One of things that drew me (and probably you too) to Amateur Radio was the ability to make long-distance (or DX) contacts.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s though, for the majority of the population, talking with someone in another country was a complicated and expensive business.
I recall being allowed by my parents to join in Radio Nederland’s monthly “Happy Station” phone-in on two isolated occasions in the early 1970s.
In the UK, this involved calling the International Operator Service beforehand and booking the call. You were not allowed, for whatever reason, to dial it for yourself in those days!
You gave the number you wanted to call to the operator and tried to explain it would be good if they could call it at a certain time as it was a phone-in, but in truth, you were in the lap of the gods – you had to wait your turn in the queue!
Eventually though the Operator would call you back and then dial the international number for you. At some exorbitant cost, you were eventually put through (or not, in the case of the phone-in programme as the number was usually engaged by then – sheesh!)
Ham Radio – Something Special
So becoming a Radio Amateur in those days was not only a way of accessing a modern up-to-date technical hobby, it was also a way of using your radio skills to talk to people in far-off climes, learn about world geography, and receive those magical QSL cards that proved to your friends that you had achieved something rather special and that you really hadn’t made it all up!
You were somebody as a Ham!
UK-to-UK was impressive too
Even talking with other operators in the UK was quite something.
Before the days of Motorways (Freeways for our US cousins, Autoroutes in Europe) a journey across the whole country could easily take several hours. I specifically remember a journey my family made to the seaside in Devon in 1973 which took the best part of 8 hours on the old “A” roads…
As a Ham in those days, even to talk with a station in Devon, well, it felt like talking to someone on the other side of the world!
Kings of the Airwaves
So being a Radio Amateur back then was truly like being a “King of the Airwaves” – the world was literally your oyster!
When CB Radio and 446 MHz came along, it was easy to differentiate Ham Radio from those services – they were designed as short-range radio only and, unless conditions were exceptional (which they occasionally were on 27MHz!) they did not normally sustain long-distance propagation.
Those services were no threat to amateur radio as a result – and sadly, partly because of this, too many Amateurs at the time looked down on CB-ers – it wasn’t “real radio” and its operators were “inferior” and “didn’t understand proper radio”. (Heard that before anywhere, by the way?)
The tables have turned!
Now fast forward to today – and the tables have very much turned!
The Internet means that pretty much everyone has unfettered access to worldwide communication, in a variety of forms.
Text, documents, photos, audio, video – you name it, it can pretty much be sent worldwide and at relatively small cost.
In reality, the new Kings of the Airwaves in 2018 are…. all of us!
Radio Amateurs have now been joined by everyone else!
Is it any wonder then that Ham Radio is all too often viewed these days (by people outside the hobby at least) as old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy and the preserve of old men who prefer to live in the past?
No wonder we have an identity crisis – no wonder it is difficult to attract new blood!
If the best we can offer is “you’ll be able to help out with emergency communications when a natural disaster or war devastates your area” it doesn’t sound overly attractive!
Author’s Note: Please understand that this is not to denigrate those that do provide this service by the way; I am simply trying to show reasons why our hobby is not as attractive as it used to be – I have every respect for those that serve the community selflessly in such a manner, they are heroes in every conceivable sense of the word.
Perishing computers – they’ve ruined the hobby
Like it or not (and I too have a love-hate relationship with them) computers have revolutionised both society and consequently our great hobby too. And they are going to continue to do so.
Network Radios (which we can think of as “pocket SDR computers with a PTT button” as that is what they are) are simply one more evolutionary part of the journey.
They allow us to access the richness and colour of Internet propagation, while existing in a package that we already understand and can therefore use.
Now we can work other Hams anywhere they have a connection to the network, if that is what we choose to do.
It’s rather like using the Internet as a massively combined set of repeaters, only they are not exclusive to Hams anymore – we share that service with the rest of the population.
And perhaps this is one reason there is resistance to this movement.
There was, and still is to a great degree, an exclusivity about holding a Ham Radio licence.
I remember working extremely hard for mine. I was, and remain to this day, very proud that I achieved it (with a Credit and a Distinction in the two papers I sat, by the way, as well a pretty flawless 12wpm Morse Test ;))
But in 2018 and beyond, a licence to transmit on increasingly noisy bands that require large antennas, which in turn causes friction with neighbours and conflicts with restrictive covenants, seems increasingly irrelevant to many Hams.
As a result, it appears that many have voted with their feet and left the hobby altogether.
A growing hobby, but not as we know it?
Network radio does not suffer from these problems however. And though we may not regard it as “pure” as Ham Radio was in the past, it is helping keep the hobby alive.
Indeed, if what I am seeing is correct, it is actually growing it!
Every day, I am hearing Hams coming on the Network saying things like…
“I’ve been on the radio more in the last week that I have in the last 10 years.”
“I never thought I would use Ham Radio again till I came across this channel.”
“This has completely rejuvenated my hobby.”
“I haven’t got my Ham licence yet, but I’m learning a lot from talking with you guys and I am going to enrol on the next course.”
A lesson from Ancient Rome?
What was it that was said about Nero – that he “fiddled while Rome burned”?
Regardless of the historical accuracy of that statement, I wonder if there is a sense of something similar happening within our hobby.
Are our traditional bands gradually slipping away from us under piles of noise?
Are people leaving Ham Radio because “it isn’t what it was”?
Does the thought of erecting a new antenna sound less exciting than chatting with the family on social media or checking your news feed?
If the answer to any of those is yes, then let me ask, are Network Radios possibly one way we can piggy-back on Internet propagation and bring our hobby further into the 21st century?
Running out of time…
If it is, or even if it isn’t, we had better be quick with something!
Two decades of this century have almost gone by and with arguably more than 50% of Amateurs unlikely to be on this planet by the end of the next two decades, time has been running out for the hobby for some time already…
No one is suggesting that Network Radios are the answer to all the issues the hobby faces. Clearly they are not.
But they are already playing an increasingly growing part in the hobby and a positive one, from what I am experiencing.
We lose precisely nothing by embracing what they can do for us – and they just may be an opportunity that we cannot afford to pass up.
Catch you “on the network”?