Test Free Licensing

We seem to have reached a point where testing only perpetuates the business of testing.

Hardly a week goes by without hearing of another successful Saturday licensing session resulting in new amateur radio licensees. These typically the result of a cram session where a neophyte can walk in the door having zero knowledge of the hobby, and walk out the door four hours later a brand new radio ham.

I frequently complain about these “puppy mills” and am just as frequently rebuffed by those who run them. I’m told that no amount of study and testing can create a radio amateur — only hand-on experience can do that so the notion is to get them licensed as quickly as possible and let nature run its course.

And you know what? I agree with them. But that sort of begs the question, then why don’t we do away with license testing altogether? If these tests are merely speed bumps to the entry of the hobby, let’s dump them.

Twenty years ago I would have rejected the notion of eliminating testing out of hand. Demonstrating proficiency in operating a transmitter was considered essential to preventing chaos on the bands. And a certain level of technical acumen was necessary to prevent unintentional interference.

Neither of these concerns are realistic to the amateur service in the 21st century. Transmitting equipment must be accepted by the FCC before it can be sold and those who still home brew gear are rare and obviously smart enough to know what they’re doing.

We seem to have reached a point where testing only perpetuates the business of testing. The sales of license study manuals and Volunteer Examiner puffery are the only real “winners” in this ongoing sham.


Incentive licensing was a worn-out concept in 1980. We have need of only one class of license that conveys all amateur privileges and it should be issued based on an application basis only – perhaps with a $100 fee that’s good for ten years.

If radio amateurs wanted to volunteer to administer the issuance of licenses and maintain that database, perhaps the fee could be used to help fund FCC enforcement?

Think about it. You can’t churn out qualified radio operators from a four-hour memorization session. Even the volunteers who promote this process agree. New hams will learn best from on the air time and actual practice. The testing process serves only to prop up the sales of study guides, memorization tricks, and to create a point of control for volunteer examiners.

That we’ve always done it that way is of no consequence, it’s time to move forward.

It would be a wonderful if local clubs facilitated the application process at the conclusion of an hour-long “get to know us better” club meet and greet. Having new licensees become acquainted with seasoned local operators provides tangible benefits – unlike the phony baloney memorization sessions.

Benefits include;

1. Cleaning up the FCC database thru regular license fees.
2. Potentially creating a fund for continued FCC enforcement activity.
3. Removal of costs associated with testing aids and study materials.
4. Elimination of the work associated with creating testing pools, etc.
5. Putting new applicants in touch with local clubs.
6. Streamlined process where all licensees carry all amateur privileges.

Perhaps best reason of all would be reality.

We’ve been perpetuating a 20th century concept and pretending that it adds value to the amateur service. In reality, it’s a totem based on century old ideas about exclusivity and false hope that it elevates our service when in fact, it’s just a delusion to make us feel better about ourselves.

Am I wrong? Sound off in the comments below.

Author: Jeff Davis


18 thoughts on “Test Free Licensing”

  1. This kind of reminds me of the situation in colleges today for 4 year universities, in 1983, the average GPA was 3. To day, it is 3.3, and accelerating. Are the students overall smarter and better prepared to enter the work force? My experience with working with millenials says otherwise. (source gradeinflation.com)

    I regualrly work with lethal voltages, and a lot of the math that is involved in putting a basic station together. If the new people are so inconvenienced by the technician tests, there is always FRS. No licensing, and the new folks can build repeaters to their heart’s content. This isn’t about dumbing down, this is about turning the Amateur radio into Citizen’s band. Which we already have one, and it’s a place that I highly recommend for people to see what unfettered access looks like.

    tl;dr version. No thanks.

    1. I think the “test” is at vey least a screen to let in those who have SOME knowledge about what it is we’re doing here. With a MANDATORY elmering program or apprenticeship path to a license, I’d say go ahead and get rid of the test.

      The system now in place is far from perfect, but still, I believe serves a purpose.

      I very respectfully disagree

  2. I really don’t know if doing away with a licence exam will bring more and/younger people into the hobby.
    The magic of listening to someone from the other side of the world on shortwave with a ‘piece of wet string’ does not seem to spark the imagination when you can buy a mobile phone for next to nothing and speak to friends via the internet.

    However they are missing the point of speaking with people of different cultures and languages as the magic of the bands dictates what’s open.

    As for unfettered use sounding like CB, well you only need to listen to the activities of a large number of ‘hams’ either on HF or satellite to be appalled by operating practices.

    Electronics in schools with a teacher who inspires, building a crystal set yourself and then hearing a station from the speaker is still inspiring an exciting to me.

  3. First of all, $100 sent to FCC to purchase a license – you might as well throw it in the toilet. The federal government will do nothing useful with that money. Keep that $100 investing in ham radio communities like publishers and individuals who provide learning and reference materials regarding radio and ham radio. The test doesn’t guarantee a knowledgeable operator but does in most cases results in a ham who aspires to be in the hobby enough to put forth the effort to pass the test. That is something. If it was as easy as drooling on your shirt to get a license then we will have another CB service all over again.

  4. Sorry, I have to disagree on several counts.

    First of all, we already have a license-free band. It’s called CB Radio. And guess what – there is no “license class” or “incentive licensing” – because there is no license. What you are proposing is nothing more than an expansion of 11 meters. Do you *really* want the rest of the ham bands to be just like CB?

    Next, not having a test will *not* get people familiar with local clubs. If you think a four hour “puppy mill” class is worthless – why would you think a one-hour “familiarization” session would be worth anything? With no stated goal (at least the memorization sessions DO have a goal), these sessions will quickly degenerate into a gab/BS session.

    Third, having amateurs manage the database is an invitation for trouble. It doesn’t cost the FCC much money to manage it – most updates are done online anyway. And we’ve already seen problems in the past with VE’s who are less than perfectly honest. These can only affect the licensees they test; what if someone like them had access to the *entire* database?

    The $100 fee you propose is ridiculous. First of all, there are a number of people who wouldn’t be able to afford a license. Do you want to create an elite class here? Many clubs help out with starter equipment, and you can find used (and new, now!) equipment on the internet for less than that. It’s just another barrier to let people into the hobby. And why would it help “clean up” the FCC database?

    Additionally, the fees paid to the FCC do *NOT* go to the FCC. Like all fees paid to the government, FCC fees go into the General Fund (per law). The FCC gets its money from the annual budget, which is not tied into how much money the FCC collects in any way.

    One place we do agree is that these “puppy mills” are not doing the prospective licensee any good. What do you do when a new ham asks which end of the coax goes on the radio, and which end to the antenna? (A real question!).

    Rather, the “puppy mills” should stop and in there place there should be programs in place to teach the basics – not memorization. I’m not saying a prospective licensee needs to be an EE. But he/she should know more than just how to memorize some answers. Unfortunately, in these days of “instant satisfaction”, there are always people willing to grant it, so the puppy mills won’t stop.

    What I really wonder is what the “churn rate” of graduates of these puppy mills are. What percentage are active five years later? Or even six months or a year? I would expect it to be pretty low.

    I know I’m dating myself with this, but when I got my novice ticket almost 49 years ago, I had a pretty good understanding of ham radio. And when I upgraded through the ranks (finally to Extra in 1971 – back then you had to be General or Advanced for two years before you could even test for the Extra), I had a pretty good understanding of electronics, the rules, etc. But back then the tests were administered by the FCC, and there was no memorization. All there was were guidelines; you had to actually be able to compute reactance and resonant frequency in a circuits for instance (and this was before hand-held calculators – slipstick or by hand). But I knew what I was doing.

    And the “churn rate” for new hams was pretty low, because every ham had to actually work for his/her license. (An added benefit was hams cherished their privileges and the HF bands didn’t have much of the crap you hear nowadays).

    Now I’m not saying hams need to be able to build/repair their own equipment. Radios have become way too complex for that – I hate to even take the cover off them nowadays, despite many years of working on electronics. But they should have a basic understanding of how radios and antennas work. They should have some knowledge of operating a radio. IOW, they need a real class, taught over several weeks, preferably with on-the-air HF experience at club members’ stations (or club stations if there are any available).

    That would do more for the hobby than just pumping the number of hams up, many of whom won’t be around in a couple of years.

  5. Testing insures people are interested enough to want to get into the hobby. Even if they just memorize most of the study guides they at least retain SOME of the material. We already dropped the code tests. If people can’t take the time to study a little to pass a test then they should stay the hell out. It’ll turn into a free for all and not in a good way. Enough of the damn free rides, people today want to be GIVEN everything. BAD IDEA.

  6. Sorry – no. I do not want the Ham bands to turn into CB, which is precisely what will occur if we take the exam out and it is simply pay to play, as you suggest. CB was pay to play for a long time in the US before it disintegrated into chaos. Only then did the FCC do away with the pay to play scheme entirely, and it deterriorated further. People that want CB -or, for that matter, FRS/GMRS/MURS are welcome to do the pay to play thing.

    The exams today force the prospective ham to have a basic understanding of rules and regulations, frequency plans, etc before being able to go on-air…and that is fine. It is enough of a barrier – combined with the prospect of significant fines – to keep the rif-raf out. 99% of equipment is not homebrewed unless that is the ham’s interest, and that is fine, as well.

    I remain unconvinced why there should be an elimination of the exams…because it appears to be working just fine.

  7. The $100 fee would be a HUGE hindrance to bringing young people into the hobby. I work with Boy and Girl scouts and our testing team is affiliated with the Laurel VEC, which means we’re not ARRL affiliated, and we do not charge a dime for the testing session. The $15 most other VECs charge IS a hurdle for a lot of youngsters, the $100 fee would certainly be a barrier to most of them. Removing CW requirement was supposed to turn the ham bands into CB, it didn’t unl;ess you count the shenanigans on a very few HF phones frequencies. There are scads of free examination prep sites on the internet, there are numerous free places on the web where one can take exams for practice until they can’t see straight. The Technician exam requires almost no technical aptitude, more like memorizing FCC regs than anything else and very little in the science of radio. I would be against the $100 fee, and I’d consider combining the three exams into a single entry free exam covering regs, theory and operation. The advanced learning comes when you start learning to operate the different modes, and bands. I could even get along with a free retest every ten years.

    As for all the money spent on learning guides, and operating manuals, and “how-to” tools, be they books or websites…I say let them be. No one is being forced to buy anything as it is.

    Brian Murrey

  8. Testing ensures that people are at least aware that there are regulations which need to be followed. Look at FRS/GMRS — many people use GMRS illegally as much because they dont’ realize they are as anything else.

    Testing ensures that they have at least had a perfunctory introduction to the regulations and reasons for them. They may not understand all of the technical details, but at least they have a chance of operating correctly.

    Just my $0.02 =]


  9. Well i think the licensing should be dropped!, yes basic exam and licence fee’s but only just hard enough that it will keep ya 10-4 rubber ducks out because they won’t want to do the bit of study needed.

    and the only 1’s that won’t agree are those that had to do it, they have no interest for the future of ham radio as a whole, it’s all about them having to work for it and they don’t like the idea of it being made a hell of a lot easier for today’s generation to get into ham radio.

    This is the the 21st century and ham radio is dying faster than ever, but do the o’l boy’s care? no! but they will when we lose our bands and there’s no-one left to talk to, I have had my licence now for over 12yrs and i couldn’t give a toss if the younger generation got in easier, the more we get into ham radio the longer it will last,

    i think they should have a basic test to get in ,but they should be able to have access to at least all HF spectrum and at least 100 watts and digital modes! If they want higher bands and power well maybe have some sort of upgrade test.

    I have been listening around the bands for the last 18 odd months and it’s dead! even the OCDX contest there were bugger all hams on, so what’s that tell ya?. Wake up fella’s we are in the digital age now of satellite communication, mobiles phones, and internet! ham radio is nothing more than a hobby and should be treated as such!

    Do you really want ham radio to become like Hamsphere and only be a simulated conversation via inet? if you want that sell your gear and get on skype! nothing like working the world via internet said no-one ever!.


    1. I totally disagree. You want to basically just hand people a license? Kids today want everything handed to them, no one wants to work for anything anymore. “GIMME,GIMME,GIMME.” Ham radio isn’t dying, license numbers ARE UP. We’re headed toward solar minimum so the bands will suffer for a few years then get better. Also, the bands are NOT dead. Even me with an end fed strung up hears people. Tune around the CW portions for example.
      Your picture of ham radio gloom & doom is bullcrap.

      1. It’s exactely what i said m8, it’s dying off i been on for years and iv’e been watching it die, yes licence numbers are up but not by much, and i’d like a dollar for every newcomer that’s said it’s not what they expected and don’t plan on renewing their licences, why? mainly because of smart mouth ol’timers that think they own ham radio and il’l bet! your an ol’timer that’s why you don’t want to see it happen,

        well guess what? it’s not about you it’s about the future of dying ham radio, pfffttt CW! i reckon even during pile ups on 40m iv’e probably heard maybe 5 or 6 stations, stop trying to make a diamond out of a pigs ear! you know damn well i’m right but would rather see ham radio die off than see someone get into it easier than you did!. WAKE UP!

  10. @Shane, I think you need a decent antenna and/or receiver. I’m with Tommy – i hear activity on the HF bands any time they are open. Activity is great – on 75 meters, for instance, it can be hard to find an open spot to call CQ.
    I’ve been a ham for almost 49 years, and I’ve been hearing that same old refrain “Ham radio is dying” for the entire 49 years. Every year it seems to be a different reason – but every year it’s the same dire prediction. And guess what – it hasn’t happened yet. In fact, activity on the HF bands seems to be greater every year.
    Now I’m not saying we don’t have problems. There’s a lot of garbage on some of the frequencies already – 75 meters, 20 meters centered around 14.313, and others. I’d like to see this cleaned up.
    But if you aren’t interested in studying a few hours for a test, then you have 11 meters.

    1. i’d prefer 11m any day of the week! at least they’ll talk to ya there! not just exchange readability then cya! how boring! and i have plenty good enough numerous antenna’s to know the bands are dead.

      1. @Shane, once again you show you know nothing about ham radio. It’s a lot more than just exchanging readability and cya. I’ve had some good, long conversations with people all over the world. I have met a large number of friends on ham radio, from all kinds of different cultures around the world.
        And if you think the bands are dead, then you either have bad antennas or a bad receiver – or both. The bands are alive and active.
        But one thing you have proven is just why we need tests. It’s to keep people like you off our bands.

  11. @Tommy, I actually don’t think he is. Trolling would require a modicum of intelligence – which he obviously does not have.

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