by Steve Miller
Imagine the government actually doing something that made sense. I know, that’s a fantasy that most of us can’t even imagine. Nevertheless, it’s happened. The FCC has petitioned to drop the $21.40 fee for vanity call signs for amateur radio operators. Their logic is that it costs more to process the fee than the revenue it brings in.
When they raised the fee last September, I wondered why they didn’t make it an even twenty-five bucks. After all, it’s something of a luxury just like vanity license plates on your car. Nevertheless, if it costs more to collect money than the money you collect, then it seems that collecting the money to start with shouldn’t happen. Does that make sense?
I love the vanity call sign program. When I first got licensed, what you got for a call sign is what you kept forever – unless you moved to a new call area. Then you had to give up the call that you loved (or loathed) for one you liked (or hated even worse). I know hams who got calls that were very cumbersome in CW or difficult to announce phonetically. “Too bad,” said Uncle Charley, “Unlike love, your call sign is forever.”
In the 1990s, to combat the decline of amateur radio licensing, several measures were taken to inspire more people to sign up. Incentive licensing was abandoned, the code requirement was eliminated (to the chagrin of many), and a vanity call sign program was rolled out. No longer did your number have to match your call area. Extra Class operators had the opportunity to select a shorter call. Contesters and CW operators could pick calls that were easy to send and copy or that stood out in a pileup. All of a sudden amateur radio licensing took a turn for the better when the drudgery was eliminated from what has always been a fun hobby.
The bottom line is that anyone really serious about ham radio identifies with their call sign. I have known people for years by their call sign before I even knew their last name. It’s important that an operator have a call that he likes and that he can live with. Vanity calls were a step in the right direction. Now let’s take a look at a new idea: Call sign registration.
This would work very much like the current vanity program except that the operator would pick his call and register it to his station. It would be his as long as his license is current. In order to preserve some sort of incentive, I would restrict all vanity calls to General class licenses and above, 4-character calls being restricted to Extra class licensees. In addition, preference on any call would go to the Extra class licensee. Anyone taking the General or Extra exam could register a call sign as soon as they pass.
This is not intended as something to disenfranchise the Technician licensees. Rather, it gives them an incentive to upgrade. After all, if they are passionate about amateur radio, they’re going to want to upgrade their license and pick their call. If their use of amateur radio is more casual, than a six character call sign shouldn’t be an issue.
I also believe that there should be a fee for registering a call that isn’t registered when the test is taken. This prevents at least some operators from changing call signs on a whim. At a time when the FCC is petitioning to cut back on enforcement personnel and stations for both commercial and amateur radio services in order to save a few hundred thousand dollars, a little extra revenue from call sign registration shouldn’t hurt. It could be administered by ARRL volunteers, much like the Volunteer Examiner program, with some sort of revenue sharing that would benefit the organization and the FCC.