Surprisingly, the rights to some call signs turn on degrees of relatedness.

family tree-2Most of our postings here deal with grave concerns of policy and regulation. Once in a while, though, a not-so-grave item catches our eye. From one such we learned that, even in the American meritocracy, it really all depends on who you’re related to. Just ask the FCC.

Our topic here is amateur radio call signs, those combinations of letters and numbers that amateur radio operators use to identify themselves. You may have seen them on car license plates. One example is KD7HLX, formerly held by Joshua A. Babb of Maricopa, Arizona. We’ll come back to Mr. Babb.

In the ordinary case the FCC determines the call sign. The initial one or two letters and (usually) one numeral relate, respectively, to the licensee’s “operator class” and the licensee’s part of the country at the time of issue. Details are here. The rest of the call sign, consisting of one to three letters, is arbitrary and issued in sequence.

In 1995, though, the FCC began allowing applications for “vanity” call signs chosen by the licensee. Some prefer the shorter call signs that historically have been more prestigious. Especially prestigious are the so-called the 1x2s call signs, consisting of just four characters: a letter, a numeral and two letters. Before 1995 the 1x2s identified long-time veterans of amateur radio, although the  vanity system now makes them available to relative newcomers. (The even shorter 1x1s are reserved for special events and short periods.) Some licensees request call signs that include their initials or other meaningful sequences.

Most of the 1x2s are in use. Occasionally, though, one becomes available due to cancellation of the corresponding license, perhaps because the licensee has died. The FCC holds any cancelled call sign out of circulation for two years. After that, if more than one person wants it, the FCC assigns the call sign by lottery.

The above-mentioned Joshua Babb, seeking both brevity and his initials, applied for four vanity 1x2s call signs ending in JB, including W3JB. The FCC turned him down as to all. Some, including W3JB, were still in the two-year waiting period; Mr. Babb lost the lottery on the others.

But there is an exception to the two-year wait. Following the death of a licensee, certain relatives can apply for the call sign at any time: the decedent’s spouse, child, grandchild, stepchild, parent, grandparent, stepparent, brother, sister, stepbrother, stepsister, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, or in-law. This exception has the effect of keeping a call sign in the family, if anyone wants it, as against non-relatives and more distant relatives.

A month before the two-year period for W3JB ran out, when it probably would have gone to lottery, Mr. Babb applied for it again, this time claiming to be a nephew of the deceased former holder, one John K. Birch. Well, okay, then, said the FCC, and granted the application.

But then the FCC gave the situation a second look. If Mr. Babb really was Mr. Birch’s nephew, why hadn’t he said so the first time he applied? They asked Mr. Babb to provide documentation of the relationship. We don’t see from the record that Mr. Babb provided any – we’re not even sure what kind of documentation could have established an uncle-nephew connection – but he did add some specificity: an assertion that Mr. Birch was his grandfather’s mother’s brother.

The FCC deduced that Mr. Babb was claiming Mr. Birch to be his great-great-uncle – a relationship missing from the list of exceptions. Documentation or not, this would not have made Mr. Babb eligible for W3JB until after the two-year waiting period, when he would probably have to had to take his chances in a lottery. The FCC accordingly issued an order proposing to take away W3JB and restore Mr. Babb’s original call sign, KD7HLX, and giving him 30 days to object.

The matter intrigues us for a few reasons. It shows that even the simplest-seeming FCC functions are subject to unexpected complications. It shows the FCC staff is more alert than Mr. Babb, at least, gave them credit for. It shows a surprising degree of tolerance toward Mr. Babb’s seemingly blatant misrepresentation (about being Mr. Birch’s nephew) that could have landed him in prison for five years. And, in the end, it shows that family connections really do matter.

(Thanks to Dave Sumner of ARRL.)