The number of licensed amateur radio enthusiasts in the United States is not usually a statistic that I keep up with. I’ve been licensed for a long time and have read enough opinions about the inevitable death of the hobby due to our inability to attract youngsters that I’ve become immune to that panic. Strangely enough, you can do a little spelunking through 1930’s era QST magazines and read the exact same opinion. Surely by now we can admit that the notion of death due to a lack of youth is either faulty or the process is eternally slow.
But that doesn’t mean amateur radio is safe from extinction.
Out of morbid curiosity I spent some time recently looking to see how we are faring these days and found that in terms of number of licensees in the US, we may have peaked. Growth had been swift and impressive in the aftermath of the code-less license but it seems that magic potion may have lost its efficacy.
I admit these kind of statistics are best viewed in the rear-view mirror from miles away as trends are much easier to spot that way. And the ten-year license term makes it tougher to detect small changes but the numbers do indicate that growth has stalled over the last few years when any detectable increase must be reflected using a decimal point if you want to put a positive spin on it.
More troubling than the slowing overall number is that more than half of all licensees in the US hold the entry-level Technician class license. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The plan was to provide an easy point of entry to the hobby where new licensees could get a taste for radio adventure and a thirst for a higher class license with expanded privileges.
Obtaining a license isn’t difficult. Maintaining that license is even easier given that it can be renewed online for free. What it looks like may have happened is that a LOT of people entered the portal, took a look around and didn’t care for what they saw. They may have lost interest but there’s no reason to officially checkout so the number of Technicians remains swollen.
And I suspect this may be at the root of ARRL’s anxiety over a recent FCC proposal that could attach a fee to amateur licensing, including renewals. Fifty dollars for a ten-year license won’t reduce the number of active radio operators by even one. But that same fifty bucks might be sufficient friction to cause some dormant licensees to drop out of the pool altogether when it comes time to renew. A large downward shift in the number of of US hams is not the kind of publicity that will make the job of promoting and protecting amateur radio any easier.
If we were to see this Great Contraction in addition to continued commercial pressure for valuable segments of our spectrum along with falling interest in ham radio providing emergency communication services then the entire enterprise might become wobbly enough to speed its demise. I’m not losing sleep over that prospect and neither should you, but the healthy environment required for amateur radio to thrive appears to be turning toxic at a quickening pace.