Saturday, July 23, 2005

Morse Code, we hardly knew ye.

The handwriting has been on the wall for some time. First, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) lifted the Morse Code requirement for ham licenses capable of international communications (mainly in the HF "shortwave" bands). Then many national communications agencies began removing the Morse component of radio amateur license requirements. Now, after some delay, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is proposing the same for the U.S.

Morse still has an avid following among ham operators. (I just joined the FISTS organization myself.) The Morse requirement is entwined with the long history of amateur radio. Recent changes to "water down" the license qualifications have been controversial. Often the arguments are of the type "When I was a boy..., men were men...".

Meanwhile the world has moved on. Demographically, the young experimenters who once sustained the hobby have moved on to video gaming and the Internet. The number of licensees seems to have peaked around 600,000 and has started a slow decline. (Removing the Morse barrier may give the numbers a boost.)

Technically, the operating modes available to hams have exploded. Beside traditional Morse and voice, there are now many computer-assisted options: keyboard-to-keyboard (many flavors), file transfers, digital voice and video, special modes for weak and bursty channels (moonbounce, meteor scatter), and more. Fortunately, we do not have to prove competence in each of these to qualify for a license.

Morse code is an anachronism, but we like our anachronisms. Listen to the low end of most HF amateur bands and you will find hams "pounding brass". Join in!

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