A quick glance at Ofcom amateur radio licence statistics might lead you to think there are 79,414 radio amateurs in the UK, but is it really closer to 40,000?
Although the grand total shows 79,414 licences as at October 31, 2012 it includes 1,458 "Club" licences (clubs, repeaters and beacons) and 666 Reciprocal licences issued to overseas radio hams who are visiting the UK. Taking those off leaves a total of 77,290 but even that figure dramatically overstates the number of amateur radio operators.
For some 10 years now the UK has a 3 tier licence structure, Foundation, Intermediate and Full (Advanced). Ofcom allow amateurs to validate (renew) each of the 3 callsigns they were issued with as they progressed to the Full licence. It is suspected that this results in over 7,000 duplicate licences appearing in the totals.
Some of the amateurs licenced pre-2002 in the Class A, Class A/B, Class B era gained multiple licences (up to 3) and continued to renew their Class A/B or Class B even though they had a Class A call. It is not known how many this applies to.
When the entry Foundation licence was introduced in January 2002, holders were allowed to use the HF bands but existing Class B licensees were not. As a result over 3,600 Class B holders took out Foundation calls in the period to the abolition of the Morse test for HF operating in August 2003. Since at the time few calls from the M3 Foundation block had been issued, they were able to get the best of the callsigns or choose a call suffix that had a special meaning to them. It is thought that almost all of these additional Foundation calls continued to be renewed even when the Full licence replaced Class A, A/B, B.
In December 2006 Ofcom automatically issued 5 year licences to every amateur that had taken out or renewed a licence in the previous year. It was planned these licences would expire in December 2011 but due the preparatory work needed for the 2012 Games, Ofcom decided to automatically extend all the licences so they would expire in December 2012. This means that anyone who has died or given up the hobby since January 2006 is still likely to be included in the statistics.
How many have died since then? That's a difficult figure to judge, but we know from silent key listings in RadCom that about 300 RSGB members die each year. There are nearly 19,000 RSGB members in the UK so we could guess at what the annual death rate might be for the entire amateur population - 700-900? Perhaps Ofcoms statistics are showing as many as 6,300 people who have passed away.
The other big unknown is the number of people who have given up the hobby. Quite simply no-one knows, it may be as low as 10,000 or it could be over 30,000, we just don't know.
In December amateurs licensed prior to January 2008 will have had to validate their licences on the Ofcom website, if they don't the licence will expire. This means in 2013 we should get a better idea of how many amateurs there are. Because Ofcom allow the holding of multiple callsigns, the licence figures may still be over 10,000 higher than the number of operators but at least they will be a little bit closer to reality.
Ofcom UK Amateur Radio Licence Statistics - http://licensing.ofcom.org.uk/radiocommunication-licences/amateur-radio/guidance-for-licensees/monthly-stats/
How to validate your licence - http://www.essexham.co.uk/news/remember-to-validate-your-licence.html