The Future of Amateur Radio

Amateur Radio: When all else fails.The future of amateur radio is going to be good one … so long as diehards don’t pigeon hole amateur radio into particular frequency, mode or way of operating.  As I headed up to Dayon for Hamvention, I wondered just how long amateur radio was going to be around.  I suspected that in ten to twenty years, it will not look much like it does now and could be gone.  Thankfully, there were folks up in Dayton that helped to shift my mindset.  Now I think that amateur communications will still be here and it will not look like it does now.  Looking around Dayton, it is easily taken that amateur radio is technology for white haired men – and it is easily perceived as older white men.  True, there are women, young people, and people of different origins that enjoy it but not to the extent of older white men.  An injection of younger and more diverse people is badly needed.  A failure of recruitment will signal the death of amateur radio.

I had the pleasure of talking with David Sumner, ARRL CEO (http://www.arrl.org/chief-executive-officer), while I was there.  Hamvention was busier than in years past, so I asked him if this was more in part to the ending of other amateur radio events so the remaining few would get busier.  The reality is that there is an upward trend in people getting their basic amateur radio license, but there is downward trend in people moving to more advanced licenses.  Watching David talk about Amateur radio is a unique pleasure.  He obviously loves the service and is a great ambassador outside the radio circles.  His eyes light up and he gets on roll.  Not on soapbox with prepared set of talking points, but true roll about the relevance of amateur radio specific to the conversation at hand.  What gives me hope is that David isn’t stuck with keeping Amateur radio the way it was.  I believe he knows that the radio service needs to keep its roots while balancing keeping up with the times.  

As side note, the ARRL understands how to setup convention booth.  They put their leadership right out in front to welcome visitors to their booth.  The worst thing is to have folks hide behind tables or put layers between visitors and leaders.  It is truly refreshing.  

Amateur radio is really communication tool.  It doesn’t matter how the connection from the microphone to the speaker is made, the important factor is that it is made.  Some of the connections may make the FCC uncomfortable and the rules may not be current for the technology, but amateur radio and the technology around it has outgrown what it used to be.  This is not driven solely from within amateur radio as much as it is the result of technology people being both radio and computer folks who are marrying wireless, digital and internet technologies.  APRS and D-Star are two leading technologies that have established themselves as value add for amateur radio.  And guess what … they rely on the internet. 

I know that some must have done it already: marry cellular technology with amateur radio.  Think of all the phone patches that exist in repeaters today.  Replace those with cellular aircards to pass data from the repeater to the internet.  More often than not, it will work fine.  It is just the old purists that will wail and gnash their teeth how these “others” are killing the purity of amateur radio.  Cellular technology is become more hardened and resilient from disasters so update assumptions from the catastrophic failures of the past to the current reality are really needed.  The systems are far from perfect — don’t get me wrong — but the don’t have complete failures because of a storm anymore.

Diana Eng (Twitter: @dianaeng) and the Hack Pittsburgh (http://www.hackpittsburgh.org/ or Twitter @HackPGH) crew made me realize that there are lot of similarities between people who like to build their own radios and people who build their own computers.  It’s all about getting your hands involved in something and the satisfaction of doing something for the good – or even just for the learning.  The same mindset drives both.  

So what’s the future of Amateur radio? Get past the idea that it’s your father’s radio.  Emerging technology is all about bringing together two or more existing technologies, and then taking step forward.  Some ideas will catch on, yet others will not.  It goes to the saying I’ve heard and seem to repeat lot: “today’s nut that holds the ground becomes tomorrow’s oak tree.” There will always been need for the basics of amateur radio when all else fails.  However, amateur radio is not an island to itself.  Technologists (and amateur radio is technology) who specialize in voice communications need to have range of tools in their tool boxes and how they patch together.

And as for the name “amateur radio”? Allen Pitts (ARRL Media and Public Relations Manager) had the best moment in all of Hamvention when he shared story at an open session.  When he was growing up, he hated his last name … Pitts because, well, it was the pitts.  He thought others held it against him or thought less of him because of it.  Allen said it took him until he was an adult for him to realize that the person with the biggest problem with his name was himself.  Allen said that in his experience of talking to people all around the country, both in and out of amateur radio, the people with the biggest problem and shame from the name “amateur” are the operators themselves.  Allen ended with be proud, do good job, build the reputation to the good for amateur radio, and the rest will sort itself out.  Huzzah Allen.  A lesson for all of us.