In broadcasting and radio communications, a call sign (also known as a call name or call letters—and historically as a call signal—or abbreviated as a call) is a unique designation for a transmitting station. In North America they are used as names for broadcasting stations. A call sign can be formally assigned by a government agency, informally adopted by individuals or organizations, or even cryptographically encoded to disguise a station's identity.
The use of call signs as unique identifiers dates to the landline railroad telegraph system. Because there was only one telegraph line linking all railroad stations, there needed to be a way to address each one when sending a telegram. In order to save time, two letter identifiers were adopted for this purpose. This pattern continued in radiotelegraph operation; radio companies initially assigned two-letter identifiers to coastal stations and stations aboard ships at sea. These were not globally unique, so a one-letter company identifier (for instance, 'M' and two letters as a Marconi Station) was later added. By 1912, the need to quickly identify stations operated by multiple companies in multiple nations required an international standard; an ITU prefix would be used to identify a country, and the rest of the call sign an individual station in that country.
Call signs are also used for air traffic control communication with airplanes and manned spacecraft.
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