One of the tenets of the amateur radio license is in its name: it is a license specifically designed for interested individuals who may not be paid or compensated for their work using this license. There are tons of advantages to this limitation, and I will always adamantly defend the unpaid nature of amateur radio activities.
That being said, there comes a point when I can no longer work within the limitations of the amateur ticket, so I decided to spend the time and money and get myself a part 90 commercial license, which was just granted to me this week! WQXE668 (It doesn't really roll off the tongue, does it?)
Let us start with the what. The part 97 amateur radio licenses granted me the privileges to operate radio stations under my control on lots of little slices of frequencies. A little around 4MHz, a little around 7MHz, a little around 146MHz, a little around 440MHz, etc. As I passed the tests for higher level licenses (technician to general to extra) the FCC allowed me access to larger slices of frequencies to do with as I pleased.
This new part 90 license is a "commercial itinerant" license, which lists a specific set of frequencies and modes which I am allowed to use in a designated area. Being a commercial license means these privileges don't come with the strings attached preventing me from getting paid. Being itinerant means I'm limited to a subset of the business pool frequencies which are uncoordinated, so the FCC makes no guarantees that I won't have to deal with other stations on the same frequencies. I opted to get some frequencies in the VHF highband around 150MHz, some up in the UHF band around 460MHz, and even some VHF low-band frequencies around 30MHz, because who knows which ones I'll ever want?
This license also no longer only covers me. I am ultimately legally responsible for this license, but when I applied for it, I asked to be licensed for two repeaters and 500 mobile stations on every repeater pair. 500. This license doesn't just cover me, but myself and 499 of my closest friends.
It's not that I mind volunteering my time on weekends providing communications support to events, but there's some problems with trying to provide a strictly amateur communications network for an event:
- Everyone HAS to be volunteers. It gets hard getting enough volunteers when the deployments aren't pleasant or convenient. Using a commercial license, payment is now an option for event staff. I've been paid as much as $1400 for working a weekend as a communications volunteer, and that's specifically disallowed using my W6KWF license.
- Everyone HAS to be licensed. The amateur radio license isn't hard. It's 35 multiple choice questions. The thing is, it's a barrier that limits who can pick up a radio and talk into it. Using a commercial license frees us from having to have two sets of volunteers; those who need to run the radios, and those who need to run the event. It is a common complaint from event organizers that amateurs show up to play with their radios and little else. With a commercial license, we can now hand radios to our regular volunteers, and communications doesn't need to be the focus of their responsibilities.
This second point can be controversial. There are those who will argue that hams have spent more time practicing using radios and passing information through them, so hams should be more effective operators of the radio than some random volunteer who has been given a 20 minute introduction to which button to press and which part to point up. I'll agree that there are some rare instances where this is true, but comparing hams running their weekly practice nets where they are completely unable to handle anything unexpected vs total novices figuring it out during event setup, I won't back up hams as the superior communications force.
Getting my part 90 license wasn't prohibitively hard, but after getting it, I appreciate why most people opt to use third party licensing firms who will fill out all the paperwork and deal with the FCC for you. They cost a little more money, and save a lot of time, but in the end you end up with the same license.
I instead opted to do the research myself, figuring out what the different station codes and modulation codes mean, and which frequencies I can pick from, and what forms I need to fill out. I figure I spent about 10 hours researching how to fill out the 601 license application form, two hours filling it out, and $165 to turn the crank.
$165 and two hours to fill out a form on a horrendous Java application. I was able to do it during my lunch break at work, with no test, and after a day of engineering review the FCC granted me the license less than 48 hours after I pressed submit.
Before you ask, I've thought long and hard about offering my assistance or posting a detailed blog post on exactly how to get a part 90 itinerant license, and I've decided to not get into that at this point for a number of reasons. There is a lot of ignorance coming from hams in the forums about getting part 90 licenses, and the vast majority of it has proven to be false, but I don't feel that I'm yet qualified to try and refute it.
I am also always interested in any special events you're involved with in Northern California which need either paid or volunteer communications support. My docket for this spring is just about full, but I'll always consider it, and have some friends to whom I would gladly pass the info.