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The Amateur Radio Service is governed by the FCC

Rule Part 47 C.F.R, Part 97 of the FCC, governs The Amateur Radio Service. This is a great spot to learn everything about how the Amateur Radio Service is governed by the FCC, but it's probably not a great starting point to begin your journey to becoming a Ham.

Looking through their site you'll quickly come to realize there are a lot of different types of communications they have to deal with and the Amateur Radio Service as they say is just allocated to "twenty-nine small frequency bands throughout the spectrum". What they've done is decided that there will be three classes of licenses that they currently grant: Technician, General and Advanced Extra. And they've decided that to be granted one of those licenses the applicant needs to demonstrate their understand of the rules that govern the service and have an understanding of the technology behind it.

Now about those tests

We know that the FCC has a lot on their hands so in 1984 they developed a system where amateur radio operators pretty much govern themselves. It starts with the tests to become licensed. The FCC has designated the design and development of the tests to the National Conference of Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (NCVEC).

They in turn develop pools of questions for each "Element".

  • Element 2 - Technician - effective July 1, 2018 until June 30, 2022
  • Element 3 - General - effective July 1, 2019 until June 30, 2023
  • Element 4 - Extra - effective July 1, 2020 until June 30, 2024

Each pool of questions includes at least 10 times the number of questions on a given test. For instance a current Technician's exam (Element 2) would draw 35 questions from the pool of 423 total questions. For more information about how this is done see the NCVEV site. The good news is that all the questions in all the pools are made public so there are no surprises when you take the exam.

How to study and pass an exam

The Technician exam will make you a Ham with limited but useful access to the airways as seen in this chart of US Amateur Radio Bands and it's the first and maybe only exam you need to take to meet your goals. By the way, passing is answering 26 out of 35 questions or 74.29%. There are several approaches to learning the material and passing the exam.

The basic approach is to get a good book and study the material. ARRL, the largest Amateur Radio Association puts out lots of books including one of the most thorough for preparing for the Technician's exam, the ARRL Ham Radio License Manual 4th Edition

Another method is learn the material by taking practice tests over and over until you're confident you've learned enough to pass. This really isn't a bad way to learn the material because you'll be exposed to all the material you need to know to get started. One of the many good sites to take practice tests online is the free practice test site. You'll need to register so that they can store your tests results and you can see your progress. It's suggested that you should wait until you're consistently getting scores above 90% before taking the actual test. If you do this, you're almost guaranteed to pass your license exam.

Another way to do the same thing is to use an App. A very good one that's also free is by Roy Watson, N1ZTL and it's available from the Google Play Store and the Apple Store. It's free and works well on cellphones and similar devices. Like the site it'll keep track of your progress, it'll show you all the questions and answers if you want to see what the material is before you start working your way to scoring over 90% on their practice tests. One thing to keep in mind when selecting a site or App to get ready for the actual exam is that the questions and answers are the same every where.

One more way to become a Ham is to attend a workshop/test session. Unfortunately, at this writing with COVID-19 there are very few of these sessions taking place around the country. What usually happens is during the morning they teach the attendees the material that is needed to pass the test and in the afternoon the test is given and hopefully at the end of the day there are lots of new Hams.

How to arrange to get tested

Once again because of COVID-19 this has become a little bit tricky to say the least. In the past, you'd go to a local nearby site like the Bay Area Educational Amateur Radio Society to find a test site and a date. This has become a lot tougher now. Once again ARRL offers a site that will try to find close-by tests. While you might find some sites, they may not be very close.

The pandemic has brought on a fairly new method of testing, the remote test. But first a little about the traditional test process. When you go to an in person test there will be a minimum of three VEs or Volunteer Examiners proctering the test. You'll take the test and find out the results which if you pass will be relayed on to the FCC where they will record you as a new Ham and issue you a callsign. The VEs are certified by a regional VEC who is inturn governed by the NCVEV. These examiners usually hold Amateur Extra class licenses.

With remote testing you, the testee, still needs to be observed by three VEs. What happens is that the testee and the VEs meet through a Zoom connection where the VEs direct the testee to a website that contains the test. Before the test begins the VEs will often ask the testee to open an additional web camera and ask the testee to show them the place where the test is being taken. They're looking to see that the testee is alone, that there aren't any "crib" sheets or other reference materials in view or reach.

Once the VEs are satisfied that every thing looks right they'll have the testee share their screen and watch as the testee takes the test. Once the testee completes the test the results are shared with the testee. If the testee was successful he or she will be offered the chance to take the test for the next license level if they want. Because of the current difficulty scheduling and taking the test, it might just be worth studyying for say the General test as well as the Technician's test. Doing this will give a new Ham great access to the HF bands.

Another good site for finding both in-person testing and more importantly online or remote testing is HamStudy.Org. You'll probably see that most of the sessions quickly fill. One tip if you're fairly flexible and motivated is to identify a group of testers and see if you can reach out to them and ask to be put on a waiting list if someone cancels. One of our newer hams did this last year with the AA7HW VE Team out of Oregon. Their leader Herb Weiner was more than happy to offer last minute openings. If you're determined, you can make it work.

Three sites to start looking for a test

Good luck!

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