W5 CALL SIGN HISTORY - SUMMARY
As of February 2016 there were just over 6,000 W5 calls re-assigned and in use. This is about half of the available universe of W5's AAA-ZZZ (1x3) calls. Most of these now belong to amateurs who applied for them under a personalized system, in place since 1993. All but around 100 original W5 call sign holders let their licenses go and/or are now deceased. Those 5,000+ W5 calls held by non-original licensees usualy received reissues after moving into the district, or upon making a "vanity" change of call sign.
There are 676 possible two letter W5 calls (1x2), all of which are currently assigned. Of the existing 676 1x2 calls, 520 were applied for since 1993 under a "vanity" program. The remainder were assigned earlier, to "extra" class licensees in the 1960's and 1970's. This occurred under an "incentive licensing" program that pre-dates the vanity program.
For most of the history of government regulation of wireless, the fifth radio district consisted of Arkansas, Canal Zone, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Before 1928 it also included Alabama. Since 1978 the significance of the district is minimal, due to centralization of government regulatory activities, and the closure of district and branch offices for budgetary reasons. The Canal Zone was included in the 5th district under the illusion that offshore territorial amateur stations were a part of the closest mainland.
K5 call signs were assigned in the Canal Zone pre-1941, otherwise with just a post-war exception for a few K5 Navy military stations, but otherwise only W calls were assigned in the 5th district until 1955. Before the outbreak of World War II, there were only four or five K5 calls assigned in the Canal Zone. After the end of the war, a number of modified KZ5 calls increased the amateur radio population there to over one hundred. These disappeared in the 1970's when the United States gave up ownership of the zone.
Today the states of the old 5th district are populated by 95,600 radio amateurs, 56,000 of which are in Texas. Smaller "districts" are the 1st with 38,000 hams, the 3rd with 40,000, and the 2nd with 46,000. This is significant in the sense that the number of available call signs is less stressed where amateur populations are smaller. The most populated today are the 4th, with 160,000, and the 6th and 7th with around 112,000 each. While it matters little except for amateur radio call sign availability, Alaska and Hawaii are now considered to be in separate "regions," the 11th and 13th, as are the Caribbean islands (the 12th).
The first 5 district call signs were unoffical, usually self-chosen, comprised of three alpha letters, usually the operator's initials. Beginning in 1912, the Department of Commerce started regulating radio, and assigned two-letter suffixes 5AA-5EN. These were cancelled during World War I. In 1918, two letter suffixes were reissued by the Department of Commerce. No assignments were initially made in the X-Y-Z blocks other than experimental stations. Even in the early days, there was pressure from amateurs on government regulators seeking preferential call signs. Many times such requests were honored. Today these "2 letter" calls are treasured.
Starting October 1, 1928, W prefixes were assigned under international agreement and a revised Radio Act, which created a Federal Radio Commission. New amateurs normally received "virgin" call signs from the FRC (that had never been issued to anyone else before). After 1927 there was a distinct regulatory difference between commercial and amateur stations that had not existed in the previous Radio Act.
The Communciation Act of 1934 again transferred the responsibility from the FRC to the newly created Federal Communications Commission. The FCC has regulated amateur radio since that time. The FCC was swamped with requests from amateurs seeking preferential call signs. While it posted notices asking hams "not to call or write the FCC" about vacant call signs, its employees still honored those requests on ad-hoc basis when they could. This led to trouble later on.
By the end of 1937, the FCC had reached W5GWY in the sequential assignment of new "virgin" callsigns. Other, older calls, were reassigned as needed, except that most two letter calls were allowed to remain vacant if their holders died, moved out of the district, or failed to renew their three year licenses. By the end of 1939, sequential "virgin call" assignments had reached W5ISW.
In the 1930's, a few two letter "Y" suffix call signs were issued to club stations when that series was made available for the first time. Five such licenses had been issued by the end of 1937. During World War II, station licenses were cancelled, but operator licenses remained valid, in suspense until the end of hostilities. The FCC ordered early renewal of Canal Zone licenses, and changed the K5 calls to KZ5 by 1946.
In three other radio districts, the FCC had already run out of new W call signs in the late 1940's, and began recycling older calls. This happened first in the 9th district, then in the 2nd and 6th. In 1946, district boundaries were changed in order to equalize ham populations. Nevada, Utah, and Arizona were shifted from the 6th to the 7th. Virginia and Kentucky were moved into the 4th (which eventually became the most populous district). Most of Pennsylvania was moved from the 8th into the 3rd. In addition to losing Kentucky and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the 8th, the overburdened 9th district was divided to create the tenth. The states of Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, and the Dakota's were moved to the tenth. There was a three year period 1946-1948 during which hams renewed their licenses, and were forced to get new call signs. Usually a "counterpart" call would be issued if available, and most new tenth district hams got the same suffix letters as they had in the 9th.
At the outset of 1946, a handful of new K calls began to be issued to military-related stations. Mostly these were in the K5NAA-NAR group. In the early post-war period, some additional W5Y- call signs were given to more club stations. An informal policy also developed where club stations could apply for call signs of deceased former hams. This process was abused in later years (and still is today) in order to obtain preferential calls.
By 1948, sequential assignments in the 5th district reached W5PCA. Starting in mid-1951, a new one year novice license term went into effect. Successful applicants would receive a call with an "N" between the W and the 5. At the end of the year, if they upgraded, the N would be dropped. Thus WN5PDQ would become W5PDQ. Otherwise, the call would go vacant, and could be reassigned later. The new novice class brought in a huge influx of new hams. Many did not upgrade and their call was reissued to someone else.
Originally, if a ham moved from one radio district to another, a "counterpart" call would be assigned. There was no choice, the new call sign was required. Many W5 call signs were reissued to hams who moved in from other parts of the country. Similarly, 5th district calls went vacant when a ham moved elsewhere. This practice was continued until 1976, when it was abolished by the FCC. Another, now discontinued practice, was to allow someone who had residences in two call districts to have more than one call sign under the same primary operator permit. Senator Barry Goldwater, who ran for president in 1964, had call signs in both the 3rd and 7th districts.
By mid-1951, the FCC was assigning virgin "W5T--" suffix call signs in the 5th district. During 1953 and 1954, "W5Y--" and "W5Z--" callsigns were opened up for assignment (but the X block was still skipped). Those very few, if any, amateurs still alive today who received these 1953 and 1954 assignments and kept them current over the decades are now 90-100+ years of age!
It seems that during 1954 the available W "new" calls were exhausted. During 1953 and 1954 the FCC began systemmatically reassigning vacant calls in the 5th district, and ran the table on the available W5AAA-W5FEH suffixes. By this time in the 2nd and 6th districts, K calls were in use for newly licensed hams, and the FCC was already 1/3 of the way down the alphabet in those two districts. Most new hams in the 5th district were now getting call signs that had been around during the 1928-1941 period! W5 call signs were also still being issued long after K calls were common in California, the midwest, and New Jersey and New York.
By the start of 1956, the last of the W5FEH-W5ZZZ reassignments were complete, and the K Call sign block was fully opened up in the 5th district. While there had been some early "vanity" calls given out, it began at K5AAA, and thus was the upsurge in new hams, that the K block only lasted three years! The FCC ran the tables on the entire block through K5ZZZ by 1959. K calls now filled out the alphabet (except for X, which was once again skipped).
During 1959-1960, the FCC went back through the K callpool again, and picked up vacant novice assignments that had expired. There are also some reports of vacant W5 calls again being cherry-picked for reassignment to new hams in 1960-1961. Thus, hams with K5 calls early in the alphabet actually had been licensed a year or two less than hams with calls late in the alphabet. The ability to tell how long a ham had been licensed by his call sign was getting much more difficult.
In the 2nd and 6th districts, the FCC ran out of available W and K assignments in 1958, and began opening up the WA block. This entry into the WA block happened in the 5th district in 1961, but not before the K block was scanned one more time. During late 1960, the letters K5A--- through K5G--- were once again run through, and in 1961, the rest of the alphabet. K5 calls were still being issued long after WA and even WB calls elsewhere in the United States.
WA5 and WB5 prefixes were assigned systemmatically during the 1960's, and 1970's (Examples WA5AEB, WA5MMC, WB5TRX, WB5ZZZ).
An incentive licensing scheme was put in place in 1967 by which the class of license dictated the group from which call signs would be assigned. While there had been some class structure previously, never had call signs been tied to the class of license.
The FCC skipped WC, and worked its way partly through WD before changing the game plan once again. There were also a few WR calls given out to repeater operators, but those were quickly rescinded, as the FCC decided it did not want to regulate repeaters. That job was given to voluntary civilian state repeater coordinators.
In the late 1970's, it no longer became necessary to change calls after moving between radio districts. Two letter suffixes were opened up for assignment, first to hams with at least 25 years of licensing, and eventually to anyone with an extra class license. A scandal erupted at the FCC when it was learned that employees had accepted bribes from amateurs seeking preferential call signs. Accordingly, the FCC had moved to the strictly accountable system of sequential assignments, by letter, with no exceptions. Counterpart calls for those moving districts were no longer available.
During the 1980's, the N block of three letter suffix calls (N5AAA-N5ZZZ) was opened up for entry level hams (the N5X block was NOT skipped), and with some exceptons, two letter suffix K and N calls were also made available to "extra" class hams when the W's ran out. Generally during the period, older calls were left vacant, and not reassigned. Finally, two letter W and K prefix calls were made available to "extras" with a single suffix letter (Examples WA5B, KB5Z). When the general run of N5AAA through N5ZZZ calls was used up, three letter suffixes in the KA5-AAA through KD5-ZZZ were run through in the early 1990's. Two letter suffixes were made available in the N, WA-WZ, and KA-KK group to the amateur advanced class (Examples WA5WA, KD5MX, N5RT)..
More changes were to come. Eventually the code test was abolished, as were the advanced and novice classes. The old general and conditional classes were merged into one. The FCC finally opened up the X blocks when it implemented a personalized call sign program after 1993. Initially a small fee was charged, but any ham could ask for any call sign that was available, based upon class of license. The fee was done away with in 2015.
Today, new systemmatic assignments are taking place in the KG5 block (the KH5 and KL5 groups may be reserved for the Pacific and Alaska). But unless somebody requests a personalized call, the W and K blocks are not being reassigned to new hams. Nor, apparently are the N, WA-WD, and KA5AAA-KG5LDG being reissued. There are thus huge numbers of vacancies in these pools. As the FCC reaches the end of the available double letter prefix K calls, this may change.
The Commission seems to prefer to assign "virgin" calls systemmatically, rather than repeating past practices of harvesting open but isolated older calls for recycle. But since all older calls are available under the vanity program, maybe this will never change. Or, maybe it will if a shortage of call signs develops. This depends a lot on how many people apply to become amateurs. While numbers today are greater than they ever have been, there are questions about retention rates in the hobby, and what the reasons were for so many to wish to become licensed. The reasons seem to ebb and flow with the times.
Yet due to the personalized requests since 1993, the W5 series remains nearly 50% subscribed, even though there are very few original holders still alive. This seems to indicate that, even today, nearly 100 years after first being opened up, the W5 call sign assignments are still very popular. There are more than 6,000!
We salute the holders of W5 calls, particularly any seniors who may still be around today with their original W5!
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