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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'


3 comments:

  1. Great great summary. I went a similar return after years away and see the same comparison. The big concern you noted, fewer experimentors, is my concern always. The more it becomes "buy and deploy" the more it becomes an economic divide.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Interesting points, Kevin. I think similar statements can be made about general aviation in the U.S., and perhaps Canada too. I was out of that from the mid-'70s to the late -'90s and, aside from the digital advances in the latter (and following) years have also seen a lot less young people coming into the field. Growing up doing hands-on mechanical projects and access to small airfields may be major factors, as well as rising costs, but I suspect some of it is due to a change in attitudes. Why bother with all this complicated stuff--radio or air--when you can just use something ready made?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nice sum up of chronological evolutions

    ReplyDelete

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