How much do you really know about wireless?

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A brief summary of credentials that validate your wireless knowledge.

If you work with wireless you obviously know enough to do your job competently.  But how much to you really know?  Wireless is a huge complex subject that covers a wide range of topics from basic electronic fundamentals, to circuit details, and diverse subjects like modulation, microwaves, antennas and wave propagation.

If you ever want to know how much you really know, you should look into three impressive wireless credentials.  These are the Federal Communications Commission’s General Radio Telephone Operator License (GROL) and certifications by the International Association for Radio, Telecommunications and Electromagnetics (iNARTE), and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Wireless Communications Engineering Technologies (WCET).  These independent, non-profit organizations exist to validate knowledge and experience in wireless and award certifications or licenses based on comprehensive exams and in some cases job experience.

The FCC’s GROL is a license issued to ensure the competence of individuals who work on specific types of critical communications equipment.  Specifically, you need a GROL if you plan to install, operate, repair or maintain any type of aviation, marine or international fixed public radio station or equipment.  You do not need a GROL to operate or maintain two-way radio mobile radio equipment, radio or TV broadcast stations, or any consumer radio gear (CB, FRS, etc.), cellular radio, or any cable TV or satellite equipment.  A GROL does not allow you to operate an amateur radio station which requires another type of license.

Even though you do not need a GROL some employers actually require you to have it for some types of jobs.  I have heard of cellular carriers and some two-way radios companies that use the GROL as a hiring credential.  After all, the GROL does certify a certain minimum level of knowledge and skill.

How do you get a GROL?  You apply via the FCC and take an exam given by one of the FCC approved Commercial Operator License Examination Managers (COLEMs).  The exam consists of two parts, Element 1 covering basic rules and regulations and Element 3 that tests your electronic theory, math, basic electronic circuitry, transmitters, receivers, antennas,  propagation and a bunch of other stuff to extensive to mention here.  Element 1 exam has 24 questions and Element 3 has 100 questions.  You need a grade of 75% or more to pass.  COLEMs usually charge $50 to $75 to take the exam and process your application.  Element 3 is a tough exam.  If you can pass this you probably do know wireless basics very well.  And you do not need to meet any job experience requirements.  To get more information go to: http://wireless.fcc.gov/commoperators/index.htm.

The iNARTE offer several certifications at both the technician and engineer level.  The certification is awarded based on specific exams and appropriate levels and durations of employment.  The iNARTE offers certifications in Telecommunications, Wireless Device Certification Professional (WDCP), Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC/EMI), Electrostatic Discharge Control (ESD), and Product Safety.  The exams are broad, diverse and in-depth.  And all of them require different levels of job experience.  The iNARTE is also a COLEM and gives the FCC’s GROL exam.  The details are way too much to describe here but you can get them at www.narte.org.

The king of wireless certifications is the IEEE’s WCET.  This is one tough and very broad certification covering not only the wireless areas but also the networking side.  You need a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent in some related subject and a minimum of three years of related experience.  Then you take the comprehensive exam covering seven key segments:

  • RF engineering, propagation, antennas, and signal processing
  • Wireless access technologies
  • Network and service architecture
  • Network management and security
  • Facilities infrastructure
  • Agreements, standards, policies and regulations
  • Fundamental knowledge.

The content leans heavily toward the cellular and broadband side of wireless but is broad enough to cover it all.  The exam is expensive ($450) and is only given during certain times of the year.  Get the details at www.ieee-wcet.org.

The big question is how are these credentials accepted by industry?  There is no set answer as I have discovered over the years.  It depends on the employer.  It is always good to ask.  Some may require a credential but many do not.  I have even found that many are not even aware of such credentials.  In all cases, if you have one of these credentials it is usually respected.

All of the organizations have study guides and in some cases prep courses you can take.  A good free starting point is the FCC’s exam question pool you can access via the web link given earlier.

Good luck if you plan to get licensed or certified for your own gratification.  The process is an awesome learning experience as you prepare.

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Lou Frenzel

Lou Frenzel is the Communications Technology Editor for Electronic Design Magazine where he writes articles, columns, blogs, technology reports, and online material on the wireless, communications...
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