On May 16, 2020 I passed both the Technician and General ham radio exams to become a licensed ham radio operator. This was not the first time I sat for a ham radio exam, but it was the first remote one I participated in due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Back in 2006 when I became licensed the first time before letting it expire. I took the Technician class exam down at the local Masonic lodge. I don’t recall the exact number of people there, but it was enough to keep three volunteer exam coordinators busy with collecting money, filling out the paperwork, and administering the exam. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but this was a federal requirement when administering ham radio license exams (I don’t think the question pool contained a question about the number of VEs needed to administer the exam like it does now.). Fast forward to 2020 and this rule hasn’t changed.
Ham radio has witnessed a resurgence in popularity in the last few months from what I can tell with vast portions of the population under stay at home orders. This has lead to a shortage in opportunities for people wanting to become a ham radio operator to actually undergo the exam for their license and raised questions about the viability of remote testing. The FCC has even weighed in on the subject restating their policy on the administration of remote exams issued in 2014. In 2014 the Anchorage Amateur Radio Club successfully positioned the FCC to allow them to administer exams remotely. This makes a lot of sense seeing how Alaska is a high state with many small populations spread out across the vast wilderness making it difficult and expensive to travel to an exam location. This ruling didn’t just effect the AARC, but all radio clubs administering exams throughout the country.
However, Hams being who they are were slow or resistant to embrace this change. It would have required them to learn how to adopt new technology and given the number of active ham websites that look like relics of the late 90s. It was clear remote examination wasn’t going to become widely adopted. Yet, here we are in the middle of a pandemic. Requiring most everyone to reassess remote access to in person gatherings whether it’s office work or ham radio license examination.
One such area of focus in regards to ham radio is the rule of three. This is the rule that three accredited volunteer examiners are required to administer an exam. Before Covid-19 exam sessions usually consisted of multiple potential hams all congregated together in a sole location. Three VEs could easily become overwhelmed should there be a massive turnout on exam day. With social distancing guidelines in some places and bans on social gatherings in others, the rule of three starts to become archaic when exam sessions become remote. The thought of three people observing a sole person take their ham radio license exam represents an inefficient use of resources.
At the time when I was looking into remote testing options, there were two radio clubs offering remote exam sessions (There should be a larger number now given the demand in the last month.). The first as mentioned was the Anchorage Amateur Radio Club and the other was the Greater Los Angeles Amateur Radio Group. I first looked into requirements for an exam session with the GLAARG. In their unnecessary lengthy explanation of their exam processes were details of how the exam session would be conducted. Once you signed up you were given a Zoom meeting invite for a particular day with the approximate start time of the exam session being held that day. The process consists of logging into the Zoom meeting and waiting in the “lobby” until it was your turn in line. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s a first come first serve system, and here’s the rub of the entire process: you might not be able to take the exam that day due to high number of examinees.
With the Anchorage Amateur Radio Club, you can schedule an exam session, however the application is written in a way that implies that a remote exam session is a last option. I guess that makes sense if you are in the middle of nowhere in a town of ten people. When I filled out the application, I wasn’t too sure that I would be accepted since I hadn’t bothered to look locally for an exam. The application stresses that you should first look locally first. In addition you have to have a proctor with you while you sit for the exam. Of course this couldn’t be just anyone; it had to be some government official or another ham radio operator who was willing to become accredited by the AARC. My proctor was my friend who was already an accredited volunteer exam coordinator by the ARRL. He used to administer exams in the state of Utah, however he still needed to go through the accreditation process.
With my exam scheduled and my proctor accredited with the AARC the day of my exam quickly arrived. Prior to the scheduled start time I was once again thinking about how stupid it was for four people to observe me take an exam. Once it was time for the exam to begin and we called into the conference bridge I was surprised to discover two additional examinees on the line. I was genuinely shocked based on my assumptions about the rule of three and the process outlined by the Greater Los Angeles Amateur Radio Group. I can’t say for sure since I wasn’t involved with an exam administered by the GLARG, but I firmly believe they do in fact have three VEs watching a single person during the exam (I know this shouldn’t bother me, but I hate inefficiency.).
The exam process was straightforward. I was presented a link to a website that presented the exam to me while projecting my smiling face back to the examiners through the use of a webcam. I breezed through the Technician class exam ease. Once I completed the exam, I was offered the opportunity to take the General class exam, which I took. This exam didn’t go so well for me. I still passed but the actual process broke down. I was about three quarters through the exam when the web app crashed on me. This was never wrecking since early in the session the wifi went out for a minute or two at the start of the Technician exam. The examiners tried several times to log me back into the exam but were unable to. At that point I thought I was going to have to retake the exam in its entirety. Fortunately for me the VEs decided to just read the last six questions to me over the phone. As they read each question and answer choices I couldn’t help feel as I was part of the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
Once I passed my exam on Saturday, my newly issued call sign was entered into the FCC database. Now that I’m licensed as a General class operator, I can begin studying for my Extra class exam. I won’t be undergoing this exam until at least July 1st, as this is when the new question pool changes. Hopefully, I’ll be acle to take the exam locally, but if not at least there is an option for a remote exam session.