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SOS For A Fading Skill

Toledo Blade - Toledo, OH
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Proposal by the Federal Communications Commission to eliminate the Morse code requirement for gaining an amateur radio license is probably inevitable in the Internet age. Still, it marks another sad surrender to technological advance and a further step away from basic skills that stimulate the mind and improve the human condition.

The FCC is considering new rules that will no longer require applicants for a "ham" radio permit to send and receive messages with the electronic dots and dashes developed by Samuel F.B. Morse for his patented telegraph nearly 170 years ago.

The change, likely to be adopted next year, is mostly an issue for some 600,000 radio amateurs in the U.S., who now must demonstrate their code proficiency at five words per minute along with written examinations on technical matters and radio procedure for various levels of licensing. Dedicated hams believe the code requirement is among the factors that have separated them from the comparative frivolity of "citizens band" radio.

But it's more than that. Dropping the code requirement further distances the radio operator from the basics of the craft. While it is certainly easier to simply speak into a microphone than tap out a message on a telegraph key, the fact that less skill is required is not necessarily an advance.

Learning Morse code once was considered valuable not only for simple communication but also because it sharpened the mind. Generations of Boy Scouts may have been bedeviled by code tests needed to advance in rank and earn merit badges, but they were better, more responsible individuals for the effort and experience.

Likewise, amateur radio operators who know and use Morse code are, in a sense, more in tune with themselves and others. With their battery-powered equipment, hams continue to play an important role in modern communications, as they demonstrated during Hurricane Katrina, when land lines fell to the storm and the failure of electric plants made cell phones and the Internet useless in the face of disaster.

While it is almost certain that the FCC will drop the code requirement for amateur radio licenses, we would do well to use the occasion to ponder one of life's fading lessons:

Just because something is hard doesn't mean it's useless and, conversely, just because something is easy doesn't mean it's good.