Millennials are Reinventing Ham Radio
The latest blog post by Sterling Coffey (N0SSC), Millennials Are Killing Ham Radio, dives into a topic we’ve brought up continually here at FaradayRF. That topic is the future of amateur radio. We’ve known Sterling for a long time and this post comes as no surprise to us. He’s an ardent supporter of FaradayRF and even gave an impromptu lightning talk about our project at the 2017 TAPR/DCC.
Being a millennial myself, I barely remember not having a computer in the house and when we did have a computer there was at least dial-up Internet to go with it. By the time I was in high school most of us had cell phones and in 2007 when I graduated high school the iPhone changed the world. To put it bluntly, mainstream ham radio has always been behind the curve of mainstream technology for as long as I can remember. Rather than being deterred, people such as Sterling, my brother Brent, and myself have taken on the optimistic view that we can reinvent amateur radio.
Millennials are Savvy
Growing up with computers and the Internet makes us a bit naive about technology. If we think it can be done then we can probably figure out how do it. This is a great trait because no one can tell us it’s not possible. Just because it wasn’t possible before doesn’t meant I can’t do it now. We didn’t grow up designing computers from scratch. We grew up piecing graphics cards, hard drives, and motherboards together while figuring out how to boot Linux (all before Ubuntu!). That’s made us savvy with technology. Some of us can design computers, but a heck of a lot more can cobble them together and apply them to something interesting. That’s progress.
Millennials are Efficient
Building upon our savviness, I’d argue that millennials are efficient too. In fact, today’s fast-paced world means few have interest in becoming licensed to slow down and ragchew over HF. Love it or hate it that’s a strong trait I’ve observed. It’s trivial to contact almost anyone anywhere in the world if there is an Internet connection. It’s a hard sell to put ham radio in any other context beyond emergencies, contesting, and being something like sailing.
Using the resources available to us we can iterate quickly without reinventing the wheel. Building projects starts at proof of concept which involves wiring premade circuit boards together and applying some software glue. We know that building upon others work is faster. We grew up with open source and that’s changed our perception of what a project is. It’s efficient to take what works now and build something better. Some will enjoy building 40 meter CW transmitters but many more will find value in much more relevant technology applied to amateur radio. There are likely more millennials interested in working at the application layer than at the transistor layer of a radio.
Millennials are a Step Ahead
Readers of our blog as well as the massively popular Hackaday blog will note that open source electronic design software such as KiCad and manufacturers such as Oshpark give millennials a leg up versus prior generations. For less than $20 and two weeks of time one can order a four-layer circuit board that has good performance through 1GHz. This is insane compared to just 20 years ago!
The tools available to millennials allows them to experiment and iterate at speeds unseen before in amateur radio. This allowed projects such as FaradayRF and HackRF to quickly iterate hardware with minimal investment. Additionally, SMT components are the standard for most hobbyists these days. While 0402 components may be annoying, some of us are hand soldering 0201 components (dust) and 0603 or larger are a breeze. Hardware is getting much cheaper. Hardware is practical.
Millennials are not Patient
A blessing and curse of growing up as a millennial is that we’re not very patient. We went from dial-up Internet to broadband cable in a decade as kids. We went from no-frill cell-phones to having a smartphone that provided high speed Internet in our pockets in half a decade. Finally, we’ve seen smartphones nearly replace the need for desktop/laptop computers in another half a decade after that. Technology moves fast, and we expect that. Ham radio isn’t an exception to these forces. I’d call this progress and we need to keep up.
It’s our Time
The attitudes, savviness, and naive view of what couldn’t be done in the past can provide the driving force in ham radio. It could also drive its disappearance into irrelevance. Millennials are now in their 20’s and 30’s. Among us are the Steve and Woz’s of our generation building Apple or the Bill Gates starting Microsoft. Among us are the people ready to take what we’ve learned growing up and see the opportunity to build a better version of tomorrow. Millennials are poised to define a new paradigm for the hobby. I say we should welcome it.
What do you think about millennials driving the future of ham radio? We’d love to keep this discussion moving forward. It’s an exciting time to be a radio amateur. We’re on the cusp of becoming forever a retro activity or catapulting into an era of fast-paced advancement. Let us know what your thoughts are in the comments section below!
Sad to say, Brice is totally correct in his assumptions and facts. There are new hams out there that can take a junkbox and turn it into a digital wizard. I for one was born 1943 and grew up in the analog age and was one of the early adopters of the first internet and Radio Shack and Commodore and other puters. I had a RS TRS80 Mod 1 with a tape deck and B/W monitor and a 300 bit compuserve modem, went thru the SSTV craze, RTTY, SSTV and now digital modes. The puters today are light years ahead of the stuff that I used to get here. I cant even understand 90% of the ‘digital’ software and my 75 year old brain is not even close to understanding the protocols that have developed today. So old timers like me will just be content to actually talk to another ham and share some good times, meet and greet and raise a glass to the camaraderie. The new age millennial gang will do the same thing they do on thier mighty cell phones and the world will go on. 73 es gud DX.
It is interesting that sailing is used as an analogy, and I think it is appropriate. I used to sail a boat and loved it. I was even on a race team for a while. For me, the appeal was the journey, not the destination. I learned how a boat moves in water, how to read the wind and the weather, how to optimize the shape of the sail for the conditions, and how to bring the boat back safely when the motor died. All of this was fascinating to me and made me better prepared no matter what type of boat I was on. There is a natural beauty in sailing and a sense of pride for the sailor who handles his boat well in all conditions and keeps his boat in “Bristol fashion.”
Amateur radio is very similar. There are those who love the hands-on, behind the scenes, aspect. There are others that see it as simply a means to an end – a transport method. In some circles, “Appliance Operator” is said in the same tone as “Power Boater” is said in sailing groups. It is a hobby that has a wide appeal and no one mode is “better”.
Amateur radio isn’t dying or being killed. Spark-gap transmitters have died, but only because we found better, more efficient ways to use the airwaves. The hobby itself is bigger than any single mode and will continue to grow and expand. Yes, our population is old and decreasing, but part of that is just the wake of the “Boomer” generation.
I disagree that ham radio isn’t leading technology. The Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and much of today’s digital work began within the Amateur Radio arena. I would agree, instead, that ham radio operators are often behind the curve in widespread adoption of the new technology. That is a completely different issue based more on human tendency to find a “comfortable place”.
I remain optimistic about the future of our hobby. Like sailing, there many ways to cross the ‘waves and many reasons why anyone would want to do so. For those who do, each has their own balance of practical transport and romantic nostalgia, and they are each perfectly right.
I hope we get more TNC iPhone apps for running data modes. Such as Olivia, JT65, JT9, FT8, & Winlink.