As the cloud of pandemic descended over the planet, we all became witnesses to how quickly our way of life could be transformed. And with no vaccine or reliably tested antidote yet available, we will continue life in a suspended state of perpetual caution for an indeterminate period. Eventually, this virus will either be eliminated or controlled in such a way that we successfully manage to live with it. But shockwaves from this disruption will continue to be detectable for many generations.
Given that this space is devoted to amateur radio, and that it is one aspect of our lives, we would do well to consider the impact already made on our hobby, and briefly speculate on the way it might reconfigure our future.
First, the cancellations. Hamfests, conventions, DXpeditions, club meetings, the bi-weekly club breakfast, even Hamvention and Field Day haven’t been spared. When “social distancing” first became a thing there were jokes about the solitary nature of ham radio and how isolation was our “normal” state. But just sixty days on we’ve discovered that was nonsense. It’s been refreshing to see the overnight growth of health and welfare nets on the air as we try to look after one another, but it’s no substitute for eyeball QSO’s. The camaraderie of our frequent social gatherings cannot be completely replaced with on the air contact.
Still, the cancellations were warranted. Where the Black Death (1346-1353) killed folks equally in every age group, this present strain of virus seems to prefer its victims a bit more seasoned. Older men, especially those with certain underlying health conditions, appears to be a sweet spot for COVID-19. It also describes a large segment of the ham radio population so our gathering in groups at this time feels like a recipe for bad outcomes.
It’s not difficult to imagine smaller hamfests folding up and not returning at all. In fact, it’s not all that tough to imagine the same thing happening to the larger shows. What if Hamvention is canceled again in 2021 or what if it opens but only a fraction of the normal crowd attends out of lingering health concerns?
The sudden advent of online testing took many of us by surprise. When you can’t gather in groups for license testing you can safely gather online. Whether or not this is a good thing for our hobby depends on who you ask, but I’m certain this will become a permanent feature long after the virus is no longer a problem. Eventually, this task will be completely removed from local groups and be vested in a national organization and all ham radio licensing will be administered remotely.
Where video conferencing existed mostly in the workplace pre-pandemic, it now invades everything, including amateur radio. The recent all-day Contest University seminar conducted via video conference was incredibly successful and well-received. Like it or not, a sizable chunk of similar events will move online. And other than the fatigue that comes from experiencing more of life through pixels on a screen, it provides many advantages. Going forward, I can imagine a speakers bureau of notable ham radio presenters available to entertain and educate aggregate groups via video chat, assuming they figure a way to monetize it.
Along with online testing this will drive a few more nails into the coffin of local radio clubs who will have to find new ways to add value to survive. One solution might be to make the local club radio station available for use remotely by its members but even this begs the question, what is a “local” radio club if everything about it can be accessed remotely from anywhere on the planet? There’s a good chance that all local radio clubs will fall away and a dozen or so regional clubs will take their place. This was probably going to happen eventually but the pandemic will likely speed that timeline.
The immediate future of DXpeditions seems very much up in the air. It’s one thing for a restaurant in Poughkeepsie to re-open after a few months, it’s a whole other thing for governments around the globe to lift restrictions on “outsiders” traveling to their domain without quarantines, etc. Perhaps the desire for income from tourism will overcome that resistance, but if so it may happen first in regions that aren’t on the Most Wanted list.
Amateur radio has always managed to adapt to change and challenge. The shutdown of the radio service during World War II being one notable example. Ham radio continuously evolves but that evolution typically happens at a slow, steady pace. But every now and then something big comes along that quickly shakes off the old and ushers in the new. It’s difficult to imagine something that would impact so many aspects of the hobby more quickly than what we’ve seen from this current pandemic.
Having a little more free time (thanks to the lock-down), I found myself flipping through the pages of a 1959 edition of the Yasme News a few days ago when the article, “DX on 6” by Grid Gridley, W4GJO sorta jumped out at me. After all this is one of those times of the year when 50 MHz tries to live up to its billing as the “Magic Band” and I guess I’ve been on the prowl for stories about it.
The article opened right up with Bob, KG1FN on Fletchers Ice Island who was regularly working the boys as far down as Moline, Illinois on 6 meters. That was enough mystery to keep me reading. After all, the call sign didn’t seem right and I had never heard of Fletcher’s Ice Island. Was this a new DX entity that’s been hiding in plain sight?
But neither mystery was solved in this short treatise. It was written as though any decent DX enthusiast in 1959 would know the odd call sign and where to point to it on a map and it became obvious that a little more sleuthing was in order.
Searching online for KG1FN made quick work of solving both mysteries. “Hams on Ice” was the title of a January 1960 QST magazine article where the sub-title spilled the beans, “Six-Meter DX Operation at Fletcher’s Ice Island, T3”.
KG1FN was a MARS issued call sign reflecting a Greenland origin and also seemed appropriate for the “Frozen North” location though the author notes that was later modified to mean “Frozen Nose”.
And it turns out that Fletcher’s Ice Island, or T3, was discovered by U.S. Air Force Colonel Joseph O. Fletcher. It was produced by the northern coast of Ellesmere Island and was a 150-foot thick slab of ice roughly five by ten miles in size floating in the Arctic Ocean. According to the article, it had served as a scientific station and home for as many as two-dozen scientists and military personnel over the years.
It was also a prime spot for adventurous amateur radio operators who used the extreme northern location as a laboratory for radio propagation from the heart of the auroral environment. The fact that the island was in motion made working the experimental station a challenge as it was literally a moving target.
The QST article details the unusual propagation conditions observed as well as descriptions of the camp, the equipment used, radio activity, lessons learned, and a list of the numerous operators who disturbed the aether from T3.
Polar bears were also along for the ride prompting personnel to always carry a rifle, “just in case”. It’s enjoyable reading!
I wondered whatever became of Fletcher’s Ice Island and quickly discovered that it was used as a manned scientific drift station from 1952 until 1978.
Eventually, several large cracks in the ice were observed and the station was forced to relocate itself away from its original location. A few years later when the ice floe cracked again and shortened the runway sufficiently to terminate aircraft resupply operations, the station had to be evacuated.
Still, the outpost remained sporadically active until 1974, and was last visited in 1979. After being monitored by satellite for over 30 years, the iceberg eventually drifted through the Fram Straight in 1983.
Then on July 3, 1983, came a report that U.S. scientists had rediscovered the iceberg after it had been missing for six months. The ice floe was spotted about 150 miles from the North Pole and easily identified as its surface was distinctly decorated by remaining structures and an aircraft wrecked there years before. At the time of this discovery, the iceberg was only one-third of its original thickness.
Sometime after July 1983, the iceberg worked its way to the outside of the Arctic ice pack where it caught a southern current, drifting off into the Atlantic Ocean where it melted away.
- Yasme News Volume 1 Number 2 October-November 1959
- QST Magazine January 1960
- Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Later this year, the North American QRP CW Club will celebrate its twelfth year of existence. Birthed during a prolific period when many small ham radio groups coalesced into online radio clubs, the NAQCC has become one of the most successful of the litter.
There’s good reason why this club has continued to thrive where others have faded — you simply won’t find a more active or enthusiastic group of wireless telegraphers on the planet.
The timing was impeccable as interest in QRP activity was peaking in the amateur radio world around the time of the club’s formation. But you would be wrong to assume that the rapid rise of the NAQCC was merely a “fad” as sustained growth in the intervening years have proven.
John Shannon, K3WWP co-founded the organization (along with Tom Mitchell, WY3H) and was its guiding light over the first decade.
Shannon’s resume as a QRP CW operator is polished and he easily straddles the two centuries of our hobby – old school ham radio on the one hand, embracing the Internet as an effective means for spreading his minimalist view of amateur radio on the other.
The many activities of the NAQCC keep members as busy as they want to be on the air. That’s by design. While the NAQCC maintains a wealth of online resources to help new operators in the metamorphosis from beginner to seasoned operator, there’s an understanding among members that they should be on the air, not online — and to that end, the club doesn’t maintain a discussion-type mailing list.
On-air activities include regional nets, sprints, and challenges – like collecting letters from worked call signs to spell keywords. Special operating events are frequent and interesting, many of them taking place outdoors.
On a local level, there are seven chapters around the United States and overseas. These provide opportunity for fellowship, sometimes over coffee, breakfast or sharing a hamfest table.
This seems vital to the success of the organization given that it was created and exists in a virtual world. There’s no club headquarters, office, or paid staff. Its global presence and outreach exists by radio, the Internet, postal mail, and through local chapters.
When asked about those club activities he most enjoys, John Smithson, N8ZYA, Vice-President of the organization, said his favorite activity is the monthly challenges. He likes puzzles and the challenges are “much like doing the crosswords in the morning newspaper” – except it takes place via radio.
A particularly effective tool employed by the club is its monthly newsletter the NAQCC News. It appears as a PDF the first of each and every month. Trust me, this isn’t one of those clubs that publishes a “monthly” newsletter a few times each year as is common in our hobby.
Composed, edited, and published by club President Paul Huff, N8XMS, the publication shows up month after month, chocked full of club news, information, and member articles. It’s well-written and a joy to consume at a leisurely pace. The latest edition (April 2016) tips the scales at 49 pages – it’s more like a magazine than a newsletter.
Co-founders K3WWP and WY3H have since retired and moved on from their leadership roles. By all appearances, that transition has been smooth and seamless, a credit to the founders. There are plenty of reasons why such a change might threaten the continuation of any organization, but this has not been the case for the NAQCC.
Grounded on strong fundamentals and an abundance of enthusiasm, the future looks bright for this specialty club, and the legacy of John Shannon, K3WWP seems firmly cemented in this chapter of amateur radio history.
With over 8,000 members in all 50 states, 9 VE provinces, and 101 countries, the NAQCC might be be for you – if you’re seeking fun, new adventure, friendship, or something to rekindle the magic of radio.
Take a look at this video montage for a complete overview of the club and its activities.
Membership is free, and I’ve no doubt you will be welcomed with open arms.
It’s tempting to say that amateur radio is about to close the book on its best year ever.
The number of licensees is up, attendance at Dayton Hamvention was up, participation in contests and other on-the-air operating events is up, the number of ARRL members is up too. The League has spent much of the year promoting the Amateur Radio Parity Act in Washington and is seeing real progress on that front.
When it comes to publicity, ham radio is HOT. Not a day goes by without a news item about our activities appearing in major publications — we’ve finally figure out how to proselytize our service!
Yes, it’s been a very good year for ham radio and it’s certainly nice to savor this moment…
Now let’s look at the work that lies ahead in the New Year…
Amateur radio has weathered all kinds of storms, and there seems no immediate threat to our service. Of course, that might have been said by almost any US ham radio enthusiast on December 6, 1941 too. Still, our position seems as secure as it can as we face another year. But just like owning a home, our hobby requires constant maintenance and attention if we want it to be a secure dwelling that lasts a long time.
There’s always room for improvement, but I’ve compiled here a list of just three things that I believe to be the most vexing to the amateur radio service. These three things present a clear and present danger to our continued growth and enjoyment of the radio hobby.
Intentional Interference to DXpeditions
Whether you enjoy it or not, DXing is the crown jewel of amateur radio. There’s nothing else that we do that captures the imagination of fellow hobbyists and the unwashed masses, the way a DXpedition can. The human spirit craves adventure, like climbing into a boat to cross dangerous stretches of ocean only to arrive at some of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet, for the sole purpose of handing out contacts to home-bound hams half a world away.
It is exhilaration squared!
But sadly, there are a few around the globe who derive pleasure from interfering with the activities from these exotic locales. And it’s enough of a problem to erode the patience of even stalwart DXers to continue the practice. After all, major DXpeditions require untold hours of planning and preparation. Large sums of money must be raised and passage on planes and boats booked. Permission must be obtained from whatever country pretends to be in charge of some rock in the ocean. And having cleared those hurtles and being completely at the mercy of HF propagation, to beat all those odds only to be foiled by some idiot intent on jamming the operation — who wouldn’t throw in the towel?
With no hope of convincing all of the mentally disturbed people around the planet who own transmitters to cut it out, the big operations are turning to technology for a solution. Maybe it will work or maybe it will become such a hassle that we all just give up in despair?
This is a big problem not only because we could lose an integral activity inside the hobby, but if a handful of radio terrorists can so easily ruin a DXpedition, then it’s fair to question the value of our service during an actual emergency.
And yes, these same mentally ill terrorists jam those communications too.
We’re Losing Ground in the Brain Game
Life on this planet is driven by technology yet shockingly few of its inhabitants have a clue about how anything works. I’m purposely trying to avoid the phrase, “the dumbing down of amateur radio”, because it might offend, but I believe it captures the essence of a festering problem. Our hobby is based on radio which in turn, is based on electronics. The days of new radio discoveries made by teenage radio hams burning the midnight oil in their basement laboratories is long past. But there needs to be at least a modicum of knowledge to keep this thing moving forward.
I don’t believe this trend was caused by changes in amateur radio licensing methodology. Eliminating the code requirement didn’t suddenly make people ignorant. Rather, it mirrors the trend of the general populace who now carry more technology in their shirt pocket than we took to the Moon in 1969 and yet have no clue how any of it works — or harbor any interest in finding out.
Fortunately, radio has advanced to the point where high-quality equipment can be purchased ready to use. We no longer have to build our stations from parts salvaged from a junked television chassis. Not all of us will have the knowledge or wizardry to design advanced electronic circuits or develop cutting edge software. But all of us have the ability to understand antennas, radio propagation, to learn how to properly check into a net, pass traffic, or prepare for emergency communications.
If the sum of your radio knowledge is how to work the push-to-talk button and chew the fat with your buddies, you might have an amateur radio license, but you’re not a radio ham.
Local clubs could take the lead here. We need a “no ham left behind” training policy. It is virtually impossible to run out of ideas for club meetings. Sessions on how to build a dipole, soldering, how and when to best use radio filters, repairing a rotor, working a satellite with a handheld, how to call CQ, how to work DX — including a lesson on split operation. The list is endless once you fully buy into the notion that every radio ham needs to know a hundred things and needs to be curious enough to learn a thousand more.
It’s no coincidence that Apple has become the most valuable corporation on the planet by selling high-tech gadgets that “just work”. That attitude may work (for a season) in the outside world, but the contagion of not knowing and not caring to learn technical things is a certain slow death for amateur radio.
Declining Activity and Interest
I’ve saved our biggest problem for last. While amateur radio licensing may be on the upswing in the United States, interest in our hobby continues to wane. We’ve gotten really good at getting “them” in the door, but we’re downright lousy when it comes to inspiring “them” to take advantage of all this hobby offers.
All of us use the excuse of not having ‘enough time’ to do all the things we would like to do. But that’s something of a cop out. The number of hours in a day, week, month or year haven’t changed from one generation to the next. What we choose to do during those hours is subject to change. It’s an attention deficit problem. During those times I’ve become very passionate about a particular activity, I’ve managed to pursue it almost without limit. Admit it, you have too.
Over 700,000 licensees in the FCC database yet only about one-third of those are actually “active”.
350,000 Technician licensees are floating out there yet one of the biggest complaints in all of hamdom is that thousands of repeaters sit silent and unused. When the random stranger does break squelch, no one answers his call.
Full participation isn’t realistic. There are doubtless thousands who continue to hold a license yet now reside in a nursing home or senior living facility without access to radio. Some are young and busy with career or starting a family. Others have taken time off to pursue a degree or specialized training. Since licenses are issued for ten years with a grace period before cancellation, it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that thousands of licensees are dead — their call signs not yet purged from the database.
Approach the data any way you like, it’s a major problem.
We’re going to have to discover new methods for getting hams motivated and activated. Sorry, the old ways are no longer valid. Just coming up with a new contest, for instance, won’t cut it because our lifestyle arrangements are considerably different in this new century. We’re more mobile, constantly on the move. Few of us under 60 years of age want to be quarantined in a radio “shack” for an entire weekend.
(I predict two-hour sprints will completely replace contest weekends in the coming decade).
The ARRL may have a hit on its hands with the upcoming National Parks on the Air event where they’ve combined the opportunity to operate from the trail with online ‘leaderboards’ to encourage further participation. I don’t know if this was intentional or merely leftover serendipity from their hugely successful Centennial QSO Party but it’s brilliant and we need more like it.
The decline in solar activity certainly won’t help motivate HF operators so we’re going to have to think outside the box. More VHF/UHF activities, six meters, and I’m hopefully optimistic that we will soon see a lot more ham radio activity in space — given the many new planned transponders and even a geo-synchronous payload.
Rekindling the flame for many who have lost interest and become radio inactive won’t be easy but it should become our top priority. In fact, I would suggest that clubs who are too busy cranking out new licensees to focus on this problem — are actually hurting the amateur radio service.
We don’t need more licensees. We need more active hams. Chew on that and see what you can come up with because, we need a solution and we need it fairly soon.
Ham club newsletters exist in abundance. Most to inform members about upcoming events or to celebrate recently concluded activities with words and pictures. But there are those that serve a much larger audience — with timely advice and stories that cover the broader spectrum of amateur radio.
The September edition is another good one. I’m reading ‘Adding an Amplifier to a Low Power Contest Station’ by Al Dewey, K0AD.
An there’s plenty more where that came from. Don’t miss it.
Steve Weinert, K9ZW did a nice job sharing his take on comments from keynote speaker and ex-FCC General Counsel Riley Hollingsworth, K4ZDH from the W9DXCC convention.
Riley spoke about the need for compassion, even for those who intentionally disrupt our communications, and hinted that many disturbed individuals are veterans dealing with mental health issues. Given his previous position, he doubtless speaks from experience.
The vulnerabilities from our dependence on networked systems and the concern this is causing lawmakers fretting about a ‘Digital Pearl Harbor’ was another topic covered by Hollingsworth.
Stop by Steve’s blog and check out both thought-provoking posts.
Charming audio interview with Chuck Adams, K7QO on a recent QSO Today podcast. Chuck’s infectious enthusiasm for the hobby, CW, and especially his austere approach to getting on the air will delight many, especially dedicated low-power enthusiasts.
Don’t miss it and be sure to visit the program Web site as there are many links referenced from the interview. This episode highlights precisely why Eric Guth, 4Z1UG and his program are firmly affixed at the top of the ham radio podcast pile.