No Code vs. KNØWCW

KNØWCW is the FISTS USA club call with a deeper meaning   ;o)

Another blog I read on a daily basis is Jeff KE9V’s blog. Recently there was this short item about the result of dropping the Morse Code test in the USA as a requirement to get an HF license. Or better: the lack of result. It seems that after almost a year there has been no massive inrush of new operators on HF. That was however what the protagonists of the abolishment of the mandatory CW test had hoped for. In vain as it turns out. That got me thinking about the situation here in Belgium.

Situation Pre-2003

1999 is as far as my HAM-memory goes. That year I had a close encounter with ham radio and I got my ON1 call. There were 3 levels of Belgian licenses. You needed to study basic electricity, electronic circuits, RF and antenna theory and the rules and regulations. Depending on your score you obtained an ON2 call (lowest test score, only entitled to 144MHz VHF) or an ON1 call (good test score giving 50 MHz, VHF, UHF and up but NO HF ACCESS).

Then you needed to pass the CW test at 13 WPM before you could get an ON4-5-6-7-8 call and get on HF. I was in the last series (October 2000) to test CW at 13 WPM and went from ON1DRS to ON4CLN. Then they dropped the test speed to 5 WPM. Note that ON3 calls were never issued and ON9 was reserved for foreigners applying for a Belgian call.

Situation from half 2003

The UBA came up with the idea to convince the Belgian telecoms regulator to adopt the Foundation Licence just like in the UK. The philosophy was twofold: a) that people don’t need to be NASA rocket scientists to get a ham radio license and b) once they got their feet wet they’d study to upgrade their license. Part A has been proven correct. Part B is where it goes wrong. I think over 90% of the ON3 dudes and dudettes remain ON3.

After months of hard work in 2003 by the UBA volunteers who prepared the case and the course textbook, the idea was adopted by the Belgian PTT (BIPT-IBPT) and the licensing was restructured to a two level system. Foundation licensees have to follow official courses and pass an easy test and then they get an ON3 call with limited privileges: 10W out max, only commercial QRP rigs and at first no access to 10m / 28MHz. Though that band limitation has been lifted. So now you now why all those ON3 guys pop up in PSK and are so weak on phone.

The second level is the ‘full option’ HAREC license which is internationally regulated and giving an ON4-5-etc call without any limits regarding bands, modes etc. In April 2006 the vanity call program opened up all those 2×1 calls à la OQ5M, OT1A, OP4A, OR2T, OS0S etc.

Massive inrush?

Somewhere half 2003 the Belgian PTT (BIPT-IBPT) dropped the Morse Code test. That way, a huge number of sleeping ON1 licensees could now upgrade without further testing. A lot of them had lost all interest in the hobby, since VHF isn’t that much fun and CW was an obstacle they didn’t want to overcome. Now their interest was resuscitated and a few hundred (a guess, I don’t have exact numbers) of ON1 became ON4 and had a ball on HF ever since. They passed the same test on electronics and RF theory as me. The only difference is that they never had to learn CW and now that it’s no longer needed – why would they? To me CW is the only real HAM mode but to tell the truth: if they had given me my HF ticket without the morse code test, I would never have learned it. I have never opposed dropping the CW test to get on HF though I am glad I have learned it and earned my HF ticket "the hard way". How I got on HF is another story but I wanted it so badly I just downloaded a CW training program and practiced 15 minutes every day for less than 3 months and I copied at 20 WPM.

But I digress. So first there was the inrush of revived VHF-licensees. Then somewhere in 2004 there was a big boom in ON3 foundation licensees. Some clubs gave 2 sessions of foundation classes in a year. But that slowed down too from 2005. I don’t have any exact numbers of the effect of this two changes (dropping CW test and the ON3 license) but I have the impression that it has been a status quo at best between ‘natural loss’ and influx of ‘surplus ops’.

Midlife crisis – the future of ham radio?

Another issue is the average age. It is no different here than in most countries. I’m in my early 30ies and always the youngest of the pack. It is often asked why youth has no interest in amateur radio. I deal with 15-18 year old adolescents every day and I don’t have the answer but trust me: they just don’t give a rat’s end about our hobby. They don’t know it to start with and they don’t care and quite frankly I wouldn’t have cared either when I was that age. There is a ham radio op living on the corner of the street where my parents live and where I grew up. He has a 15 meter high tower and a tribander. Yet he was referred to as the "CB guy" because everyone knows CB but no one knows ham radio.

I was 24 when I got my license and almost 25 when starting on HF. I would never have shown interest when I was 16 or 18. Maybe recruitment programs should focus on 40-50 year olds? I stead of buying Porches or Harleys, why not put up a tower and buy a rig? In stead of messing around with that tall blonde from the office, pack your bags and activate a rare DXCC? They are settled and have some more budget compared to a teenager. I don’t worry too much though. Quality over quantity and ham radio will never be a hobby for the masses. Imagine the QRM when every street has a couple of contesters!

To round up just these numbers. Currently there are about 5500-6000 regular calls issued in Belgium. I guess half of that number is member of the UBA thus active or still interested in some way. Just over 200 vanity 2×1 calls are issued so let’s file those under ‘very active’ as you don’t pay a double fee for a call you never use.

Enjoy the weekend, 73 ES QRT.

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