Solid Foundations

At present, the RSGB are asking us (ie: those who care enough to respond) for our opinions on a new draft of the UK Amateur Radio syllabus – with a range of technical, ahem, gubbins, shifted from Intermediate to Foundation, the proposed changes will make it more of a challenge to get onto the initial rung of the licence/hobby ladder.  But… Is this necessarily a bad thing?  Should a particular level of technical ability be required before one is allowed unsupervised onto most (if not all) of our bands with 10-watts of power?  Should the course contain more practical elements in addition to “Build a station” , “Tune a dipole” , “Make a QSO” , “Appreciate Morse” ?

If reading the 80+ pages of the draft consultation don’t seem like a page-turner to you, our friends at Essex Ham have very kindly read it and highlighted the changes in simple terms for radio Hams to understand.  It’s generated a number of comments – many are worth reading, and I’ve commented, too.  To save you looking away I have re-produced my comment below:

The general feeling on the above page and through comments seen on Twitter, is that making it harder is an attempt by the RSGB to appease the G-brigade who expect anybody with a callsign to have passed a 2-part written exam that can only be taken twice a year and requires describing the inner-workings of a superhet receiver in the form of a humourous limerick.  I’m paraphrasing, of course – but on those sort of forums/groups, that’s the jist of it.  “Why should they get so much for so little?” – I guess that’s progress.  Evolution if you like.

Ah, evolution – something this hobby (and its participants) should do more…  Although the older licence system (before the early 90s Novice licence) was entirely theory-based, many Hams came into the hobby through a family member, work colleagues or just an interest in “wireless”.  Unlike today’s Foundation course, there were no practical elements as part of the course.  No on-air QSO.  No practical experience of tuning an aerial.  There was a Morse test – at 12 words per minute – which you had to pass in order to get access to the HF bands.  In the early 90s, the Novice licence was introduced and this removed the 14-year age requirement to get into the hobby; It also consisted of several practical elements including soldering and having a QSO on the air.

Of course, the allocations that came with this licence were very limited compared to the “Full” licence – and to get onto some of the HF bands required passing a 5-wpm Morse test.  Here are the allocations of the Novice (2E0/2E1) licence from 1995:

Novice Licence allocations from 1995

Yes, that’s all you got – and at only 3-watts!  Notice how the “fun” bands like 40m, 20m and 2m are missing – 70cm was where it’s at as far as local QSOs went back then.  These days, the Foundation allocation is very generous – probably too generous for my liking so I guess that making the exam harder justifies giving them 95% of the bands albeit at 10-watts.  This seems to have got the G-calls reacting!  The flip-side would be to leave the syllabus as it is but reduce the bands allocated to encourage more progression.  I suspect this method would provoke the most reaction from those who already have a Foundation licence!

Any technical exam needs to offer a reasonable and fair reward for the results obtained – and if the syllabus is “Foundation”, then there should be some restrictions on what you can/can’t do.  It should also be revised from time-to-time, in order to “reflect the evolution of our bands” (quoted from above) as our hobby is based around technology so those teaching it should be able to enthuse about the various aspects of it.  One local club, until recently, included “PacketUI-View” on a training slide.  Thankfully, that particular dinosaur has been persuaded that changes needs to occur every now and then.

Since October 2015, the RSGB have been responsible for managing the Amateur Radio exams – so this raises the issue of what commercial interest RSGB Limited (their real title) have in expanding the syllabus at Foundation?  Would a more thorough course mean a higher exam fee?  The review asks for our input yet doesn’t explicitly state their reasons for it.  If recent questions at the Essex Skills Night are anything to go by (regularly written by a member of the RSGB Exams Standards Committee), we seem to be moving towards an exam system where you are tested primarily on your ability (or not) to read the question rather than know and/or work-out the answer.

Here’s a great example of a really crappy exam question – and we’ve seen similar daft ones like this at Skills Nights:

“A Foundation licence holder is kayaking in tidal waters 5 miles off the mainland on an idle Tuesday – what time will his dinner be ready?”

I agree that, coming into the hobby, you should be able to demonstrate a basic level of knowledge encompassing basic electrical/electronic theory, radio propagation, transmission modes, aerials, as well as safety and common-sense.  Operating conditions – in particular using the “correct” words is an interesting one: There is no requirement to use Q-codes, QSL?  There’s nothing to stop you using “10-4” if you really wanted.  An “initial call” or “establishing contact” needn’t be a CQ, you could just say “M9ZZZ listening“.  The only requirement in our licence is that we can’t use obscure codes, so those in common use like QTH, QRZ etc are useful, especially across different languages.

Licence conditions, certainly the basics, should be appreciated although the more adventurous sub-clauses should be left to the “common-sense” part of the syllabus: If in doubt, look it up! … and there should never be any shame in having to look something up – that’s why we have reference books, search-engines and like-minded Hams to ask.  But does not knowing something, or, to be more accurate: Not knowing as much as somebody who took an exam 30 years ago make you any less of a Ham?  What is a real Ham?  Do you have to make your own equipment?  Do you have to use Morse?  Do you have to have the complete knowledge of Hamming inside your head available for instant recall?

Essentially, a new Ham should be able to do the following without any assistance:

  • Connect a station together: PSU, Radio, SWR Meter, Aerial
  • Adjust a Dipole and/or know how to use an ATU – as well as when to use coax and balanced-feeder
  • Find a clear frequency, call CQ, make a contact, give a signal report etc
  • Know which band (and time) to use if they want to speak with Germany, a friend 10 miles away or Australia

Those are the basics, right?  The rest is the wonderful learning-curve that is Amateur Radio, innit.

The new syllabus (if/when adopted) will, in the short-term, affect the trainers – some of whom will be dragged kicking and screaming into reality with a fresh set of slides and a bit more work.  However, the long-term affects are pretty unknown so we can’t say for certain what impact (if any) a more thorough training scheme will have on the hobby.  The old RAE was no barrier to those who wanted a licence – In the early 80s, the entire G6-series of callsigns were allocated 1981-1983 thanks to the widespread popularity of CB radio.

Today, getting into the hobby is easier, quicker and a darn sight more enjoyable that the previous system – and the internet makes learning much easier for those who like to self-study.  These days, we are more used to people who have difficulties with reading/numbers – and assistance for that can be given which allows anyone capable of understanding the syllabus to have a fair chance of getting a licence.  As it’s a hobby, you can proceed further up the licence system not only at your own pace, but if you feel the extra privileges would be of benefit to you.

In summary, we need to get over the fact that somebody has the same (or similar) privileges to us by taking an easier exam – and look at the state our hobby is in now, what we have to compete with in terms of other hobbies, lifestyles etc and decide the fairest way of giving people a licence based upon their training.