CUMBERLAND - Amateur radio buffs have less than a month before the licensing exam changes, making obsolete what has been considered a difficult but historically important part of being a ham operator.
When a new rule by the Federal Communications Commission goes into effect Feb. 23, amateur radio licensing exams will no longer feature the Morse code component. Previously, most applicants were required to know that language.
The change will signal an end of an era, and follows the footsteps of a 2003 conference of the International Telecommunication Union, which resulted in revisions in international law.
Several classes of license exist within the ham radio world, each with increased operating privileges, giving ham operators more freedom. This allows amateurs to use additional radio frequencies, giving them a wider range of people to talk to, as well as longer distances over which to talk.
"You can go more places on the dial," Bill Tucker, vice president of the Mountain City Amateur Radio Club, said.
Using Morse code helps hams in that endeavor, for if a radio signal is too weak, a voice transmission may not be strong enough to understand.
"That is really the beauty of it. (You can) pick that signal out when speech is unintelligible," Tucker said. "It will get through bad atmospheric conditions when other modes won't."
Morse code was invented by Samuel Morse in the 1800s, when the American inventor devised what has been called the world's first Internet. Operators tap out letters using a series of short signals (dots) and long signals (dashes). Perhaps the most famous Morse code transmission was that used by sailing vessels in distress - three dots, followed by three dashes, then three more dots, in sequence, known as an SOS signal.
Morse code allows its users to communicate over a much greater distance, using far less power than with other methods. To communicate with a ham radio takes 500 watts of power, compared to only 15 watts of power to "talk" using Morse code.
Using Morse code, "in good conditions, you can talk 10 or 20,000 miles, all the way to Russia," said Ken Currence, past president of the Mountain City Amateur Radio Club.
Until recently, Morse code was used by military forces around the world, being hailed as an excellent method of transatlantic communication. But within the last 10 years, one country after another stopped using it.
As that happened, Morse code requirements for amateur radio operators became less stringent. Some classes of licenses once required being able to key 20 words per minute. That was decreased to 13 wpm, and finally, to five wpm for all classes.
"If a person wishes to learn it, it's still ... available. In fact, it's quite accepted among a certain segment of our operators ... it's like music to their ears," Tucker said.
Requiring proficiency in Morse code kept out people who weren't serious about the rules and regulations, Currence said. In view of the relaxed requirements, he's hoping the FCC will continue to make sure the regulations are followed.
Because proficiency can mean more than a month of two 20-minute study sessions per day, Tucker believes Morse code is a beneficial discipline. Although Tucker said this is "a weak case" to continue to require Morse code's use, the discipline "helped the operator to develop good study processes."
Paradoxically, the very effort needed to benefit from the discipline has been an impediment for some people, which is another reason for its demise within the world of ham radio. The American Radio Relay League reported that requests for study materials "more than doubled" after the announcement to drop the Morse code requirement, thus indicating increased public interest in the field.
"It will make it a lot easier for those that are interested in amateur radio ... believe me, (learning Morse code) was hard," Currence said.
Proponents of the impending change also believe it will provide more ham radio operators who can help in times of natural disasters or other emergency situations. In recent years, ham radio operators often have been a lifeline. When all other avenues of communication were cut off, they helped people affected by Hurricane Katrina and also in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. When the 1985 flood went through Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Currence remembers spending two months in Romney helping "when all the high-tech stuff went down."
If proponents are correct, there may be more people with ham radio licenses to help out the next time - but they probably won't be tapping out that old SOS signal when they do.
Daleen Berry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.