Monday, November 27, 2017

Some thoughts on ham radio, millenials and the future of the hobby.

Why this post?

So let's start off by saying that this won't be yet another reply to Sterling, N0SSC's article about why Millenials are "killing" ham radio.  I am in the millenial demographic, but I come from 20 years of experience in the hobby, starting off as a teenager. However I feel that an alternate view is important because Sterling's post does have a few valid points, but a lot of it ignores what is right and wrong with the hobby.

The spark.

I can't really pin down what was the spark that got me specifically into amateur radio. I can say that ever since I knew myself, I was always fond of technical things. Suffice to say, this is what got me into the hobby. I had a few great elmers along the way, mostly SK now, but they nurtured me in the hobby.


Why ham radio?

Why did you get into this hobby? For me it was a vehicle for electronic experiments and science. I later on discovered things like DXing and contesting which were simply a way of applying the results of my experiments. There was also the mystique of doing clandestine things on the radio - particularly scanning, which was forbidden in my former home country. But everyone did it anyway, even listening to cordless and cellular telephones. Building antennas to listen further was really fun. This is part of the fun of ham radio, and radio hobbies in general.

But back to why. People do ham radio for a lot of reasons. They want to build stuff and experiment, they want to talk across the world, they like the idea of wireless communications, or they want something for emergency use. Regardless, we are here and there are reasons why.

Yes, talking across the world on a piece of wire without use of the Internet is still fun. It's still magical, and if you don't understand that, too bad, maybe ham radio isn't for you. But if you want to understand that, then yes, we have a hobby for you.

I will add that my knowledge of geography has increased 339 fold since I became a DXer. Maybe you learned something too.

Ham radio is "dying" and needs "saving"

No it's not. I have heard that nonsense since I got licensed. Whether it be no-code, contesting, bad behavior, 75 meters, "non-technical hams" or whatever, there have been naysayers throughout history. But in truth the numbers have never been better. Quality over quantity? I believe there is a lot of quality these days. This year alone my contest club has seen tremendous growth in terms of membership and participation. I also get a lot of hams new and old asking me for advice on technical and operational issues.

Women in particular have become more active. Typically (sadly) when a YL gets a license it's because her husband/boyfriend has one. Today though we are seeing women actually taking the reins in the hobby and doing things on their own, which is WAY cool. "The future is female" sounds like a worn out campaign slogan from last year but in reality if we don't involve women in our hobby it will die out. Thankfully most OMs will help us and encourage us. We are here, we are only growing, so expect us to be more active. And please, do welcome us! We do like to be full members of this hobby as well, and I would like to think we are well past the time of lace gimmicks and 200 meters and down. (because 200 meters and down isn't even true anymore...)

I blame several things for this new resurgence. For one, the Internet. I have never seen so many hams collaborate as they do today. From ham radio how-tos on YouTube, to tech articles on various websites, to facebook groups and Reddit (admittedly that's one place I don't go to) there are many hams online, collaborating, jointly figuring things out. The elmer tradition is alive and well. It is also replacing the monthly club meeting for information and ideas exchange. This is probably a bad thing as the last thing we need is to stay in our shacks, but at least we are sharing ideas, which is GOOD. 

The other thing I blame is NPOTA (National Parks On The Air). Yes, this one specific thing. This brought many, many people out of the woodwork.  The feedback I generally got was that people enjoyed getting outdoors and getting to the parks, running a portable station and making contacts. It was loads of fun, and especially YLs got more involved and on the air. It was a huge hit! ARRL should run another similar event. Sorry, but grid chase doesn't cut it. Something with history that allows people to do ham radio and something else. Grids are meh. Parks are fun. 

The maker movement? Maybe. But I don't see that having a huge impact. I do agree we should get them involved. But don't think they are make or break. A lot of makers and IOT people (I am one) aren't really interested in ham radio and that is fine.


Ham radio is a "big tent"

Would it be nice if every ham was an engineer? No. That would be boring. Ham radio is a big tent. We have doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, firefighters, software engineers, kings and yes, electrical engineers. Nearly every profession is represented.

Why I mention this is because being technical is nice and all, but there are other things in ham radio besides just the technical aspects. With that said, the technical aspects are still very important. However not everyone has to be an engineer. We all enjoy it for different reasons.


The shack on the hip?

I've said repeatedly that a handheld is a terrible first radio. Repeaters are pretty much silent these days, with only DMR and DSTAR (and fusion) are bringing life to old repeaters. Instead, since every new ham has HF privileges, they should try to get on HF. It doesn't have to be expensive. We didn't start with 150 foot towers, stacks, and kilowatts of power. We started with old radios and wire antennas. Nothing is wrong with that! A favorite old rig of mine is the Kenwood TS-440. It is built like a tank and  available cheaply. It's one of many good, functional, basic solid state radios that can be had in good condition.

I notice the Chinese radios tend to be popular. There is nothing wrong with them if you get them tested out first. There have been reports of many of them putting out spurious emissions to illegal levels. I own a few of them and they have been a mixed bag. The best one I own is a TYT MD380 DMR radio. 


The remote elephant in the room

Sterling's reference to remote operation seemed a bit like an ad. Not that it was, but it seemed that way. But an analysis of remote users shows that this particular commercial enterprise doesn't really bring young people into the hobby. Yes, they give a free year of service to some lucky youth but I don't see people running to sign up who aren't otherwise interested in ham radio. 

Instead, a lot of the internet remote operator demographic seems to be people who live in restricted communities (HOAs, condos) or contesters who live in less than favorable contest locations who want to try to win a contest by operating within spitting distance of Europe (Maine).

The bottom line with remote operation is that it will enable people to live in retirement homes or other places without antenna space, or with restrictions and still get on the air. However - it will not bring youth into the hobby in any significant numbers. 

The other thing is that if youth are not interested in "talking on the radio" why are they interested in remote operation of someone else's station? The two ideas seem to be in opposition to each other. 

Remote operation in and of itself is not a bad thing. I have a remote station, running FlexRadio's SmartLink. It has enabled me to use my radio when I am away from home to work rare DX and also to keep in touch. As long as it's used legally and ethically (eg. don't use a remote listening receiver to cheat at 160m DXCC) it's 100% fine and is a perfectly good way to enjoy the hobby. 


We need high speed data!!!

We do have high speed data. Right here. The problem is that this doesn't interest youth to flock to ham radio either. Oh, and it's on UHF and microwaves. You want that on HF? No way. You can't really get a lot of speed on HF without a lot of bandwidth. And no, we shouldn't open up the phone band to digital hash and wideband PACTOR modems, which are primarily used by sailboats for email while at sea (again, not youth). 

The truth is that HF frequencies are lousy for high speed data modes anyway. Even in a closed circuit system like cable TV, lower frequencies have too much noise and reflections for high speed use. Special modulation techniques like S-CDMA have to be used (which aren't suitable to be used over the air). 

The slow modes like FT8 or JT65 do attract a lot of activity. This is because they enable people to make DX contacts and experience the excitement of making a contact using the radio. They also don't have any of the nuances with phone operation. But I really don't have any statistics as to what demographics use those modes. I have seen all ages. 


Hackathons?

Seems like a good idea. Why doesn't someone take it and run with it? We do have a lot of GPL ham radio software. Even WSJT-X, (perhaps the most used piece of ham radio software today) is not only GPL, but GPLv3, where any derivative work is required to be published. Even my friend Gerald, K5SDR and the developers at FlexRadio have created a completely open source SDR application called PowerSDR that is still being updated and improved by third parties today.

Professionally I've done many hackathons, hack weeks and other code till you drop type of events. They're OK, and they kind of remind me of LAN parties in the 00s, which means that they appeal to a certain kind of people. Not my cuppa.

But we should promote the development of open source software in the radio community... actually nothing is stopping anyone from already doing this. You, too, can be the next Joe Taylor - if you want to. Well, probably minus the Nobel prize. I don't think anyone is discovering binary pulsars again. ;)

The generation gap

There is that cliche. But it does seem to be true for a lot of things in this hobby. So we should market it to people who are interested. People of any age. But at the same time we should not start a war among generations. We get it, older folks feel that they lived during the good old days, and today's youth are lazy and unwilling to do what it takes. Younger folks feel that they know it all and the previous generation is arrogant and unwilling to help. There is middle ground, which is that both sides should try to work together. The older and/or more experienced hams should look to improve youth experience in the hobby by passing on knowledge and maybe being open to some new ideas. Younger hams should try to understand that you do learn from experience, but at the same time they can bring fresh perspectives.

The idea here is for generations to coexist and mutually benefit each other. Younger hams have enthusiasm, health and strength. Older hams have knowledge and experience. They can both join forces and have more fun. 


So what do you suggest?

I think that you can't really drag people into the hobby who don't want to be in it in the first place. But at the same time don't keep your hobby a secret. Everyone knows I'm a ham, I am loud and proud and people. I try to encourage people, especially someone who has been curious. I try not to waste my time with unlicensed preppers who have no interest other than stockpiling Baofengs to use in the apocalypse, but if they are generally interested in radio, no problem. Most people know me as an elmer for SDRs, station integration and other things. In reality I am willing to share my advice about anything. 

And you should too. 

And this goes for anyone of any age. Millenial, gen X, baby boomer, whatever. 

Homebrew is still alive. Yes, it's with arduino, raspberry pi, etc. But it's still there. Yes, it is with software but there is a lot with hardware that can be done to. The comment about Elecraft is somewhat inaccurate. Elecraft didn't have to offer radios pre-built because homebrewing is hard. They did so because they built a high performance receiver and the market wanted that pre-built. There are still lots of kits produced by lots of people. Joe, K0NEB's column in CQ magazine is of keen interest to the kit builder. There is absolutely nothing like melting solder. 

We got our kids (the triplets) snap circuits for their birthday. They are absolutely in love with it. It brings electronics simple enough so they can understand (they're 7). Proof that even simple circuits and experimentation can bring that spark. The same spark that drew me in. Maybe it will draw them in too. We are already building bigger things...

See you down the log.

88
Ria

8 comments:

  1. Really great writing Ria!!!

    73 Jim W2KYM

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  2. Great piece Ria - hope it gets many "reads"!

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  3. Fantastic and accurate article, there is space for all backgrounds as well as for all kind of HAM Radio variations. 73 DX, Jorge LW5DX and M0LDW...
    Greetings from Leeds

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  4. good job.... you should be a writer.....
    keep it up

    Niece

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  5. Just so we are clear - I am NOT against remote operation. I just don't think it's all it's cracked up to be to attract new blood. The point I was trying to make was that we should not focus just on youth, but rather try to encourage all demographics.

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  6. Very good analysis of the current state of ham radio. Stressing the fun part is a good idea. Your take on radio clubs vs. YouTube and the Internet is not one I had heard. I think the same can be said about hamfests. Hams can buy equipment without having to go to a ham store or a hamfest. You should submit this to QST and CQ magazines. 73, Bob Bauer, KC4HM

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  7. I concur. Very well-stated perspective--and, convincingly engaging. I would venture that prospects to our hobby might go the extra step and engage now that they've read your glowing state-of-the-hobby.

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