Is the Internet Destroying Amateur Radio?
How many times do you hear the comment “ham radio…do people still do that?” followed by the statement that “surely the internet has made ham radio obsolete.” For the most part, that misses the point about the use and attractiveness of amateur radio. And yes, that is a clickbait headline.
I’ve written before that Amateur Radio Is Not for Talking and that the Universal Purpose of Ham Radio is to have fun messing around with radios. One significant statistic is that the number of FCC amateur radio licensees remain at an all time high. Eventually, the demographics will likely catch up with us and this number will start to decline, but it hasn’t happened yet.
The internet has become a tool that is used to complement amateur radio, often in ways that we may not have predicted. Although there are plenty of “keep the internet out of amateur radio” folks in the hobby, there are many more that have found clever ways to make use of the internet. I view emerging technologies and technological innovation as unstoppable forces that will impact us whether we try to ignore them or not. Using that lens, let’s examine the impact of the internet on amateur radio.
Here are a few broad categories of impact:
1. Communication Pipe
The internet is often used to provide an additional mechanism for transporting ham radio communications. Obvious examples are VoIP systems such as EchoLink and IRLP. Also included in this category are digital voice systems that use the internet to connect radios together: D-STAR, Yaesu System Fusion, Brandmeister Network, DMR-MARC Network. WinLink is a global email system using ham radio. The core transport technology is the Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP) which is not limited to the public internet. Some ham radio organizations are implementing IP links using microwave gear on the amateur radio bands so they are independent of the internet.
Another application in this category is remote operation of ham stations. That is, use an internet connection to control a ham station at another location. Sometimes people refer to this as the Long Microphone Cord Model (or maybe I just made that us). Hams do this with their own private stations but there are also shared stations established by radio clubs and commercial vendors (see Remote Ham Radio). With community restrictions on external antennas being very common, having a remote station available is very attractive.
This has turned out to be quite disruptive because so much of ham radio operating depends on your location, which is generally determined by the location of the transmitter. But now you can have a person sitting in downtown Denver operating a transmitter that is in Fiji. Kind of confuses things a bit. Regulatory issues also come into play: that transmitter in Fiji is going to fall under Fiji regulation which usually means needing an amateur radio license issued by the local government. The day is coming when a DXpedition to a remote island will consist of a helicopter delivery of a remote radio box (with satellite link and self-deploying HF antenna) that is operated by someone sitting at home using their smartphone.
2. Reporting and Coordination
Ham radio operators also use the internet for spotting and reporting purposes. Spotting has been around for a long time, which basically means letting other hams know that a particular station is on the air and can be worked from a particular location. Hams have done this without the internet but the internet certainly allows for more efficiency. Or at least a lot more spots. DX Maps is a good example of a spotting web site that supports lists and mapping of spots.
Radio hams also use the internet for coordinating radio contacts. One of the most extreme examples is the use of pingjockey for arranging meteor scatter communications. Typically, two hams will connect on pingjockey and agree to try a meteor contact on a specific frequency, with specific timing, etc. This technique is easy to abuse, either intentionally or via sloppy operating habits, because you can inadvertently share the radio contact information via the internet. However, properly used, pingjockey is a wonderful tool that promotes meteor scatter operating. ON4KST operates an amateur radio chat website that enables a wide variety of online communication and coordination between hams.
The Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) is a network of radio receivers listening to the amateur bands and reporting what stations they hear. These stations are often referred to as CW Skimmers because they skim the CW information from the received signals. RBN began with decoding CW but now also supports RTTY. There’s no fundamental reason it couldn’t be extended to other modes, even voice modes, with sufficient computing power.
PSK Reporter is a similar reporting system which accumulates signal reports from HF digital stations. As the name implies, it was first focused on PSK31 but has expanded to include other digital modes.
3. Logging and Confirmations
For decades, hams have been keeping their radio logs using a wide range of software that is available. This is a handy way of keeping track of radio contacts and tracking progress towards operating awards. More recently, online systems have been developed to allow radio contacts to be confirmed electronically. That is, instead of exchanging QSL cards as confirmation of a radio contact, both hams submit their log information to a central server that records the radio contact. The ARRL offers the Logbook of The World (LoTW) which supports these awards: DXCC, WAS, VUCC and CQ WPX. The eQSL web site was the first online QSL site, offering electronic QSL card delivery and its own set of operating awards. Club Log is another online electronic logging system. The popular qrz.com web site has added a logbook feature to its set of features.
Electronic confirmation of radio contacts is a huge improvement for ham radio. While many of us still enjoy getting a paper QSL card, collecting QSLs for awards is a royal pain. Mailing QSL cards is expensive, takes time and often involves long delays.
Impact on Amateur Radio
Here’s my analysis of the situation: Categories 2 and 3 mostly represent a net positive influence on amateur radio. These are straight up information age applications that provide useful and quick updates about radio propagation and radio contacts. Yes, there is some downside in that many hams become dependent on them instead of doing it the old fashioned way: turn the big knob on the radio and listen. Not a big deal given the benefits.
Category 1 is more of an issue for me. The major effect is that it enables worldwide communication a lot easier while using ham radio. This is what causes many hams to say That’s Not Real Ham Radio when the internet is used to do so much of the work. Focusing on the actual radio wave propagation, there is really no comparison between working DX on the 15m band and making the same QSO with a UHF DMR handheld piped through the internet. At this point, I try not to overthink the issue, dropping back to The Universal Purpose of Amateur Radio is to Have Fun Messing Around with Radios. So if chasing DX on 15m floats your boat, keep on doing it. If the DMR handheld provides enjoyment for you, I’m OK with that, too.
Perhaps more importantly, we can’t really stop the impact of new technology. Oh, I suppose the amateur radio community could petition the FCC to restrict Category 1 use of ham radio. There could be regulations that limit the use of the internet being interconnected with Part 97 radio operation. However, that would have an even bigger negative impact on the hobby by arbitrarily restricting innovation. Imagine if we had to tell technically-minded newbies in the hobby that “well, we have this rule that says you can’t actually use the biggest technology shift in the 21st century” while using ham radio. We do have some rules concerning awards and contests such as you can’t use a VoIP network to quality for DXCC. There will probably be more of that kind of restriction occurring as technology moves forward, which is fine by me.
When it comes to technological change, its often difficult to predict the future. Some of it is easy: we’ll see higher bandwidths and more wireless coverage on the planet as 5G and other future technologies roll out. Figuring out how this affects ham radio is a bit more difficult. Right now, there are still remote locations that aren’t on the network but that will change. I expect even remote DXpeditions to eventually have excellent connectivity which could lead to instant check QSLs. (That’s kind of happening already but it could become more of a realtime event.) As systems become smarter (e.g., machine learning, artificial intelligence), distributed systems will become more automated. We can expect more automation of ham radio activity which will certainly be controversial. Did you really work that other station if the software in your home ham station did it while you were away at work?
To wrap up, I don’t think the internet is ruining amateur radio but it is certainly changing it. The key is to keep having fun and enjoying the hobby. If you aren’t having fun, you probably aren’t doing it right.
What do you think?
73, Bob K0NR
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Excellent article. The major point came early, Ham Radio is about radio, playing with radio. I always tell people who might thing they are interested in Ham Radio, if not interested in radio and doing things with radio Ham Radio is NOT for you.
Thanks for a well written enjoyable and informational article. I will save it for others.
A very thoughtful discussion and I suppose the basic points can be applied to many other activities. Cars destroyed most equine-based transportation, digital cameras have made the fun of loading film and setting f-stops obsolete, automatic transmissions ended most peoples’ familiarity with clutches, steam replaced sail; you can go back to printing marking the end of copying illuminated manuscripts or photography reducing the painting of portraits. Yet (except for monks in scriptoriums) people still do all the old things because they like them. I enjoy flying sailplanes with circa 1945 technology. So “classic” ham radio will continue, but like CW today it will be more of a niche market for those who really want it. And that is both a positive and a negative too.
You make many excellent points with which I totally agree. Interestingly, I have been able to enhance my friendships around the globe by following QSOs up with an email message. Out of frustration waiting for a DX station to give its call, I have often turned to my computer to go to one of the sites where I can put in the stations frequency to see who it is from the other people who have worked it. Personally, I have found that the internet has greatly enhanced and is complimentary to my ham radio activity, and I have been a ham for over 60 years.
I agree…the Internet has enhanced the ham radio experience a hundred fold for me. With such instant access to circuit information, info from those with more technical understanding than myself, I would be hard-pressed to work without it now! I’m not sure if it has reduced the amount of on-air activity or not but I kind of doubt that it has. There are so many wonderful sources of inspiration to be found there when it comes to our hobby. Sure, there are things I don’t like, such as e-qsls and LOTW but nobody is forcing people to use these.
We all have our methods. I use the internet for user groups and digging out tech info and watching the videos on youtube, etc. Guess i’m just a tired old dinosaur as i am in the middle of my 7th decade on mother earth.
The thing that fascinated me as a child was when I visited my cousin Haywoods ham shack full of huge xmtrs and rcvrs and the glow of the vacuum tubes and the voices of people coming out of them. THAT was magic for country boy standing there [me] with eyes big as baseballs listening to the far away voices. My thing is still talking to a person from a far flung place on earth, although i seldom do it much any more. I listen mostly and marvel at it all. We as humans have not yet learned the value of traditions and customs. It seems the shiny things, bells, whistles and cell phones have taken it away. I for one am proud my son has carried on my fascination. 73
The internet has changed amateur radio but hasn’t killed it. After all SSB and RTTY didn’t kill CW. The internet has given us more choices, perhaps too many. I hear there is CW training via the internet.
Yes, an excellent article indeed, with many great comments. Amateur radio offers so many different facets and disciplines of technology and how they all can be utilized together, producing a very interesting and rewarding hobby! I think the internet has complemented amateur radio and will continue to do so as both technologies evolve. Mixing the two is not for everyone, as many operators don’t have a computer in the shack and enjoy the standalone operation by itself. The people that have communicated that amateur radio is an outdated or an obsolete technology that has been replaced by other means are very much uninformed! I think each operator should enjoy the hobby as they wish! 73, Ray NY1AM
For me, there is one single feature that distinguishes using radio to communicate over all the others: the ability to call CQ and not know in advance who you will speak to. Radio is inherently a shared medium; all of the others are point to point.
The closest is EchoLink and IRLP if the end points are connected to radio links; but even then, you need to choose a remote mode in a particular region/country/city. The same goes for D-Star conferences etc. If I call CQ on 20m, I might get a response from another European country, or maybe North America. Who knows? And that is the distinguishing feature that I don’t see the Internet being able to match.
73, Gareth M5KVK
When it comes to our technology being blended with the Internet (DMR, D-STAR, IRLP, etc.) it’s important to take the long view. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one — this is necessary prep work for some future day when radio amateurs build their own high speed, global, private network.
Perhaps not in my lifetime or yours, but this will come to pass.
73, Jeff KE9V
After being away from the hobby for years I re-licensed last year and started easing back in to operating once more. As I did I started to become aware of just how extended the hobby has become with the addition of the internet. Not only is it much easier to share technical details, construction projects, expertise in a particular area, you can now see a picture of propagation over the entire planet. That right there is something governments didn’t have access to before hams built that capability.
I can make my station useful to someone else when I’m not even home. Set up a Raspberry Pi with FLDigi software that talks to my old ICOM 746 and uploads what it hears to PSK reporter. I like being able to contribute to the data available.
I believe we are just at the beginning of weak signal digital HF modes. They are (the different modes) designed for different purposes, the least interesting to me is a ‘bare QSL’ exchange. They have gone about as far that direction as is possible. So I expect we’ll see progress where true weak signal work will allow conversations like PSK 31 and Olivia do today. Not that those are slouches with marginal signal levels, just that I expect them to be surpassed in capability.
These are interesting times for our hobby. Ham radio becomes more broad, more capable, and at the same time more fragmented.
I’m glad I got back in the hobby.
My main concern is radio amateurs, certainly here in the UK, are predominately OLD and MALE. Given time, these die. Our hobby will die with them unless we nurture youngsters.
Sorry I must disagree. The magic of amateur radio is communication without the aid of trillion-dollar infrastructure. Once you’re using the internet as the primary means of getting data from here to there, your radio becomes nothing more than an expensive remote control. It’s not even as genuine, from the perspective of being radio, as CB.
Instead of adding these worthless digital modes to their radios, it would be nice if the big manufacturers would incorporate technologies that have been standard in consumer electronics for 20 years: touch screens, bluetooth, gps, WiFi, wireless firmware updates. How about 2m and 70 cm ssb handhelds and mobiles?
The “internet” modes will not save amateur radio.
Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I really appreciate it.
This is one of those articles that has been brewing in the back of my mind for some time now and it finally made it to the surface. So it’s gratifying to get the feedback (all points of view).
There are additional comments coming in via my blog:
73, Bob K0NR
The internet has enhanced Amateur Radio without doubt. Training from basic to the most advanced is available on line, that was only a dream a few years ago, and 90% is FREE ! I obtained all my Amateur licenses from studying on line, including Extra Class. Yes, I can send and receive information on line ,instantly. However, not without relying on others equipment and technology. Amateur Radio illustrates non-dependence and cutting edge technology. So for me, that’s surly a part of the draw of our hobby.
I followed a link on the Mensa Yahoo group ((https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/hamsig/info)) to your article.
Thank you for distilling what was inside me since I was a boy:
“… Purpose of Ham Radio is to have fun messing around with radios”
Perfect! Nuf said!
I hope we get more data mode TNC apps for the iPhone. Such as Olivia, JT65, JT9, FT8, & Winlink.
My United Kingdom (Full) Amateur Radio licence was issued to me in March 1968 and to this day, it still defines my hobby as follows:- “self training in radio communication, including conducting technical investigations”
Merriam-Webster defines Radio as – wireless transmission and reception of electric impulses or signals by means of electromagnetic waves.
I have accepted new technology and now have two hobbies, first and foremost “Amateur (HAM) Radio” and secondly as many others also “Amateur Communications” assisted wholly or partly by, the commercial and for profit, wired up (copper and optic fibres) infrastructure commonly known as “The Internet”
I rest my case.
73 to all communicators, (wired or wireless)
RSGB (52 years) RAOTA and ARRL, a proud to be Ham.