The Meaning of CW
Is CW an Archaic Relic of the Past?
by Ed Sieb, VA3ES


On March 31, 1995, the U.S. Coast Guard formally ceased CW operations, after 94 years of service. Several months previous, both the U.S. Navy and Marines had also ceased all CW operations. Since 1995 many other Government and commercial communications services have abandoned the use of CW. Today, there are very few, if any commercial operations using CW as a mode of communications. In a world of satellite communications, wide-band fiber optic, Internet and very-high-capacity digital networks, this is as it should be. Let's face it, CW has no place in today's "Information Super-highways". In today's Amateur Radio, CW competes with high-speed, 56 and 128-KB packet backbones, as well as Amtor, Pactor, Clover and other modes of digital transmission. We can transmit vast volumes of information keyboard to keyboard, computer to computer, faster than one can send a paragraph of text at 60WPM CW. Where we Amateurs used to be innovators at the forefront of the state of the art in communications, now we barely keep up. Other services covet our valuable frequencies, from HF to microwave.

As well, the Amateur Radio Service faces pressures from governments to justify its continued existence. In the spring of 1995, the government of New Zealand made a decision to actively seek the suppression of the pertinent ITU regulation that requires Morse code proficiency for Amateurs licensed to operate below 30 MHz. The ZL government was repeatedly "briefed" at great length by "ORACLE" an organization actively seeking to abolish CW requirements for Hams in New Zealand. And yet, through all this, RAC, ARRL and the International Amateur Radio Union continue to back the retention of CW as a requirement for licensing! Can you imagine? In this day and age! Well, those good 'ol hide-bound Amateur organizations are right!

Yes, CW is archaic. Yes, it is slow and cumbersome compared to modern digital modes. So what? All these facts are irrelevant. The facts of CW's speed and traffic handling capacity are irrelevant to the whole argument. Those who would continuously harp on these meaningless statistics, simply miss the whole point of CW. The continuing relevance of CW today and on through to the next century has NOTHING to do with it's actual utility in sending traffic! CW (or Morse Code, if you wish) is absolutely essential to the Amateur Radio service and is an essential part what gives Ham radio it's meaning. To learn the Morse Code, is to open one's heart (and mind) to the essence (yes I keep using this word) of Ham Radio and to grasp it's soul. (I believe that CW is fundamentally necessary for Amateur Radio and that it is also its' heart and soul.) Ham Radio would be just a cold, calculating hobby without it.

The Ham Radio language, it's jargon, wouldn't exist without it. Oh sure we might have some other kind of radio slang, but I bet it would be borrowed from truckers and other users of "personal radio". We wouldn't have Q signals or 73. And we definitely wouldn't have a history. Simply put, CW is the source of and forms the basis for the culture of Ham Radio. To be a "Radio Amateur" is be a "lover" of radio, one who studies it and appreciates it as an art. Other "amateurs" of art, of music, become lay experts in their fields. They study the subject historically, philosophically, even sociologically and develop a true appreciation of the subject in its entirety. To reject a single important historical aspect of an art or a culture, because it is "archaic" is to lack even the most basic comprehension of the subject one purports to love! To learn CW is to make a connection with Ham Radio's past and it's history. Learning CW means that one has learned the basic reference points of the hobby. An analogy: to acquire my University degree, I had to take a few courses that I considered at the time quite irrelevant. I took some Humanities courses that studied the role of Women in Blues Music! I studied railroad hoboes of the '30's in my sociology classes! I studied Nietzsche, Hegel and Kant in my "Poli-Sci" courses. At the time, I wondered what the usefulness of all this was and what it had to do with Communications and Media, my major. Today, I appreciate that those "irrelevant" subjects made me a more literate, more well rounded person. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, in my opinion, a Ham with out CW is simply, "illiterate"!

Today, in those countries, which have "no-code" licenses, (mainly Canada and the U.S.) among the more "veteran", long-time hams, there has developed a mildly cynical attitude, bordering on contempt for the newer "no-code" VHF operators. They're derisively referred to as "2-meter CBers". This view stems from the perception that these new Hams lack the fundamental understanding of the roots of the hobby and that without code, they're "stuck on 2-meters", unwilling or unable to expand their radio horizons. (In fact, those no-coders who came from the CB ranks, without CW upgrading, often continue to operate on 11 meters. Those who've upgraded and have HF privileges, tend to abandon 11 Meters completely.) For their part, some no-coders complain that they feel like second-class citizens within the Amateur community, neither fully accepted, nor able to fully participate in Amateur Radio. They claim that the increasingly irrelevant need for "proficiency" in CW places an arbitrary and artificial obstacle in their paths. They suggest that being "stuck on 2 meters" is boring and is causing some to lose all interest in the hobby.

Traditionally in Canada, once licensed, Hams always had the opportunity get involved any aspect of the hobby without limitations. Veteran Hams are convinced that "no-coders" are short-changing themselves, by failing to upgrade. This saddens many veterans as they see this as a drastic change in the sociology of their beloved hobby; a change for the worse. Here's my suggestion for an appropriate CW requirement for the late '90's and beyond. I'm not suggesting that one must know 15 WPM or even 10 WPM to get a Ham ticket. What I'd like to see is that every prospective Ham, whatever band they will operate, above 30 MHz or below, be required to comprehend all the letters, numbers and punctuation. The CW receiving exam might be something simple such as 100% copy of all characters sent at a slow speed, say possibly 5 WPM or so. The speed itself is not critical, so long as there is 100% copy of all letters, numbers and punctuation, sent during a "reasonable" period of time. The successful candidate would then acquire a "scheduled" license allowing HF phone operation in certain segments of the bands, or possible restriction to certain bands only. Full band privileges would be acquired by upgrading the qualifications through either a more strenuous CW exam or a tougher technical exam, whatever the candidate's choice.

To those who wish to become Hams, but adamantly reject CW and stubbornly refuse to learn the code, I say too bad! These persons have failed to appreciate the meaning of Ham Radio and itsí culture and neither do they understand it. Ham Radio is not just some fancy, high tech means of communication. It's a community, a service and a tradition with deep roots and a long history. Ham Radio is the whole reason for modern communications technology. Hams invented wireless communications; without us, there might not be any Internet today! Let's not destroy the very spark at the soul of the hobby.