The NEW Advanced Licence
A guide to the changes to the new Advanced Licence examination syllabus, such that clubs can modify their training programmes accordingly.
This is my third article about the new amateur radio examinations and before I get started on the detail of the new Advanced syllabus, I need to say something. These updates have been a controversial subject and some people are very critical of the syllabus changes.
Their main reasons seem to be:
- A more difficult Foundation syllabus is a barrier to getting people into the hobby.
- A more difficult Intermediate syllabus discourages Foundation licensees from progressing.
- Everything was fine as it was.
- There is a lot of work to do in migrating to the new syllabi.
- The new syllabus elements, primarily Digital Signals, are not necessary.
Well, there is some truth in some of that. But anyone would think, reading this, that an Intermediate licence was the pinnacle of being a radio amateur. It isn’t, and the licence names make my point for me. ‘Foundation’ is the beginning and ‘Intermediate’ is a waypoint on the journey to a ‘Full’ licence, awarded for ‘Advanced’ knowledge.
The driver for change was that too few amateurs currently progress to Full. See Fig. 1, for which I thank Steve Thomas M1ACB, RSGB General Manager. This shows that only about 300 new licences are issued annually but in 2017 1500 Full licensees died. Extrapolate this over not very long and a picture emerges in which Full licensees are rare, Intermediates are uncommon and Foundation licences make up the great majority of UK radio amateurs.
Fig. 1: Exam pass statistics
I mean no disrespect to Foundation and Intermediate licensees, let me make that clear. The bands, the clubs and the hobby need you. But amateurs stopping before Full has become a problem. If Full licensees continue to decline in number, who will hold club, special event and repeater calls? Who will sign off practical sheets for courses? Who – to be blunt – will have the necessarily deeper knowledge required to deliver the courses? And if those things don’t alarm you, consider this: how long can we expect Her Majesty’s Government to leave us alone with all those priceless chunks of RF spectrum and all our other privileges if amateurs are increasingly not licensed to use them?
This is where the new Advanced syllabus comes in − Intermediate licensees will find it easier to progress. Not because the standard has dropped (or risen), please note – it hasn’t – but because the new syllabus structure will produce students who are better prepared for the final jump.
In what follows I’ve used ‘Foundation’, ‘Intermediate’, ‘Advanced’ and ‘Full’ as shorthand to mean both licence and syllabus levels. By ‘lower’ levels I mean Foundation and Intermediate.
Hurdle number 1: All that Electronics
One of the reasons many Intermediate amateurs have been put off from taking their Full is the large amount of electronics in the syllabus. Nowadays, with fewer amateurs doing significant construction, having to know about electronics to component level is (for some) controversial but I return to my basic argument: this is an Advanced qualification, which distances us from mere users or consumers of technology.
Table 1 details the electronics content referenced to the old syllabus and shows where it is now. As you can see, much of the electronics learning has migrated downwards. In taking their Foundation and Intermediate, amateurs get progressively exposed to many of what were considered Advanced technical topics. Advanced requires understanding of these points, for sure, but I don’t think students will find this the mountain to be climbed that it once was.
Table 1: Summary of changes between Licence levels.
3a Potential Difference and EMF Intermediate
3b Resistance (series and parallel) Foundation and Intermediate
3c Power in DC circuits Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced (section 2B)
3d Potential Dividers Intermediate
3e Capacitance Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced (section 2D)
3f Inductance Intermediate and Advanced (section 2D)
3g AC circuits Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced (section 2E)
3h Didn’t exist
3i Tuned Circuits Advanced (section 2H). Q introduced at Intermediate
3j Transformers Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced (section 2G)
3k Filters Intermediate
3l Screening Intermediate
3mTemperature effects Intermediate (including practical exercise)
3n Semiconductor Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced
Depletion layer (‘holes and electrons’) now removed
Thermionic Valves now removed
3o Decibels Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced
3p Mains Power supplies Intermediate (but Switch Mode PSUs added)
Hurdle number 2: Digital Signals
Digital signals are, I suspect, more of an issue for teachers than students. We all have our favourite activities in the hobby, and if something ‘new’ falls outside that, it is human nature to ignore it.
Digital Signals is important though. This fusion of radio and IT technology is everywhere and it’s worth remembering that radio amateurs have had a lot to do with it. In these days of internet-connected everything, Joe Average sees us as dinosaurs because we do not use what he would even regard as Technology. SDR is, in this context, ‘sexy’ (not a word I ever expected to type for PW. ‘Cute’ was the closest I got before) and it will enthuse and motivate new dare-I say-it younger amateurs.
At Foundation, students learn the absolute basics, as recall points:
- Analogue to Digital converters (ADCs).
- Digital to Analogue converters (DACs).
- Special software that does all the modulating and demodulating using maths.
At Intermediate we get a little nearer to how things work. Students learn about:
- Sampling rates and Nyquist’s Law.
- Look-up table to generate sinewave
- Fourier Transform analysis (name of, as a recall point).
Only at Advanced do we get to the engineering realities of digital signal processing:
- I and Q components.
- Image frequencies and filters.
- Fourier Transform analysis – what it does (but still a recall point).
- Distortion caused by sampling above Nyquist rate.
See Figs. 2a and 2b for SDR block diagrams. These are the same ones I used for the Intermediate article – I have not seen any of the ‘official’ ones yet.
Fig. 2: Block diagrams of 2(s) SDR receiver and 2(b) SDR transmitter.
I will be writing a from-first-principles article on this but looking at these teaching points, all I see is some new names and related facts for students to remember, and some simple maths. There is bound to be someone in your club for whom this is their bread and butter so why not bring them into the teaching team just for these items?
Hurdle 3: The Maths
A lot of people find any maths difficult, never mind technical maths using scientific notation. On Foundation courses I have met people unsure of the meaning of multiplication and division, which makes teaching the Ohm’s Law and Power triangles difficult!
Understanding units, for example that 1mA is one thousandth of an Amp, also written as 0.001A, is a lot to handle for some students.
It’s the same at Intermediate but fortunately there was (and still is) no extra maths to speak of. Being ‘hopeless at maths’ has never been a barrier to the lower levels, because the radio fundamentals such as frequency and wavelength, and resonant frequency and capacitance and inductance, are taught graphically.
At Full, some mathematical skill is essential and nothing can be or has been done about that. It’s Advanced radio, as I said, and students cannot guess the answers to those questions and safely pass. I think we should ask students what their highest qualification in maths is, looking for GCSE Grade C or above as an absolute minimum. If necessary, we can put on remedial sessions. And if club teachers don’t have good enough maths (to teach Full) – well it’s never too late to learn!
Computer maths is no help by the way. In IT we have giga-things (and micro-processors) but we never process numbers in units of less than one. That’s Binary for you.
Selected New Syllabus Points to Note
Section 1: Licensing Conditions
The old syllabus says (Section 1a) ‘Licence clause numbers below are for ease of reference and do not necessarily indicate that the clauses not quoted are outside the scope of the syllabus’. Sorting out this triple negative, this says the whole licence (supplied for the exam) was examinable. The new syllabus does not say that, implying that questions can only be asked on Section 1.
1A5 – Circumstances under which an amateur must transmit a callsign on air. (Same as Foundation).
1C1 – Rules regarding encrypted transmissions (not allowed at lower levels).
1D4 – This contains a need to have equipment for ‘the reception of messages on all frequencies and modes in use for transmissions.’ I think this must mean our transmissions – i.e. we must be able to receive messages akin to those we transmit.
Section 2: Technical Aspects
2A1 − Effect of component tolerances (Tolerances feature at the lower levels).
2D1 – Introduction of the Coulomb. The Coulomb is the scientific unit of electrical charge. Students need to know that a current of 1A in a circuit means that 1 Coulomb of electrical charge (symbol Q, unit C) is flowing per second everywhere. I remember a physics teacher illustrating this by drawing a wire and a bucket on the blackboard, Fig. 3. I never forgot it (evidently!).
Fig. 3: A Coulomb is a measure of electrical charge (quantity).
Students meet the Ampere early in their Foundation, as a fundamental ‘thing’. Adding the Coulomb allows current and capacitance to be seen as to do with electrical charge quantifiably. The Volt could have been further defined as well, as the Joule per Coulomb, but this was not done. This is a pity – it would have allowed Potential Difference to be properly explained in terms of energy and work.
2H2 – Crystals. Crystals, called ‘mechanical resonators’ at Intermediate, but introduced at Foundation, are manufactured for series or parallel use, and the stability of their applications – chiefly oscillators and filters − will suffer if they are not used as intended.
2H6 – Understand feedback in an oscillator. This is a recall point at Intermediate.
2J4 – Switch-Mode Power Supply functions. Students are required to understand the basic workings of a switch-mode power supply and to know the elements of a block diagram, Fig. 4. With so many switch-mode power supplies in use nowadays, this is a very useful inclusion.
Fig. 4: Block diagram of typical switch-mode power supply.
Section 3: Transmitters and Receivers
3A2 – Modulation Index. This was introduced, but not by name, back at Foundation. At Full, students must understand how this affects sidebands.
3G1 – Students must understand that overdriving an RF PA leads to excessive bandwidth. This is first encountered at Foundation.
3H3 – Intermodulation distortion. Intermodulation distortion is introduced. Overdriving a receiver leads to this undesirable effect and reduces the ability to isolate weak signals, students learn. Dynamic range is also defined, measured in decibels (dB).
Section 4: Feeders and Antennas
There was no change in this section other than being renumbered.
Section 5: Propagation
5B2 – Critical frequency. At Intermediate we had MUF and LUF, but Full students must recall the ‘critical’ frequency and its effects.
5B3 – NVIS propagation. Near-Vertical Incident Skywave is a method of HF communication used by the military (and RAYNET).
Unlike DX, for which we want a very low angle of take-off, NVIS uses a very high one with a frequency below the LUF – usually 5MHz or lower. Think of an umbrella above with RF going up and being reflected almost back on itself. This gives reliable communication over a few hundred square miles with the terrain having little effect. The transmitting antenna needs to be horizontally polarised (i.e. transmitting upwards – think of a dipole) and very close to the ground, Fig. 5.
Fig. 5: NVIS (Near Vertical Incidence Skywave) propagation.
5C3 – Earth-Moon-Earth Propagation, otherwise called Moonbounce. This relies on using the Moon as a reflector for VHF. Because the path loss is very high, and the Moon is not a good reflector of RF, a high-power VHF transmitter (ask students why it can’t be HF), a high gain antenna, and a low noise receiver are required. This is likely to be one of those ‘what of the following is not required’ questions, Fig. 6.
Fig. 6: Moonbounce propagation.
5D1 – Galactic noise. I do not remember this from 1989! This is extra-terrestrial QRN.
5D2 – Link Budget factors. Link Budget factors are transmitter power, feeder loss, antenna gain and path loss (which incorporates spreader and obstruction loss). What this has to do with amateur radio beats me.
Section 6: EMC
6A2 – Immunity at Full has a factor besides the RF and the equipment itself. Students learn that installing a piece of equipment badly can reduce immunity.
6A4 – Imported or home-brewed equipment may not pass relevant EMC standards but radio amateurs’ homebrew kit is not required to. Provided we adhere to our licence, we are acting lawfully. This is important to know if a ‘situation’ should arise with a disgruntled neighbour!
6B1 carries on from 6A4. Cordless phones and some IT products, confusingly, may generate some interference but this is ‘satisfactory’, the syllabus says! And imported toys may not be compliant with relevant regulations. I have no idea what this means in practice.
6F1 – Mobile Installations. The ‘Federation of Commercial Services UK Code of Practice for use of radio and other ancillary equipment’ – who could forget that? – is named as the standard for installing radio equipment in motor vehicles. This phrase is one to simply recognise as the correct answer in EMC questions.
Section 7: Operating Procedures
7B1 – Use of bandplans. Students must identify various items on the supplied bandplans, which are on 50MHz and 472kHz (not the same bands as the schedule questions). These may not be the real bandplans but few students are likely to have experience on LF so there should be no confusion there!
7B2 – Students need to recall that foreign bandplans can be different to ours – for example, the US 40m band goes to 7.3MHz. This is actually quite serious, since operating using the wrong mode but in (UK) band is inconsiderate, and to be avoided, but operating (any mode) out of band is an offence, and any Full licensee should certainly know better.
7H1 – Special Event Calls. Students should know the process for applying for a Special Event call. At the lower levels this is not permitted so this is a likely topic for questions.
Section 8: Safety
8F4 – This teaches that mains electricity in other countries may be of different voltages and frequencies. Wikipedia lists no countries with mains voltages greater than ours (well, a few still have 240V) or frequencies greater than 60Hz, so it is hard to imagine, as the syllabus says, that connecting UK appliances abroad could be ‘hazardous’. But it is possible, I suppose.
8F6 − Risk Assessments, first met at Foundation, are revisited. Students must understand how to identify hazards but only to recall the nature and severity of harm they may hold. Given the litigious nature of modern life, and that this is Advanced, I would have expected the whole thing to be an ‘understand’ requirement.
8F7 – Mains Generator safety. Having once had to prevent a teenage boy refuelling a petrol generator (and spilling some!) while it was running, I was pleased to see this covered.
Section 9: Measurements and Construction
9A4 – Signal Generator basics. This section concerns the use of signal generators. Students learn, for example, that not all systems have 50Ω impedance, and this could make a big difference when connecting kit up or making measurements.
9A9 – Spectrum Analysers. There is an Intermediate practical that requires students to recognise a signal’s fundamental and harmonics using a receiver or a Spectrum Analyser. At Full, students must be able to ‘identify’ these things, presumably from a Spectrum Analyser image. These tie in very well. See Fig. 7 for an example of a signal generator feeding a spectrum analyser. This
shows a 500kHz signal.
Fig. 7: Output of a signal generator being displayed on an oscilloscope.
When the new syllabi are operational, clubs will – I hope and believe − be turning out greater numbers of more knowledgeable radio amateurs. By the time students get to Intermediate they will be closer to Full than before and more of them will see this and want to progress.
Please, take a new look at the Advanced syllabus. Don’t be put off by it! Can you find a way, either by formal teaching or tutorial sessions, or by doing something online, or by acting as mentors, to support Intermediates in that final step?