Are ‘ham’ operators going the way of 8-tracks and VCRs?

Jeff, KE9V pointed at the following article via Twitter:

Are ‘ham’ operators going the way of 8-tracks and VCRs?

The author actually meanders a bit (into the why we call it “ham radio”, for some odd reason, but his main point seems to be this:

As National Public Radio found last March, amateur radio is an experience that can’t be duplicated surfing the Internet. That’s why when NPR attended a ham radio convention in St. Louis, a reporter found teens carrying on the hobby. As one 15-year-old said, Facebook and texting are fun, but it can’t match making friends with a $200 radio for which you don’t have to pay a monthly fee.

I groaned a bit inside, because this is complete balderdash.

Okay, it’s not complete balderdash. I am not one to tell teens (or anyone else) what is fun and what is not fun: they are capable of figuring that out for themselves. I’ve no doubt that the teens they interviewed at a ham radio convention thought ham radio was fun, otherwise, they probably wouldn’t have been there. But I also suspect that if you took away a teen’s mobile phone and replaced it with a $200 HT, you’d find that even those attending the conference would probably be more than a little upset.

The reason is obvious: a mobile phone and an HT aren’t interchangeable. They don’t do the same thing.

Most notably, an HT is a ham radio, and radios like that are almost exclusively for communicating with other hams. If you want to communicate with someone who isn’t a ham, a ham radio isn’t really all that valuable. At best, it requires a clumsy relay. In practice, it just isn’t done. You’d just fire up your phone and call them. Or text them. Or email them. Or Twitter. Or Facebook. Or post something to a blog. You’d send them a picture. Or a link to a YouTube video. If you really want to communicate with someone, I’d submit that the Internet provides a much richer environment than amateur radio.

Okay, but let’s say you do want to talk to hams. Isn’t ham radio the most obvious way to communicate with other hams?

Well, I’d submit the answer is mostly no. If your goal is to communicate, all of the ways that I mentioned above are still excellent, reliable, high bandwidth means of communication. Even if you toss in the requirement that the communication be free, the wide availability of WiFi in many areas (from coffee shops to libraries) makes conventional Internet a very attractive means of communication.

If you accept this, then it does seem that amateur radio is going to go the way of the Dodo.

But I don’t believe it will, because ham radio does provide some things that the conventional Internet doesn’t.

First of all, it relies somewhat less on infrastructure, so it provides a backup in times of emergency. This capability is widely trumpeted as the (primary?) virtue of amateur radio, and as justification for our spectrum allotment. Our pool of self-trained emergency communicators can provide some valuable assistance to local communities in case of emergency as a kind of failsafe.

Secondly, even in non-emergency cases, ham radio can provide some capabilities which would be difficult to reproduce using more conventional wired or wireless technology. Repeaters can provide broad coverage in areas not well served by cell towers. HT’s and small HF rigs can enable people hiking and camping in remote areas to communicate.

But primarily, ham radio is a kind of sport: an active pastime. A form of recreation. We do it because we like to do it. It provides us an interesting opportunity to achieve mastery. Mastery makes us feel better. The activity provides a means to connect with other humans and relate to them about our shared interests.

The invention of the motorboat didn’t end surfing or swimming. The invention of canned tuna fish didn’t end fishing. The invention of cars didn’t end walking or running. Depending on the emergency, skills like walking, fishing or swimming may save your life, but that’s still not why people do them: they do them because it’s fun.

As long as ham radio continues to be fun, ham radio will continue.

6 thoughts on “Are ‘ham’ operators going the way of 8-tracks and VCRs?”

  1. The other purpose of amateur radio is that amateurs have contributed to advancing the state of the art, and continue to do so. For examples look at the ARRL’s QEX journal.

  2. Granted, Hams are at least working with SDR technology. But other than that, I don’t see anything else “state of the art” here. Spread spectrum? Only with commodity 802.11 devices. High-speed data? 802.11, and the 128K D-Star on 1.2ghz. Digital Radio? Only if you want to have a closed-source signal that is undecodeable by anyone who doesn’t have a AMBE/IMBE chip. Codec2 is pretty good but still needs to be ported to a microcontroller and someone still needs to come up with the protocol and modem for it.

    It would be generous to say that even .1% of the operators in this country cared about anything other than HF, contesting, or playing make believe EMCOMM commando. The operation of our radio equipment, outside of SDRs, has barely changed in 30 years. If Ham Radio dies out, it’ll be more because it’s extremely antiquated and not impressive to anyone who has experienced the change in other areas such as the computer or cellphone.
    • A “cell tower in a suitcase” designed to allow first responders and disaster recovery personnel to connect to cell phones by connecting to satellites for voice and data connectivity;
    With kit like this, what role will Ham Radio play in disaster situations? Someone can just boot up a few suitcase cell towers and while you’re busy setting up your end-fed halfwave, everyone else suddenly gets cell service back?

  3. As a Ham operator of course I would fall inside the law. The law in the UK has provisions for allowing me to break the bandscales: I can basically use frequency and any power IF there is a life at risk. It follows a change in the law after a HAM operator risked his license by picking up a mayday that he could hear but the rescue services (at the time) couldn’t.

    As such, my rig with a couple of settings changes will give me a full AM and FM broadcast inside of commercial bands : its a “safety” feature of my rig that I can’t accidentally de-tune onto CB or Commercial and hold down transmit, but its a 30 second change inside the menu.

    Ham radio is a way into radio engineering. We give all scouts and guides training in how to use them – we should be promoting it so that we are bringing up a generation of engineers rather then a bunch of people who can only dial a cell phone.

    As for suitcase towers, I think there is a question here on ‘disaster’ scale – these things might be good for the week later after a hurricane has come through and you dont have time to rebuild, but they are not going to go up in the first 24/48 hours. Also, if its a zombie holocaust, well… no-ones going to care to go out and put up towers.

  4. I don’t disagree with your premise though I think you have left out an important point. Ham radio and the connected world (Internet/cell phones) do compete at some level for space in the world of personal communications. Hard as it may be to believe, just 35 years ago fully 1/3 of those who were jumping on the amateur radio bandwagon did so because the new fangled repeaters offered an auto-patch – and regular folks couldn’t afford mobile phones back then.

    And I can tell you of many hams who I knew back then who when asked why they got into the hobby would tell you that it was because some close friend or relative moved far away and they were using radio to beat the high long-distance telephone costs of yesteryear.

    You can argue that ham radio and the Internet are two totally different things, but you can’t say that the advent of the Internet age hasn’t impacted some of the reasons why many people once entered the amateur service.

    73, Jeff

  5. James, N9XLC’s “…playing make believe EMCOMM commando…” comment struck a nerve with me for a couple of reasons:

    I was at WhereCamp a few years ago, may have been last year, talking with some of the guys who did crisis response after the Haiti earthquake, and they said “yeah, HAM whatever, really useful is getting some directional 802.11 up so you can move pictures and maps around”.

    The one time I’ve used my license was supporting a bicycle ride in the high Sierra last summer. I’d signed on as a bike mechanic, was under-utilized, one of their shift operators didn’t show up so I offered to work the mic. They had a text system set up that was tremendously useful, although it worked really slowly (must have been like 110 or slower, using a transmitter that even with a lead-acid battery between it and the generator dogged out the generator when it kicked on) was far more useful than voice. But the setup was flakey, so we ended up working a lot of voice.

    And then this year I was at a CERT meeting, and the HAM folks there were getting all excited about an exercise, although the energy level in the room dropped when someone pointed out that in these exercises generally their contributions to the professional emergency responders were politely acknowledged and dropped on the floor.

    In all of these cases it seems that rather than trying to tie together more 2 meter gear the thing to do is become more facile at setting up point-to-point 802.11 towers, at configuring mesh networks. Even, or perhaps especially, if you wanna play EMCOMM commando. But most guys into that stuff seem to be the people who carry fanny packs for their multi-tools, and yet can’t seem to figure out how to use those tools to actually *do* something when it comes down to the drills.

    So, yes: This exactly.

  6. A few years ago, a small town in Oregon near here had a flood. Some hams took up handling third party traffic. No phones. No electricity. No cell. Both road into town underwater. Most of the traffic wasn’t of an emergency nature, but it was nice for people to get a phone call telling them their relatives were ok.

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