HamRadioNow: Amateur Television (ATV)… Digital to the Rescue?

When broadcast television began to get big, back in the ’50s, the pundits predicted that it would kill radio. It didn’t, of course, because radio changed to serve its market in different ways (music, news and talk replaced soaps and serials). But TV did quickly become the 8000 pound gorilla … despite a recent radio industry group’s campaign saying that people spend more time with radio than TV today.

Television (or video) has existed in ham radio for a few decades. But for us, it’s still a very niche mode, practiced by a relative handful of hams. Despite all my television/video experience and all the video equipment I’ve accumulated for HamRadioNow.tv, I’ve never had much interest in ATV. Some local guys have had an ATV repeater on and off for a while, but I didn’t catch their bug. Of course, I spend very little time at home on the air. 90% of my operating time is mobile. But lots of hams do spend time on the air from the shacks, on radio.

So why hasn’t video been embraced by the masses?

Equipment is probably one reason. Until recently, hams have used mostly the same analog AM video mode as broadcast television did BD (Before Digital in 2009). A little off-the-shelf equipment has been available. Not that expensive, but not an impulse-buy, either. Getting it on the air was a little challenging. Broadcast TV runs hundreds of kilowatts with antennas on 1000’+ towers. Hams discover that when you spread ham-style signals out from a couple of kHz of SSB or FM to cover 6 MHz (the bandwidth of an AM TV signal), those signals sputter out pretty fast (but, as my guest on this show will point out, not that fast!). Repeaters help, but there are only a few repeaters around. And there’s certainly no large group of hams on the air to help pull you in. You have to decide that this is an edge you want to sit on.

Digital to the rescue? Broadcast TV was required to switch from analog to digital over a decade ago. Ham TV wasn’t required to, but some hams discovered and repurposed some relatively inexpensive digital equipment and discovered that digital ATV was better than analog in many ways (better picture, lower bandwidth, high definition, and at least not more expensive… maybe cheaper). They mostly don’t use the same digital that broadcast TV does in the USA. The digital equipment available allows for a variety of modes and schemes, adapted from cable-TV, satellite broadcast, microwave link and European broadcast digital TV.  And, btw, in a year or two the USA will change to a totally different digital video system, but that’s another story.

The digital stuff has made ATV repeaters easier, and  it’s made operating way more flexible. Analog ATV worked pretty much with a camera pointed at the ham’s face. You could maybe play back a VHS tape into your transmitter, but switching and mixing video required some expensive equipment. The repeaters could repeat the input signal, and that’s all. Well, the the same digital revolution that makes HamRadioNow possible on a shoestring budget (while looking better than broadcast TV did 20 years ago) lets ATV operators become studios. And video over the Internet does the same thing for ATV that it does for D-STAR, DMR, Fusion, etc. on voice: it brings activity from around the world to the local repeater when otherwise the handful of local ops wouldn’t really sustain it.

HamRadioNow has covered many TAPR DCC talks on digital ATV over the past decade. Yes, the first were this talk by Ken Konechy W6HHC (very technical) and this talk by Art Towslee WA8RMC (more operational) back in 2009. Seems like ancient history, but Art says they’d had digital on their ATV repeater in Columbus OH for 5 years . For more, dig out this YouTube Playlist and scroll to Episodes 127, 168, 169, 227, 284!

This year, we talked to digital guru Mel Whitten K0PFX and ATV Quarterly magazine editor Mike Collins WA6SVT in our thunderstorm prone SIB* tucked back in Tent City at the 2017 Dayton Hamvention®. The conversation is mostly aimed at hams who have never (and may never) operated ATV, but wouldn’t mind being informed about the subject. That’s plus or minus (OK, all plus) some ATV jargon that’s hard to avoid when talking to geeks.

Will this ‘new’ digital ATV finally create a mass migration to video? OK, I don’t think so. Maybe for the same reason we still make phone calls instead of ‘video calls’ on Skype, Duo, Facebook and Facetime (etc. etc.). We don’t want to have to look pretty for the camera. Hey, don’t call me on video right now! I’m still in my sweats and I haven’t showered yet. I’m not ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.

*Studio In a Booth

Gary Pearce, KN4AQ, is the host of HamRadioNow.tv. If you enjoy this and other HamRadioNow programs, help keep them 'on the air' with a contribution. Contact him at [email protected].

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