The role of Ham Radio in the 21st Century
So to resume my run of content pieces on this blog, I’ve planned to share one of my favorite content pieces this week. I used to be hesitant to include it to the website as I really didn’t want to offend the initial author, but I hope he/she is happy that I enjoyed reading their article and wanted to share it with my readers.
I remember getting my ham license back in 1992. I was 13 years old, and the thought of using radios to talk to other people had always fascinated me. I found myself intrigued by the “professionalism” of the Hams, not to mention the fact that hams got to play with seriously cool equipment (repeaters, huge antennas, auto-patch systems, and tons more!). It was real ego boost to be able to pick up a ham radio in any given location and make a phone call, talk to emergency personnel, or ask for assistance from a fellow him if your car broke down. There were practical reasons to have a ham radio license and carry a radio.
These days, the internet and cell phones have all but eliminated any of the traditional arguments on why ham radio is so important. Your cell phone will get you out of most any sticky situation, and the internet lets you talk to ‘strangers’ from all over the world without even trying. The trend is pretty clear when you get on the air, too. It’s extremely unusual to meet anyone under the age 60. (Interestingly, the same age group that’s been the slowest to adopt the internet).
So what’s the point? Ham Radio is the Past, Present, and Future of Wireless Innovation
There are a number of people out there who really are genuinely interested in RF (Radio Frequency) engineering. You have Ham Radio enthusiasts to thank for nearly every major modern advance in radio and electronics over the last 100 years. For example, the inventor of the integrated circuit (present in pretty much anything that has a button or a display today) says his love of electronics was because of his early involvement in ham radio. Current wireless technologies, such as WiFi, cell phones, wireless 3G and 4G, satellite communications, and much, much more all have their roots in ham radio. With very few exceptions, the engineers who are inventing and advancing the world of wireless technologies got their start, and their inspirations, from the ham world. If you’re the kind of person who loves to experiment with technology, you’ll find the ham radio world provides a never- ending supply of “I wonder what would happen if……..” scenarios, built around a community of fellow engineers who are always inventing new and interesting ways of experimenting with radio technology.
For those who are genuinely interested in a career (or a hobby) developing new wireless technologies, ham radio is currently he –only- legal way for the average person to experiment, learn, grow, and innovate. The FCC is very protective of this field (for various reasons), so for the sake of future innovation, ham radio provides a critical bridge between having an interest in the field, and creating new technologies for commercial purposes.
What about Emergency Preparedness?
Emergency preparedness is the other “foot in the door” that continues to provide a lot of attention to the hobby. Unlike nearly all commercial communications systems, ham radio has no dependency on terrestrial infrastructure that can fail. Ham radio operators played a critical role during recent disasters, such as Katrina, 9/11, and the 2003 North American blackout, where normal communications systems were either completely down, or overwhelmed. And it wasn’t just voice and morse code, hams set up wireless computer networks to relay large amounts of information digitally as well. When the grid went down, ham radio took its place.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as “get your ham license, and you’ll be ready for an emergency!”
In 1993, the FCC eliminated the requirement to learn morse code in order to get a ham Icom walkie talkie license. It caused a massive influx of new (younger) people to get their ham radio licenses. But the majority of these new licensees weren’t interested in ham radio, they were interested in emergency preparedness. Most people who got their license around this theme realized the whole “ham thing” was much more complex than they realized and quickly lost interest. Even today, the vast majority of people passing their entry-level ham test are joining for the same (wrong) reasons, and like their predecessors from nearly 20 years ago, it isn’t taking long before they realize they’re in over their heads and they go back to focusing on their real hobby (emergency preparedness).
It’s a little like buying yourself a shiny new jet with the intent to eventually become a pilot. The airplane looks pretty impressive sitting in your driveway, until you realize that simply owning the airplane doesn’t mean you know how to operate it. It takes years of training and experience before you can actually fly – and if, during those years of training, you realize that you’re actually not that interested in the science of aviation, you’re going to get bored long before you ever learn to fly your new jet.
I mention this only to acknowledge that, while emergency communications is an important element of ham radio, it’s a very misunderstood topic. Those who are providing real assistance during emergencies are veterans of the hobby, and not those who have a license and a radio tucked away in a box. I would argue that, for those who are not sincerely interested in the technical side of the hobby, there are likely no benefits related to emergency preparedness.
Regardless, emergency preparedness remains a popular pillar of support for the hobby from the FCC and from congress. When things don’t go as planned, leave it to a group of guys who eat, sleep, and breathe ingenuity to come up with a solution.
Are there any other practical uses for ham radio in the 21st century? Given the massive proliferation of the internet and cell phones of this day and age, the answer is “probably not.”. But for those who love camping (as opposed to staying in a hotel), you understand that there can be a certain appreciation for “getting back to the basics”. Mountain climbers don’t climb the mountain because it needs to be done, they do it because the mountain presents a challenge. A NASCAR driver has but one purpose in a race: To prove that his skills and the engineering abilities of his team are superior. Ham radio operators will tell you that the accomplishments of making an “over the air” contact are a direct reflection of their own engineering prowess, and the next challenge always awaits. “Can I do it again with less power? A smaller antenna?”.
It’s sad that the ham community, the same folks who pride themselves on their ability to communicate, has done such a poor job of getting this message in front of the rising generation. This is a group of kids who have been solving complex problems since before they could read and write (video games, computers, the internet, cell phones). For the sake of the future of American innovation, I sincerely hope we can figure out a way to make sure the message is understood: Ham radio is simply a great way to challenge yourself with state of the art science and communications technology. It is generally nothing more, and it is definitely nothing less.