Ham Radio’s Lost Future

There was a time when developments in the realm of amateur radio were relevant in relation to the rest of the world. In those days, a young man might become interested in the technology of radio and his first steps in that venture may have been as a radio amateur. Through building and experimentation this neophyte might eventually make a living as a radio and TV repairman, or find work as an electronics technician. He might even follow a path to becoming an electronics engineer developing new methods and hardware for commercial or military communication.

There was a thread of commonality between his hobby and his vocation. Radio amateurs were on the leading edge of discovery and experimentation and these developments were closely mirrored in the non-amateur world. In fact, what this fellow was doing on the workbench in his ham shack was often a step or two ahead of what he did for his employer.

But at some point in the flow of space and time, amateur radio reached a critical crossroad. It could proceed one direction into the future or choose the other direction – a long, and circuitous route back to the past.

For good or for bad, we chose to jettison the future and return to the past.

Consider carefully the position of amateur radio just prior to this crossroad. We had pioneered FM radio at VHF and UHF and had blanketed the countryside with repeaters such that an operator with a handheld radio could make contact with others far outside his line of site. We had already worked out the protocols and network topology necessary for passing data through the ether at rates comparable to landline methods of the age. And we had our own fleet of satellites that pioneered new methods in space communication as well as low-cost spacecraft construction and launch.

Future developments in the non-amateur world of radio from that point included cellular technology and the transmission of higher speed data over the air. Commercial applications for broadcast radio and television have changed radically and now include the imposition of digital methods. Military applications for secure battlefield communication use satellite and terrestrial means like mesh networking for voice and data transmission. Our homes, restaurants and coffee shops are bathed in RF transmitted data that keep our mobile devices connected to the Internet.

None of these “new” technologies would have been even the least bit foreign to the radio amateur had we taken the path to the future. Youngsters would have been encouraged to become involved in our hobby as it could very well lead to a rewarding career in one of many growing and lucrative technical fields – just like in the earlier days.

The most important point I want to make is this: technology didn’t pass amateur radio by because we weren’t intelligent enough to have adapted to the rapid changes it produced, we could have lead that revolution, ham radio enthusiasts were the proto-geeks on this planet.

No, technology didn’t abandon us, rather, we voluntarily chose a path that led back to the past and in so doing, watched the future march ahead without us.

My guess is that we chose this path because the future involved changes that seriously challenged the old dogmas. The old guy who could pound brass would be dimininshed in the new world while the young kid with the computer connected to his radio would be raised up and this was deemed unacceptable.

Of course there remain some facets of our hobby where higher tech methods are required. For instance, it would be difficult to argue that bouncing a radio signal off the moon and then receiving the echo from it isn’t one of the more challenging things that hams do. But consider how many amateurs are active in that pursuit and you must conclude that it’s a small fraction of even one percent of all licensees. Why? Probably because of the degree of technical difficulty required for success. It’s much easier, trivial in fact, to toss a wire over a tree limb and make a 40 meter CW contact; so more choose to do that instead.

Low-power enthusiasts, (QRP) have spent decades trying to make the point that HF communication is possible with practically nothing at all. That you or I could whip up a two-transistor transceiver in a single evening and make radio contacts with it is widely seen as the magic of radio among those in this camp, however, it really only serves to make the point that they have embraced the simplest, lowest elements of RF technology and have no intention of moving beyond it.

In selecting the path to the past, we also decided that the entertainment value of amateur radio was more important than the rapidly expanding field of communication technology.

Consider the many ways that we have made two-way radio a game. We chase DX until all of the countries of the world have been worked and then we invent new ones. Weekends are dedicated to non-stop operation with the goal being to earn the most points. We make radio contact with others and then trade post cards to prove that we actually did it. Certificates (wallpaper) of all kinds are offered for contact with specific stations or during specific events, etc.

The lingua franca of amateur radio is the Morse code and those who are proficient in CW are more valued than those who are not. Like Latin, it’s a dead language that is non-essential yet it serves as a powerful totem for an entire belief system internal to amateur radio and nothing else under the sun.

In selecting the path to the past, the hobby has determined that nostalgia is more important than innovation and therefore we must now depend upon nostalgia to drive future growth; this is a critical point.

The United States has a population with a soon coming glut (baby boomers) of new retirees. Folks like me who enjoy looking at the past as much or more than looking ahead. This is a ready-built market for nostalgic growth and we should anticipate that those who enjoy reading about the radio distress call from the Titanic, restoring old radios or building new equipment with vacuum tubes, etc. will swell our numbers for a season. It’s completely unsustainable over the longer-term, but it is here and now and it will contribute to some additional growth for the hobby.

Though ham radio is a delightful and enjoyable hobby, we are forced to own up to the consequences of the decision that was made not so long ago. Ham radio has become like an old trading post on a lonely stretch of Route 66 somewhere in the desert. You stop to admire the wooden Indian, the old time gas pumps and the soda machines. You snap a few pictures, buy a few trinkets for your niece and nephew and spend a moment warmly remembering what the Old West was like long ago.

And then you get into your car and return to the real world.

None of this will diminish the enjoyment that enthusiasts can derive from this unique hobby. There are people in the world who enjoy building old steam engines, restoring antique cars, and making butter by hand. Technology doesn’t always improve the quality of life and it has many unintended consequences. But reality demands that we acknowledge our proper place in the grand scheme of things, and when it comes to amateur radio, we are no longer of the same ilk as those who innovate and invent. It’s been decades since we last put a dent in the universe and it probably best we live out our days quietly playing with our radios.

Jeff Davis, KE9V, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Indiana, USA.

15 Responses to “Ham Radio’s Lost Future”

  • Matt W1MST:

    If you care about amateur radio and where it’s heading, this is the most important thing you’ll read this year. More important, however, is joining the conversation about how we can fix it. Is it too late?

  • Jason VE3MAL:

    I couldn’t agree more with your article. I *am* one of those greenhorns more interested in science and technology advances than nostalgia (though I do plan on learning CW at some point). Sitting at a sort of “kids” table at the local amateur club last night admiring a weather balloon APRS transceiver, I would like to believe that most of us are undeterred by the nostalgic branch of the tree of amateur radio hobby. In fact, many of us can be inspired by the accomplishments of the past and the wealth of knowledge and skill available. We, however, seem to be rather poor at stimulating interest in our branch. Perhaps it has something to do with the nebulous nature our segment. For example, I would argue that the QRP kits could be an excellent way to inspire young people to learn about radio.

    It’s astounding that in a society so enveloped by, and dependent on radio communications, that some people might think dismissively of having relatively unencumbered access to bands across most of the RF spectrum *and* access to centuries of combined experience at every amateur club.

  • Sean VA5LF:

    I think the reason most hams are embracing the past is that they are now the past themselves. They can do new things, or do the things they’ve always done and are comfortable with. There’s nothing wrong with this, as it is a valid part of the hobby.

    I myself enjoy a good CW ragchew. I also enjoy PSK31, MFSK, Olivia etc. and the use of these digital modes has exploded. There’s a lot of experimentation going on in the digital subbands, and it’s a very interesting place to play if you’re wanting to try new things. For instance, the other night I made a contact with South Africa on 40m running 20W to a vertical using JT65A.

    If HF isn’t your thing, take a look at D-STAR. While some may decry the expensive transceivers, the proprietary AMBE codec or whatever else, a vibrant homebrewing community is springing up around this technology.

    Ham radio has always supported innovators and experimenters. I think it always will. But in addition to those, it has a large community of people who just want to chat on the radio (sometimes referred to as “appliance operators”) that don’t bother with soldering irons or obscure protocol definitions. That’s fine too. There’s plenty of spectrum for everyone.

    If you’re worried about the future, the best thing you can do is to be passionate about ham radio and help newcomers. Be an Elmer. It’s amazing what you can do with a little effort (and a lot of enjoyment).

    For the record, I’m 32 and have been licensed for just under 12 years, and I certainly have not run out of things to explore… I just wish I could retire early to finish the projects I already have on the go!

    73, Sean

  • Mitch W1GI:

    Interesting article though not quite right. Things like FM and repeaters were adopted from the commercial radio industry. There is a lot going on in Ham Radio that takes advantage of the digital revolution that we experience outside of the hobby, modes like PSK31, and APRS are the result of the GPS satellites and inexpensive desktop computers. Software Defined Radio (SDR) is another application of the digital era that we are in.

    What is lacking is a means of introducing Ham Radio to all of those who believe the cell phone, text messaging, and access to the world wide web gives them the same experience as chasing DX, trying an experimental communications mode or something as simple as a homebrew antenna.

    As a High School teacher I have tried a number of times to run licensing classes. And, while I have had a small number of students pass the Tech exam, it has been very difficult to get the masses enthusiastic by the hobby in the small amount of time that a class meets. The PR effort by the ARRL and others is insufficient in its reach, content, and focus audience.

    So, what do we do to reduce the average age of this hobby’s participants?

  • KD0MOD - Justin:

    Well said. We need to choose the future and not languish in the past. I am bothered by the number of 2×1 callsigns I have seen that say that Echolink isn’t Ham Radio. I would disagree.

    While a large portion of the direction of Ham Radio is do to our collective choices, the regulatory environment seems to favor new technology for commercial users and neglect new technology in our piece of the spectrum.

  • Mark KJ6EUO:

    I love this post! It gives voice to my frustration as a new HAM. I also relate to Jason’s comments. As a young guy that wants to learn and experiment I am disappointed by the apathy and even contempt I get from some of the old guys in the club. With a few exceptions they seem to just do the HF-CW-QRP thing and want me to think they are cool. Sorry old timer! Maybe that was cool in the 50s-60s when the alternative form of communication was expensive long distance telephone. I’m not saying it’s useless but I, with a broad knowledge of computers and computer based communication do not see it as magic. I’ll be video chatting with my buddy half way around the world on my phone and getting up to the second first hand news from Twitter. You may have invented the base technology but it has passed you by.
    What gives me hope is the growing participation in Hacking type activities whereby the ubiquitous nature of consumer electronics provides fodder for creation and experimentation. Armature radio is being utilized to provide an open communication backbone to these activities. This site has a few examples of both old school and innovative radio use: http://hackaday.com/category/radio-hacks/ What these Hacking communities have that HAM seems to me to lack is an open, collaborative nature. The internet allows this group that is spread over the whole earth to share every first and every step by step mod. From being the first to root a new phone to scripting a software link between two hardware “boxes” that were never intended to work together. By contrast to get access to the general knowledge of HAM, one needs to invest in a few hundred dollars worth of dusty ARRL publications or try and find an Elmer that’s not too dusty to learn to right click.

  • John, N9RLO:

    Well, I’m a dusty oldtimer that does the HF-CW-QRP “thing” and I don’t care if anyone thinks I’m COOL or not. Sorry young squirt! Apparently the term RADIO is outdated. Maybe there should be an Amateur Computer Based Communications Organization, then those interested could TWITTER, TWEET, ECHOLINK, HACK, COUGH or do any other thing thats not actual RADIO and have themselves a Heyday! I became a HAM because it’s fun and I enjoy it. Not as a means to a vocation or anything of the sort. If I can help out during disasters or emergencys when cellular communications and God knows what else fails then all the better.

  • Demetre Valaris - SV1UY:

    Hi Jeff,

    Very good article and very good points indeed. Unfortunately Amateurs are stuck in the old ways of communications because they have the obsession of being cheap. Even the ones who pretend they like new technology and especially DIGITAL MODES, they prefer MODES that are dead slow, such as PSK31 and OLIVIA, just because they are “cheap”. Never mind if they are dead slow, and perhaps slower than a fast CW operator. Never mind if you need a high end computer to run these DIGITAL MODES with any efficiency.
    They prefer to spend their money for the latest computer and O/S than to spend anything at all for a decent hardware modem. To them this is progress, DIGITAL MODES, but when our kids, who are used to FACEBOOK and SKYPE, see the speed of PSK31 and OLIVIA, all they want to do is laugh their guts out.

    Kids are the future of amateur radio and I do not see many joining the hobby. The hobby is full of old farts and in a few years when we die, there will be no AMATEUR RADIO at all.

    On the other hand maybe this is not a bad thing if one thinks of who is active in the hobby these days!

    73 de Demetre SV1UY

  • […] Ham Radio’s Lost Future | AmateurRadio.com […]

  • Jack K6JEB:

    I wonder if this is an issue in every country or mostly here in North America? Do Japanese hams feel the same way, that their numbers are shrinking?

    Does every country have a ham population that suffers from ‘neo-phobia’?

    I ***LOVE*** CW and I regularly build QRP radios (and some are new-fangled Software Defined Radios) and can probably give a couple of you some pretty good competition in any pile-up or contest; but this article is spot-on in so many ways.

    At the age of 42, I feel often like I’m the youngest person at local ham meetings. Not that the Bay Area has a shortage of highly technical people under my age, but all too often when we try to tie-in ham radio with other things, like trying to build-out the HSMM-MESH network, we get ZERO enthusiasm from you old-timers who got to ENJOY having a hobby that was relevant and a great way to expand upon your job, or cutting-edge technology.

    I’m a life Member of the ARRL and I think they do many fine things but I’m flabbergasted with the way the HSMM Work Group went down. Nothing more? That’s it? Even from a business point of view that makes very little sense: if the ARRL were to get behind HSMM, and help the ham community regain some relevance in the realm of WIFI networking, THINK of how many BOOKS and maybe even MEMBERSHIPS that would sell! Think of all the new faces you’d see with new ideas and new energy that would show up at our meetings, our hamfests, and our operating events.

    The guys over at hsmm-mesh.org are doing a GREAT job trying to put this back together. And in other areas of this great hobby there is still plenty of innovation. But we really have to start calling out the cranks in our midst. We need to make sure they only drink decaf at the meetings (hi hi). And I find that often even the most resolved resistor to new things will soften-up if you spend some one-on-one time with them explaining and showing this stuff.

    73!
    Jack, K6JEB

  • Bob AA2DM:

    Now, that should give us some things to ponder.

  • Steve AJ6LN:

    Umm… I can see myself in some of those hams described as hostile (maybe, too strong a term) to some of the new technology, but I must agree with the general premise of Jeff’s timely article: we evolve, or we die.

    I think ham radio’s great strength– especially, in emergency communications–is its relative simplicity in not needing a complex private and public utilities infrastructure. HOWEVER, when they work, those radio applications using IRLP, Echolink, and other internet/infrastructure-dependent modes are wonderful tools for maintaining good lines of communications.

    I have no simple answers to how we may reach our youth, but I am reminded of what a character in James Michener’s novel, The Source, said about the Christian missionaries’ efforts to convert Israelis to Christianity. The character told the missionaries (I paraphrase) “…first, be our friends, learn from and about us, then tell us about your faith.” By the same token, we hams can be friends to our youth, listen to them, learn about them (and why they like Twitter, constant texting, on-line video games, Facebook, and other things which may be thorns in our adult sides), and THEN we show what ham radio can do for them.

    Best regards,
    Steve AJ6LN

  • Mike K1VI:

    The diversity of posts here is wonderful. There is room in the hobby for kids and codgers, satellite and the glow of “hollow-state.” The faults can be explained, but let’s emphasize the positive. Maybe we could borrow a slogan I remember from the USAF in the 1970’s:
    Pride in the past; faith in the future.

  • […] nations) to a hobbyist toy for die-hard techies and uber-geeks (kinda like amateur/ham radios were a half-century […]

  • Doug KP2CX:

    I was a ham in back in the 70s as a kid. We did some neat stuff: Sat coms, autopatches, repeaters, digial data links etc. Then I went off to college and stated doing computer and electronic R&D. Later I used commercial VHF and trunked radios at work. We built out WiFi systems with thousands of nodes, built Voice over IP systems with world wide coverage and many other new wired and wireless technologies.

    Two weeks ago I came back to Ham radio, I took all three tests in one day. Here is what I noticed:

    1) These tests are shadows of their former selves, no real technical knowledge is required to be an extra (At least it seemed much harder 30 years ago)
    2) Much of what I hear on the air is social banter, with few exceptions, there is no mission, just banter. The communication style is rather CB like. I use government tactical radios and aviation radios regularly and the comparision is striking.
    3) Where is the new technology. We are installing another 1.4 Gigabit wireless shot next month and HAMS are doing 0.000001 giga bit comms.

    I thought I had been out of Ham radio for 30 years but it seems to me I never left, I have been doing loads of wired and wireless cool stuff, seems not much has changed here in Ham land. I wonder if others who followed a technical path feel as though HAM radio was unable to keep up.

    Here are a few thoughts.

    1) My iPhone has 6 radios in it,it connects to my HAM gear and can emulate every service available today in Amateur radio. 99% of the population doesn’t realize they are using a radio. My VX-8 is a really cool version of the radio I had in 1980s but it can’t do wifi, it can’t do video etc etc.
    2) Time to provide private comms on Ham bands – no one is carrlying a second device for party line comms. No one talks on a party line any more.
    3) High speed digital data needs to be a priority, There needs to be a distributed digital network which is always up, redundant and deployable.
    4) Interagency operability is crucial to disaster response. I have access to 10 times the comms freqs and facilities on my NIMS/DHS enabled radios. Recently I heard that in some citys Hams are no longer invited to metro disaster simulations. Just having a working repeater is only part of the solution.

    The good new is this communications model is still seems relevant. Its still a neat place to experiment, it works pretty well when all else fails. But in the end, its just a channel, a few very thin pipe, in the world of trillions of very fat pipes. If the bandwidth is lost it will never be returned to a group like Amateurs. Seems to me its time to either evolve or die and we are way behind on “evolve program”

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