Friday, March 20, 2009

Digital voice: the way forward?

In the April 2009 issue of RadCom, technical editor Giles Read asks if digital ham radio is the way forward. He argues that the emergence of digital voice modes offering better voice quality than FM, better resistance to noise and interference, and the ability to be routed transparently from radio to radio using networks like D-Star, is the future of the hobby. My reaction is to hold up my hands in horror and say: "I hope not!"

My adverse reaction is not luddism. It's just that I believe these increasingly complex technologies, whilst interesting to those few amateurs with the skills to understand them and develop them, reduce most of us to the role of mere end-users. And what is the satisfaction in that? Using a D-Star network to talk to someone half way round the world is no more interesting or challenging than making a mobile phone call.

When I first became interested in radio as a young lad, DX locations really seemed exotic. Most took weeks to reach by ship, communication by letter took months, phone calls if possible at all were prohibitively expensive. To contact such places by radio was a real achievement, something only radio amateurs could do.

Today the world is a much smaller place. There is hardly anywhere on the planet you can't just pick up the phone and talk to. You can have email conversations with people in the remotest locations. There is nothing special any more in simply being able to communicate. Ham radio needs to add something extra to hold people's interest.

There are few activities that give more of a thrill than contacting someone thousands of miles distant using a radio you built yourself. And that is one of the few things that only amateur radio allows you to do. Radios that can receive - and even transmit - traditional modes like SSB, AM, FM and CW can be built by anybody. Digital modes will always require a 'black box'. And I believe the more complex technology you need between the microphone at one end and the loudspeaker at the other, the more the magic of radio communication is lost and the harder it is for ordinary amateurs to make their own equipment.

Reliable, error corrected communication under any conditions is not what ham radio is meant to be about. I predict that amateurs will still be building and communicating with radios using the same modes we have used for years, long after the store-bought digital D-Star radios have lost their novelty and are gathering dust on a shelf.

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