Serving K-W Radio Amateurs Since 1922

The Morse Code Decision
Some facts worth considering
by Ken Pulfer VE3PU

VP International Affairs
Radio Amateurs of Canada

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Following the revisions to the international radio regulations at the recent World Radio Conference, it now seems almost inevitable that most countries will decide to drop Morse code testing for access to the HF bands. Some of the reasons why attitudes are changing are explained in the background section below. 

What should we do in Canada? The decision to change our examination requirements in Canada is for the government regulator Industry Canada to make. To help Industry Canada decide, we are each being asked to express our views on the retention or discontinuation of Morse code as a proficiency requirement for HF operation in Canada. 

We are a sovereign country, and can decide whatever we want in terms of qualifications of our Radio Amateurs, but we do have to live in the world amateur radio community, and we ignore the actions of other countries at our peril. Opinions on the subject can be quite emotional, so before we jump to a quick decision, let’s look at some of the possible consequences of changing the testing requirements here in Canada.

And, let’s not forget that we are talking about regulations, not an operating mode. Amateurs around the world will continue to use cw on HF for many years to come, regardless of what the testing requirements are.


The purpose of the International Telecommunications Union Radio Regulations is to deal with the potential problem of spectrum users in one country interfering with users in another country. Such international interference can take place in three important situations. 

The first is when a low orbit satellite that covers the globe, or a geo-stationary satellite whose antenna pattern covers many countries, interferes with, or is subject to unintentional interference from, one or more ground stations in countries other than the country of origin. Clearly there is a need for coordination of frequencies and power levels to prevent this from happening. Each country therefore becomes responsible for implementing the international regulations for satellites or ground stations originating in its territory.

The second situation occurs at HF frequencies, where long-range propagation is possible, and transmitters in one country can interfere with receivers in another. Once again, the ITU regulations impose on the local regulatory authority the responsibility of putting domestic regulations into effect to prevent interference in either of these two situations.

 (A third situation, where line of sight interference takes place in proximity to the border between adjacent countries is normally covered by bilateral agreements, and is not subject to ITU regulations.

The original purpose of the international regulation requiring Morse code for amateur operators, was to ensure that a radio amateur would understand instructions given in Morse code by government shore stations, and therefore avoid interference with marine shipping. (In the beginning transmissions were by spark, which was inherently broadband, so effectively all stations were on the same wavelength. Later, and for some time, there were no clearly defined worldwide frequency allocations at HF for amateurs).

Nowadays, the ability to read and send Morse code has little or no relevance to the likelihood of causing international interference, nor does it make a significant contribution to the training of commercial or military radio operators, as most other services have already discontinued the use of Morse code. Therefore the member countries in the ITU have just voted to drop Morse code proficiency as an international treaty requirement for amateurs operating in the HF bands. 

Over the past 80 years or so, the amateur community has come to regard Morse as a means of filtering candidates, so that only those who were willing to make the effort to learn Morse code were rewarded with the “privilege” of using the HF bands. However, that was not the intent of the regulation, and a much more effective means of ensuring a minimum of international HF interference is to ensure adequate knowledge of radio theory, good operating practices, and long range HF propagation. For this reason, national regulators such as Industry Canada, have little regard for arguments about the need for Morse code testing as a filter for candidates wishing to operate on HF.

So, as an alternative to Morse, why don’t we just make the exams harder, or require a more advanced level of knowledge to access the HF bands?  We could set a standard such that our HF operators would be the select few who really knew what they were doing on the air!! Sounds pretty good, but before we rush off and make such a policy decision, we should look at the consequences. 

Reciprocal Operating Agreements and International Permits

These days, a lot of amateurs travel outside their own countries, and many enjoy operating abroad. To avoid having to qualify for a foreign call sign by passing national examinations, or having to write to foreign governments months in advance to get permission to operate, many countries have signed international agreements giving their radio amateurs reciprocal operating privileges in other countries. By far the most successful of these has been the CEPT agreement, which allows operation in any one of dozens of countries, primarily in Europe, by simply carrying one’s certificate and an inexpensive permit. The International Amateur Radio Permit developed by countries in ITU Region 2 (the Americas) has been less successful, and recently a decision has been taken to merge the two agreements. 

The basis of reciprocal agreements is that each country accepts a commonly agreed set of standard qualifications for access to operating privileges. If one country sets up different domestic qualification standards, it may exclude itself from such agreements. 

If we go our own way with the Morse code issue in Canada, we may be excluded from the CEPT and IARP agreements, and of even more widespread concern, from the Canada / US bilateral agreement.

Canada / USA reciprocal operating agreement

The bilateral reciprocal operating agreement between Canada and the USA which has been in force since 1952. This agreement allows Canadians to operate in the USA, with full HF privileges if they currently have the 5wpm Certificate. NO advance notice is required, and it is not necessary to check in with the regulatory authorities.

We had a difficult situation with the Canada / US reciprocal operating agreement some time ago, when the USA allowed access to the HF bands with 5 wpm Morse, and Canada still required 12 wpm. The reciprocal agreement was in trouble because many US amateurs with HF privileges in the USA, were, by our rules, not allowed to operate HF in Canada. That could have excluded thousands of US visitors, including many who owned, and paid Canadian taxes on land and vacation properties here, and we, in turn, were in danger of losing our privilege of operating south of the border.

Whatever we decide, it is very important that we take into account what happens in the USA. Unfortunately, it may be some time before the FCC arrives at a decision as to what to do there.

 Possible Policy Decisions

1. Retain the Morse code Qualification

Canada could decide to retain Morse code testing for access to the HF bands, and forget about reciprocal operating agreements. This has the advantage of simplicity, but it would certainly make operating outside Canada, or foreign operation in Canada, much more problematic. 

2.  Replace the Morse Qualification with the Advanced Qualification for those who wish to operate in the HF bands
Since 2001, our Basic Qualification examination covers all the regulatory, operation and propagation topics necessary to avoid international interference, according to the ITU recommendations. Many Canadian amateurs do not realize the major changes that took place in 2001 to enlarge the examinations with many more questions added on regulations and operating. (See RIC-3, RIC-7 and RIC-8)

Our Advanced Qualification examination currently has no questions on regulations or operation. It is a technical examination to enable radio amateurs to safely build and operate home built transmitting equipment that will not cause interference, and to operate transmitters and amplifiers at high power levels. The same applies to the construction, installation and maintenance of repeater stations and those stations using remote control. 

The current Canada / US and CEPT agreements provide for two classes of operators, those who can operate on all bands, and those limited to operation above 30 MHz. The distinction is based on the old international requirement for Morse testing. Whether an applicant has passed a Basic or an Advanced exam is not important, since this has nothing to do with international interference. The idea that Canada would now use the Advanced exam as a new barrier to HF operation would not be accepted internationally, and would encounter resistance in Industry Canada as well.

3.  Make our Basic Exam More Difficult
Seen from the point of view of government, the Amateur Service, far from being simply a hobby or privilege, is considered to be a benefit to society in a number of ways. It helps in times of natural disaster, it provides a free means of introducing and training young people in science and technology, and it contributes in various ways to advancement in technology. For these reasons, radio amateurs are allowed access to about 10% of the very valuable spectrum used for radiocommunication.

Most governments therefore do not want to limit the number of amateurs. On the contrary, they want to have the maximum number of amateurs as long as they don’t cause interference to others. For this reason, Industry Canada would oppose a proposal to increase the difficulty of the Basic examination.

Here are some possibilities that will not have international implications, and that could, to some extent, act as a replacement for Morse testing.

1. Increase the pass level on the Basic exam for access to HF. Someone has suggested that an 80% score be required before HF operation would be allowed.  Those achieving only the current pass level of 60% would be allowed to operate only on the bands above 30 MHz. 

This seems to satisfy all of the above concerns, although there may be a need for some renegotiation of reciprocal agreements depending upon the decisions taken by other countries. This change would not represent a large increase in administrative overhead for our Accredited Examiners, or for the Industry Canada Radio Inspectors or administrators. Alone, it may not be the best solution for the Amateur Service in the long run. 

2. We could expand the Basic question bank to improve those aspects which impact on a candidate’s ability to understand and avoid causing interference, (particularly the interference which might be caused by the variety and complexity of new digital and spread spectrum modes coming into use). While this would not make the examination more “difficult”, it would result in an examination covering a broader scope. A graduate of this expanded examination should be more prepared to deal with the realities of amateur radio operation, including HF, in the 21st century. By way of explanation, since 1990, the Canadian amateur radio examination curriculum has remained constant. However, the relevance and variety of questions covered in the question banks was increased in 2001, as a result of converting the questions to a structured examination syllabus enabling the automatic computer generation of examinations. (See Industry Canada RIC-3 for details)

Either or both of these options could be implemented with positive results for the Amateur Service. 

Unfortunately neither solution can be applied to improve on-the-air operating practices of those who currently hold certificates. One can only hope that the convenience of computerized testing and the easy availability of study material might encourage many amateurs to voluntarily study and take new tests to re-qualify, with improved on-air operation.

Ken Pulfer VE3PU


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Kitchener-Waterloo Amateur Radio Club Inc.
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