Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sometimes, I'm absolutely amazed at how totally oblivious many US hams are to the political and regulatory realities of the world around us.

Indeed, some US hams seem to arrogantly believe that we live in this little "spectrum bubble" and that our politicians and regulators are forever obligated to provide us frequency spectrum to play in "just because" we're somehow entitled to it.
Absolutely nothing could be farther from the truth.

I think the words posted on the Radio Amateurs of Canada's Web site sums this issue up best when they note that, "Amateur Radio exists as a frequency spectrum user because it qualifies as a Service. Its continued existence depends to a great degree not on the service it has performed in the past, or on its simple potential for service, but on what service it is performing now and will continue to perform in the future."

That is, unlike a lot of other hobbies like photography, fishing, collecting old stamps or automobiles, our ham radio hobby ALSO relies almost exclusively on our continued, fee-free access to an ever-more-scarce, shared finite natural resource.

It's called the radio spectrum. 

And, both by the laws of physics as well as by national and international laws and agreements as to how that spectrum is to be allocated and used, that resource has to be shared with not only well-heeled commercial interests, but also by government and military users as well.  ALL of these users (including us) are in  constant competition for a bigger slice of the "pie", or failing that, to simply hold on to the access that each of us now has.

This, in turn, means that we have to continually justify our existence to these politicians and regulators.  Unfortunately, a lot of that justification depends on how many of us are not just licensed, but are actually using the spectrum space allocated to our Service.  Unfortunately, when it comes to allocating scarce radio spectrum, "quantity" takes on a "quality" all its own.

It will be interesting to see just how much our rate of growth has slacked off this year (2012) as compared to last year (2011) and the year before that (2010). According to the latest published reports by the ARRL VEC, the largest influx of new hams in the United States in recent memory occurred in 2009.  However, our rate of growth in the United States since that time has started to once again go negative.  And God only knows how many more of us still have licenses but haven't transmitted on the ham bands in a dog's age!

What's more, the average age of the average ham in the United States is now pushing 60.  By all accounts, that number is now rapidly heading higher, not lower.  So, if all we are now attracting are aging "oldsters"...those persons who "always wanted to be a ham", or were hams at one time but who let their licenses lapse, or were waiting for the Morse testing requirement to go away...sooner or later we are eventually going to run out of  people in that demographic to replenish those of us who are now dying in ever-increasing numbers. 

Indeed, that's exactly what the ARRL's "newly licensed ham" demographics seem to now indicate.  The "pent up demand" for new licenses now that the Morse testing nonsense has gone away has largely cleared and the rate of acquisition for "newly licensed hams" are on their way back down again. 

As I see it, if that trend continues, at some point, the number of users in our Service will become so small that we will be unable to justify our continued access to our frequencies.  And once we loose access to our frequencies for lack of use, all these silly arguments over whether (or not) we should be tested for Morse or that only those who construct their equipment from scratch are "real hams" will all become quite moot.

By then, I predict our precious frequencies will have been taken away from us and given over to someone else.  And, without access to our frequencies, our hobby dies.

Now, I certainly hope I'm absolutely, dead wrong in all of these predictions.  However, unless these trends quickly reverse themselves and we start attracting (and keeping) far greater numbers of youthful newcomers to replace those of us who are now aging and dying in ever-increasing numbers, my fear is that my predictions are probably going to be proven right.

But, only time will tell.

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