What? A Record Level of US Ham Licenses?

The ARRL just reported that the number of FCC amateur radio licenses hit an all time high of 717,201 at the end of 2013. Since we all know that the interwebz has made ham radio communication obsolete :-), this is a difficult statistic to comprehend. Joe Speroni AH0A keeps a useful collection of ham licensing statistics including the ability to generate plots of the data. I used Joe’s site to generate this plot of total US amateur licenses versus time. Note that the vertical axis does not start at zero, so the plot tends to exaggerate the amount of change.


Click to expand

From this plot, we see that the number of licenses was in decline from about 2003 to 2007. The no code Technician license was introduced in 1991 which is earlier than the data on this chart. The FCC completely dropped the Morse Code requirement from all license classes in 2007, as indicated on the chart. (See Wikipedia for the exact dates.) The decline in licenses was reversed at that time and has been growing ever since.  There is an interesting inflection point in 2010 that coincides with the release of a new Technician License question pool. The line is noticeably less steep after this point, which seems to imply that something happened to slow down the rate of new licenses.

Over the last ten years, Technician licenses have grown slightly as a percent of the total, going from 47% to 49%. So about half of US licenses are Technician. The grandfathered Novice and Advanced class licenses are in a slow decline and currently represent 2% and 8% (respectively) of the total licenses. The percent of General licenses has grown slightly over the past ten years, from 21% to 23%. Extra class licenses showed the most growth over the decade, going from 15% to 19% of total licenses.

While it’s encouraging to see continued growth in the number of ham radio licenses, these statistics immediately raise a number of questions:

  • How many of these licensees are Silent Keys and their FCC license is just clocking time until it hits the 10 year expiration date?
  • Given the aging ham population, when will we hit a demographic brick wall and see the number of licenses decline?
  • How many of these licensees are actively involved in ham radio? I have a number of friends that keep their FCC license current but are never on the air.

Clearly, the 10 year license term will tend to mask any decline for a while but it seems that sooner or later the numbers will flatten off and probably start to decline. I don’t know of anyone that has collected and analyzed the age distribution of hams, so I am basing this on what I see at radio club meetings and major ham radio events.

How many of these licensees are active? Really difficult to say. It seems that in the 21st century, people have many activities to choose from and their interest in any one of them may fade in and out. Not everyone is a Full Up 24/7 Ham Radio Enthusiast.

In the mean time, I am going to keep teaching Tech license classes and helping people get started in a hobby that I find to be a lot of fun. Remember the The Universal Purpose of Amateur Radio: To Have Fun Messing Around with Radios.

73, Bob K0NR

7 thoughts on “What? A Record Level of US Ham Licenses?

  1. There is no statistic either, for the quality of Hams coming up through the ranks. How many went through a class vs. Just studying a manual…etc.

  2. While I understand what you mean about the demographic of hams that are involved in radio clubs, I don’t think those clubs are representative of the active hams. Partly, younger generations are less apt to be involved in groups of any type. (See the book Bowling Alone for more examples.)

    I’m a fairly young ham, 32, with a young family. It’s difficult to find the time to be active in radio clubs. I’m a member of one, but have never been to one of their events. I’m mostly a member because I use their repeater almost every day.

    Yesterday, I was at a test session where I upgraded to General. There were a dozen others taking tests, the majority for their Technician. The majority of them were in there 20s. I’m not nearly as pessimistic about the future of our hobby as you are.


  3. Another question is how does this growth rate compare to the growth rate of the US population? In other words, are we gaining ground or losing ground in terms of ham radio licenses as % of US population.
    Looking at just 2010 to 2013, recent years with a steady growth rate of licenses, the number of licenses grew from 696,041to 717,201. This is a 3% total increase, or 1% annual increase.
    The US population statistics can be found here:
    During the same three year period, the US population grew from 309,326,295 to 316,128,839. This is a total increase of 2.2% or 0.73% annual rate.
    So the number of FCC licenses is growing faster than the overall population.

  4. I think of your three questions, the third is the most critical for amateur radio. Yes, there are SKs who are still in the FCC database, but I don’t think the number is that high, and as for question #2, as long as we continue to attract middle-aged and older folks, then I don’t think this is too big a deal, either.

    I’m more concerned about activity levels. What, exactly, are these new hams doing with their licenses? I wish we could get the ARRL to do a real survey so that we could get a better feel for what’s going on.

  5. I don’t understand the statement that the interwebz has made ham radio obsolete. I think the exact opposite is true, in fact. With the advent of Echolink, D-star and DMR, just to name a few, the internet is actually a “linear amp” for radio enthusiasts. Also, should the grid ever actually go down and the internet be inaccessible, we still have the reliability of radio communication.

  6. Jason,
    I agree with you…I made the statement in jest because I often hear people say it.