination session) and whether remote testing should be permitted everywhere, or only for examination sessions at less accessible locations (and how to define such locations). We believe that permitting remote examination administration can increase the availability of examination opportunities, which would reduce the difficulty and expense that some examinees and VEs experience in traveling to an amateur radio license examination session.”
Part 97 of the Commission’s Rules specifies the emission types that may be transmitted on amateur frequencies. For data (telemetry, telecommand and computer communications), emission types may have A, C, D, F, G, H, J or R as the first symbol, 1 as the second symbol and D as the third symbol [Editor’s note: See Footnote 53 in the NPRM: “Certain other data emission types are also permitted under particular circumstances.”]. For telephony (speech and other sound emissions), emission types may have A, C, D, F, G, H, J or R as the first symbol with 1, 2 or 3 as the second symbol and E as the third symbol.
An emission designator describes an emission’s characteristics. A minimum of three symbols is used to describe the basic characteristics of the radio emission. The first symbol designates the type of modulation. For example, F is used for frequency modulation. The second symbol designates the nature of the signal modulating the main carrier. For example, 7 is used for two or more channels containing quantized or digital information. The third symbol designates the type of information to be transmitted. For example, D is used for data transmission, and E is used for telephony.
In its Petition, the ARRL stated that Amateur Service licensees have recently established numerous narrowband UHF repeater facilities using multiple time-slot Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) repeaters and single-slot TDMA handheld digital transceivers, principally in the 70 cm (420-450 MHz) band.
“Specifically, the ARRL notes that a Motorola system used by some Amateur Radio operators uses two-slot TDMA technology for the repeater and single-slot TDMA emissions for the associated portable and mobile transceivers and that the system ‘specifies emission designators 7K60FXE in voice operation and 7K60FXD for data,’” the FCC noted. “The present rules, however, do not appear to permit amateur stations to transmit single-slot TDMA emissions on Amateur Service channels above 30 MHz. Part 97 does not specifically authorize any phone or data emission designators with X as the second symbol. Consequently, the ARRL requests that the Commission amend its rules to revise Section 97.3(c) to include emission type FXE in the definition of a phone emission, and to revise Section 97.307(f)(8) to allow amateur stations to transmit data emission type FXD.”
The FCC pointed out that one of the purposes of the Amateur Service is to contribute to the advancement of the radio art. “Allowing amateur stations to use communication technologies that are used in other radio services, such as TDMA technologies, allows Amateur Service licensees to experiment with and improve these technologies and, therefore, is consistent with the basis and purpose of the Amateur Service. For this reason, we agree with the ARRL that the current rules allowing the use of multiple time-slot TDMA repeaters, but not permitting amateur stations to transmit single-slot TDMA emissions, may be unnecessarily impeding Amateur Radio operators in advancing the radio art.
“Another purpose of the Amateur Service is to assist the public as a voluntary and noncommercial communications service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications. Allowing amateur stations to use equipment that is in use in other radio services allows Amateur Service licensees to put, in this case, modern repeater systems on the air, thereby benefiting the public if these systems are needed to provide emergency communications.”
In seeking to change the rules for these emission types, the FCC noted that the purpose of specifying emission designators for the Amateur Service “is to relegate the transmission of certain inharmonious emission types to different segments of the frequency bands, while still allowing great flexibility in the types of emissions that may be transmitted by amateur stations. We do not believe that this purpose is served by excluding FXE and FXD emissions. Accordingly, we propose to amend Section 97.3(c)(5) to allow emission type FXE as a phone emission and to amend Section 97.307(f)(8) to allow emission type FXD as a data emission. We believe that this proposed rule change would encourage individuals who can contribute to the advancement of the radio art to more fully utilize TDMA technologies in experimentation and promote more efficient use of the radio spectrum currently allocated to the Amateur Service.” The FCC also seeks comments on whether any other specific emission types, such as F7E, should be permitted.
Part 97 Waiver Request
At the time that the ARRL filed its Petition, it also filed a request for a waiver to permit amateur stations to transmit emission types FXD and FXE, pending the outcome of the rulemaking proceeding. The FCC’s Mobility Division staff reviewed the waiver request and concluded that it was deficient “because the requested relief would not solve the problem that the ARRL sought to address unless it also sought a waiver to permit amateur stations to transmit emission type F7E (because granting a waiver to permit FXE emissions but not F7E emissions would create a situation where voice operation was permitted on mobile units but not on the associated repeaters). In July 2011, ARRL informed Mobility Division staff through its counsel that ARRL would amend the waiver request accordingly, but ARRL has not done so. Accordingly, we deny the waiver request.”
“Apparently, there was a misunderstanding,” commented ARRL Chief Executive Officer David Sumner, K1ZZ. “The defect noted by the Mobility Division is easily remedied. The ARRL will file an amended waiver request immediately in the hope that it can be quickly granted in light of the strong support for the ARRL’s Petition that is reflected in the comments filed on RM-11625.”