Tuesday, July 10, 2012

There once was a time when developments in the realm of amateur radio were relevant in relation to the rest of the world.

Indeed, back in the "good old days" of  ham radio, a young person might become interested in the technology of radio and their first steps in that venture may have been as a radio amateur. Through building and experimentation, this neophyte might eventually make a living as a radio and TV repairman, or find work as an electronics technician. They might even follow a path to becoming an electronics engineer developing new methods and hardware for commercial or military communication.

Back then, there was often a thread of commonality between an amateur radio enthusiast's hobby and their vocation. Radio amateurs were on the cutting edge of discovery and experimentation and these developments were closely mirrored in the non-amateur world.   In fact, what this person was doing on the workbench in their ham shacks was often a step or two ahead of what they did for their employer.

But at some point in the flow of space and time, amateur radio reached a critical crossroads. It could proceed in one direction… into the future… or choose the other direction that involved a long and circuitous route back into the past.

Unfortunately, we've collectively chosen to jettison the future and remain firmly mired in the past.

Consider carefully the position of amateur radio just prior to encountering this crossroad. We had pioneered FM radio at VHF and UHF and had blanketed the countryside with repeaters such that an operator with a handheld radio could make contact with others far outside his or her line of sight.

In addition, we had also worked out the protocols and network topology necessary for passing data over the air at rates comparable to landline methods of the age. And we had our own fleet of satellites that pioneered new methods in space communication as well as low-cost spacecraft construction and launch. 
Future developments in the non-amateur world of radio from that point included cellular technology and the transmission of higher speed data over the air.

But, since that time, commercial applications for broadcast radio and television have changed radically and now include largely digital methods. Military applications for secure battlefield communication use satellite and terrestrial means like mesh networking for voice and data transmission, which, in turn, now makes  passing quasi-military traffic with SSB voice via the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) a quaint anachronism. Our homes, restaurants and coffee shops are now bathed in RF transmitted data that keep our mobile devices connected to the Internet.

Clearly, none of these “new” technologies would have been even the least bit foreign to today's radio amateurs had we taken the path to the future. Potential (youthful) newcomers of today would have been encouraged to become involved in our hobby as it could very well lead to a rewarding career in one of many growing and lucrative technical fields – just like in the earlier days.

The sad truth is that none of these new technologies passed us by because we weren’t intelligent enough to have adapted to the rapid changes thery produced.  Indeed, I believe we hams could have lead that revolution. Remember, we ham radio enthusiasts were, at one time, the proto-geeks on the planet!

The bottom line here is that technology didn’t abandon us.  Rather, we have voluntarily chosen a path that has now led us back to the past.  In many ways, we've become the "Radio Amish".  And in so doing, all we can do now is sit by and watch the future of RF telecommunications march ahead....without us.

As I've been saying over and over again in these posts, I believe we chose this backward looking path because the future involved radical changes (primarily to our achievement-based licensing system) that would have seriously challenged the old dogmas.

For example, the egos of the old "crusty curmudgeons" who could pound brass at 40 WPM would be seriously diminished in this new advanced radio world while the young, pimply faced kid with the computer connected to his radio would be put on a pedestal among his peers.

Clearly, to the "old farts" who were firmly in control of the ARRL and other such "legacy" organizations of the day (themselves mostly "40 WPM CW men") simply couldn't let that happen. The prospect of youngsters (particularly those who hailed from that "other" radio Service (CB)) taking over the ham radio airwaves with their "funny sounding digital burps" and "CB lingo" was deemed to be far too threatening to this crowd. As a result, the welcome inclusion of such newcomers in our ranks automatically became absolutely unacceptable to the status quo.

Of course, there are still a few facets of our hobby that require a mastery of some higher tech methods. For example, it would be difficult to argue that bouncing a radio signal off the moon and then receiving the echo back from thereabouts isn’t one of the more challenging things that hams do. But consider how many amateurs are active in that pursuit and you must conclude that it’s a small fraction of even one percent of all licensees in our Service.

It’s much easier…trivial in fact… to toss a wire over a tree limb and make a 40-meter CW contact.  So, far more of our ilk simply choose to do that instead of bouncing their signals off the Moon.

Indeed, low-power enthusiasts, (QRP) have spent decades trying to make the point that HF communication is possible with practically nothing at all. That you or I could whip up a two-transistor transceiver in a single evening (and actually make radio contacts with it!) is widely seen as the magic of radio among those in this camp, However, that activity really only serves to make the point that they have embraced the simplest, lowest elements of RF technology and have absolutely no intention of moving beyond it.

Unfortunately, by electing the path to the past, we've also decided that the entertainment value of amateur radio has become far more important than the rapidly expanding field of communications technology. 

For example, consider the many ways that we have now made two-way radio into a "game".

We chase DX until all of the countries of the world have been "worked" and then we spend hours (and considerable "official" effort) figuring out how to invent new ones. Weekends are dedicated to non-stop operation with the goal being to earn the most points. We make radio contact with others and then trade post cards back and forth (via "snail mail"...and the even slower "bureau" system!) to prove that we actually did it. Certificates (wallpaper) of all kinds are offered for contact with specific stations or during specific events, etc.

And, of course, the lingua franca of amateur radio remains the Morse code.  

Even in the 21st Century, those who are proficient in CW (Morse) are seemingly more valued in the "pecking order" of ham radio than those who are not. In the larger world RF telecommunications, Morse has become an absolutely dead language that has long since proven to be nothing but a quaint reminder of the early days of radio.  Yet, a working knowledge of Morse still serves as a powerful totem for an entire belief system internal to the hobby.

Clearly, in selecting the path back to the distant past, we have collectively decided that nostalgia is far more important than innovation.  As a result, we must now depend upon nostalgia to drive future growth.

Thankfully, with a whole crop of "baby boomers" now hitting retirement age, this may help us out in the short term as those who "always wanted to be a ham" (or were hams at one time and let their licenses lapse) return to the fold.  But such an approach is completely unsustainable over the longer-term.  As I've said, even twenty years ago, the average age of the average ham in the USA was pushing 60.  It may even be significantly higher than that by now.  Indeed, a whole host of anecdotal and other indicators are also now starting to show that we are ageing and dying faster than our numbers are being replaced by youthful newcomers..

Sadly, ham radio has become much like an old trading post on a lonely stretch of Route 66 somewhere out in the Arizona desert. That is, you may stop to admire the wooden Indian, the old time gas pumps and the soda machines that still offer up glass bottles rather than aluminum cans. You snap a few pictures, buy a few trinkets for your niece or nephew and spend a moment warmly remembering what the Old West was like long ago.

And then you get back into your modern-day automobile and return to the real world.

Now, none of this should diminish the enjoyment that ham radio enthusiasts derive from our unique hobby. And, like many others, I, too, enjoy many of the activities noted above (DXing, contesting, etc.) There are also many people in the world who still enjoy building old steam engines, restoring antique cars, sailing boats by the wind and making butter by hand. Technology doesn’t always improve the quality of life and it has many unintended consequences.

But reality also demands that we acknowledge ham radio's place in the grand scheme of things, particularly when the lifeblood of our hobby....ever more sought-after frequency spectrum...is handed out based largely on the services we provide to mankind.  This is why I continue to serve as an officer in AMSAT, the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation.  At least in that pursuit, our experimenters are still trying their very best (despite the FCC's over-regulated "sub-band and sub-sub band" nonsense along with the US State Department's ITAR stupidity) to push the state of the radio art forward. 

However, when it comes to amateur radio as a whole, we are no longer of the same ilk as those who innovate and invent.  Sadly, it’s been decades since we last put a noticeable dent in that universe!

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