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Monday, March 11, 2019

N8RMA's 2019 State of the Hobby



Your chance for an opinion on our hobby

Dustin Thomas N8RMA, got the idea for a comprehensive ham radio survey while browsing Reddit back in 2017. “I started to notice an influx of surveys being posted, almost all in regards to highly specific topics in amateur radio,” he says. "I made sure to participate yet often wondered what the results were. I then decided to host my own survey, to collect the opinions from the community on a variety of topics for comparison over the years. I wanted to ensure I made the results widely available for anyone to consume for whatever reason."

First licensed in 2014, Dustin upgraded to General in 2015 and looks forward to reaching Extra. His personal ham radio interests include contesting, DX, and Field Day operations. But as he got into the hobby, he wondered where it was headed. They survey is a way for him to make a meaningful contribution toward the hobby’s future.

“I always wanted some baseline questions to compare from year to year, as well as specific issues impacting amateur radio today,” he says. “The State of the Hobby was born.”

Dustin pointed out some highlights — and surprises — from the 2018 State of the Hobby survey:

Concerns over HOA’s came in as the third most reported issue (fourth overall as the biggest single issue) yet 75% of respondents reporting not being effected by an HOA
Respondents ranked HF award nets (such as 3905 Century Club and OMISS) very low – on par with believing there should be a code requirement for licensing.
68% of respondents claimed to have talked with a new ham in the last 12 months
DMR seems to be growing in terms of local repeaters, outranking both YSF and D-Star
Why should you bother to take the survey?

“It’s important for independent bodies (independent from the ARRL or commercial organizations with unknown agendas) to solicit and publish the opinions of ham radio operators,” Dustin says.
“This survey will give us insight into what is working and what is not, new or emerging trends in modes or activities, and successful ways to increase membership and licensing.”

He said interest in the survey has surprised him and that several clubs have reached our to say they’ve used insight from the survey to promote ham radio and establish new activities.

Dustin hopes to get more opinions this year from folks who may be studying for their license, or on the fence about whether to get involved. “This year I’ve also included a second for those not yet licensed, but who are interested,” he says. “This will give us a great insight into how new operators are preparing, what works / what doesn’t, and what recently caused them to be interested.”

More information:
https://www.radiosoth.org/2019/03/2019-state-of-hobby-survey.html

2019 survey link:
https://goo.gl/forms/fllqlu7kRkq0enAg1


If you have not had a chance to see the results from previous years, they are listed here:

Thanks to feedback and inquiry from hundreds of participants, Dustin has made a few minor changes to the survey. He says: "This year I've included some questions specific to 2019, which of course will change year to year. I hope to keep the core portion of the survey mainly intact (for that comparison) and continue to modify the annual section as deemed fit."

Please, help spread this survey to those whom you know in amateur radio. This will help strengthen the survey results and spread awareness of the results. Results and future surveys will be posted to http://www.radiosoth.org/ so make sure to subscribe. 

Thank you for your time and participation.



Thursday, March 7, 2019

My Return To Ham Radio



Radio Ramblings


Like many hams, I got licensed at a young age and was active through my later school and early adulthood years, but amateur radio then faded into the background as the responsibilities of life, family and career took precedence.  I was licensed as VE7CPT in 1977, at the age of 17, and over the next five to ten years “dove in”: I got my “Advanced” license, designed and built equipment, became a DXer and half-serious contester, explored packet and satellite communications, and even got onto 2m EME – still the “coolest” thing I have done in amateur radio! 

During this period of time, I also graduated university, got my first “real job”, got married, started an interesting career in the Vancouver Police Department, got divorced, eventually re-married, and began assuming significant supervisory and managerial responsibilities at work.  I also went to graduate school, completed three years of research and a thesis, and contributed to an advanced 56 Kbps wireless networking project.

I became VE7ZD in the late 1980s after meeting the ten-year advanced license requirement and spending three years on the “two letter suffix” waiting list.  Such were the regulations in those days!

For me, like many others, amateur radio operation had to “take a back seat” to the responsibilities of life, and twenty years flew by before I realized it.  During this period, while I maintained my station, towers, and qualifications, I operated rarely, maybe once a year.  Probably ten years went by without me making a contact on HF.  My interest in radio and communications technology, and my love of amateur radio never died, though, and I always knew that one day I would return to the fold and become active again. 

Kevin with his Field Day 'lemon battery'
I finished my policing career in 2011, and after about seven years of being involved in other professional pursuits, I made the decision to return to the ham world earlier this year.

This story is about my observations after returning to the hobby after a long absence. 
How has amateur radio changed?  In summary, the “ham radio” I see today is closely aligned with the hobby I left.  The people and enthusiasm are the same, and the debates are similar, but the context has changed significantly due to the immense impact that new technology, both analog and digital, has made upon radio and communication systems.
One difference I have observed is the wide variety of complex gear that is now available to the average ham at an affordable price.  Devices like handheld antenna analyzers can now be bought for a couple of hundred dollars.  The capabilities and performance of these devices far exceeds that of devices that were unheard of in the amateur community, and that cost in excess of $100,000. 

The development of new digital modes such as PSK31 in the 1990s, and most recently FT8 and its related weak-signal modes have greatly improved the effectiveness of ham communication.  While there are detractors, more communication ability is always better than less, and it is notable that FT8 has come along just at the right time: at the bottom of one of the worst solar cycles in recent memory.  Oh, for the summer of 1979 – global communication with 5 watts SSB on 10 metres, almost 24/7!

Incidentally, new modes in amateur radio are always accompanied by negativity from the established amateur community.  This will pass, as did negativity about SSB from the “AM” crowd in the 1950s.  In fact, this skepticism is one of the aspects of amateur radio which has not changed in my absence.

A follow-up career, flying the big jets
The advent of DSP and software-defined radios is also a major development over the past 20 years.  Like most other new technologies, initial skepticism gave way to utility, and the SDR has found its way into just about every ham shack.  The thought that you would be able to buy a receiver for under $10 that runs on 5 volts and covers 10 MHz through 2 or 3 GHz would have been laughable in the 1980s.

Innovation within amateur radio has persisted, and I see many projects that build on (especially) SDR and other new technologies to produce great new modes and communication capabilities. 

One thing I do note, however, is that the percentage of electronic experimenters within ham ranks seems to have dropped.  There are fewer amateurs building their own gear, and more “buyers” who simply acquire products and deploy them.  Innovators are fewer than they were before.

This may be understandable, as these new technologies are quite complex compared to the earlier amateur era, and more technical background is necessary for an individual to innovate, i.e. to invent new modes or techniques. 

I think that one reason for this is that amateur licensing standards have failed to keep pace with the development of new technologies.  This is the case in Canada, the US, and in other nations as well.  The licensing standards have taken modest strides towards inclusion of material covering DSP and SDR, for example, but not in enough depth to provide individual amateurs with enough technical background to invent or innovate, as they were able to in the past.

It is a difficult problem, and I am not advocating an increase in complexity or difficulty of amateur licensing!  Amateur radio plays many roles: emergency communications; public service; a reserve of technical talent; - finding the right balance is what is important. 
Hams are not, nor should they be expected to be, electrical engineers, but licensing standards should always reflect the technologies in use.  Compared to twenty years ago, I think that some aspects of the standards should be revised to better reflect use of current technologies within the hobby.

Providing a workshop on GnuRadio

I think that the average ham today is much more aware of the important role amateur radio can play in public service and 
emergency response than was the case a couple of decades ago.  Public service and emergency communications has been part of amateur radio’s focus going back to the 1930s at least, but I have noted much more emphasis on this role since my return to the fold.  Public service and emergency communications plays a more prominent role in clubs, and even in popular magazines like QST.

Society’s dependence on telecommunications for day to day life is much greater than in previous decades, and hence the impact of a disaster, for example, could be much greater.  Amateur radio’s stronger focus on public service is good, because (as we all know), commercial infrastructure usually fails in a disaster despite the “best laid plans” of the major telecom providers.  Amateur radio will be able to help as it does not depend (as much) on this infrastructure.

Back to more specific observations

Use of repeaters seems, for some reason, to have declined.  I hear a few VHF/UHF nets during the day and in the evening, but the idea of a repeater as a “watering hole” is no more.  One used to be able to find other hams 24/7 on local repeaters.  The repeaters still exist, but it just seems that hardly anyone is using them.  Perhaps the rise of smartphones, or the ban on use of handhelds while driving is responsible, but I think that the sense of “community” that was enabled through heavy usage of local repeaters has been eroded.

Fewer hams are active on HF, it seems, and those who are newly licensed are less inclined to want to upgrade themselves and their stations to utilize HF.  This is a shame, in my opinion, as the challenge and fun of HF communications, and in making contacts (and possibly friends) across the world is something that is personally satisfying. 
I understand the counter-argument – “what’s the point of putting together an expensive HF station for unreliable communications when I can just email or group chat internationally over the Internet at no cost?” – but this argument is weak in the context of amateur radio’s role in emergency communications and disaster response.  I think we need to emphasize amateur radio as “unmediated direct communication without reliance on commercial infrastructure”, and that this aspect might elicit more interest in HF among new (and younger) hams.

Younger hams: this is an important observation.  I believe that amateur radio has largely lost its innovative “spark” to the “maker movement”.  In the 21st century, young “makers” exploit technology to undertake all manner of interesting tinkering and research, and the movement has been the source of many technological innovations. 
When you read QST from the 1920s and 1930s, this innovative spirit was the purview of young hams.  Radio was fairly new and represented the bleeding edge of a lot of industry and government research.  Radios and antennas were (relatively) affordable to build and maintain.  Young people got involved and their tinkering led, in many cases, in the discovery and development of new technologies.

Computing hardware and software has become the area of current industrial innovation, and naturally many young people today have been drawn to this interesting field.  They are experimenting and creating, just as young hams in the 1930s did.  The proliferation of cheap computing devices such as the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi, global networking, and open source software support affordable experimentation, and one can see the appeal of “making” to young people.

What I find ironic is that many in the “maker” community are now interested in wireless devices and applications but have no experience with or understanding of radio science or technology.  There are almost endless discussions on “maker” forums and mailing lists about antennas, radio propagation, and the like, and most of the information being spread is totally incorrect. 

Makers are fumbling about and trying to re-invent the wheel in regard to wireless communications.  Most of these technical questions on “maker” groups were answered about a century ago by experimenters within the amateur radio community. 
I think that our amateur radio organizations, both in Canada and the US, missed (or are missing) a great opportunity to contribute to innovation and to technological literacy in general.  Our partnership (or even leadership) in the “maker” community would support amateur radio and help spread our skills to a younger generation.  In return, we would learn much ourselves.

Why the missed opportunity?  Every organization (and even radio clubs and individuals) tends psychologically, and unconsciously, towards a parochial position and can feel threatened, or at least uncomfortable, when others want to use “technology invented here”.  We have to maintain self-awareness and see the bigger picture.  “Makers” would make great amateur radio operators.

I’ll stop here for now, but summarize my observations by saying that I’m enthused to be back, the amateur community is alive and well, and the hobby still presents great opportunity for fun, learning and public service to all those who get involved.  In that sense, amateur radio is unchanged from twenty years ago.  See you at the club and on the air!

~ Kevin VE7ZD

Kevin now writes his 'Radio Ramblings' column monthly for 'The Communicator'


Friday, March 1, 2019

The March 2019 Communicator


News, Views and Reviews... 

Several interesting projects this month, plus Amateur Radio News from the South West corner of Canada and elsewhere. You will find Amateur Radio related articles, profiles, news, tips and how-to's. You can download it as a .PDF file directly from https://goo.gl/99kwGY



As always, thank you to our contributors, and your feedback is always welcome.  My deadline for the next edition is March 21st. We are planning a special issue focusing on home-built antennas. If you have a successful model, for any band,  we'd like to hear about it for publication. 

If you have news or events from your Vancouver area club or photos, stories, projects or other items of interest from elsewhere, please email them to the communicator@ve7sar.net

Keep visiting our site for regular updates and news: https://ve7sar.blogspot.ca    

~ 73,

John VE7TI
'The Communicator' Editor




CQ CQ CQ

The July-August 2020 Communicator

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