Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Could D-Star destroy ham radio?

In a comment to an old posting about D-Star in G4VXE's blog, Lee N2LEE accuses me of being closed to new ideas. Does it matter that the AMBE codec is patented if it is the best one for the job, he asks? And how can you compare Echolink/IRLP to D-Star when D-Star is an digital end to end system with routing, linking and networking built in to the system so you can just enter someone's callsign and the network will find them automatically?

To me, ham radio is not and never has been about reliable point to point communication. Communication is just the end-product of a process of experimentation and construction, or a pastime (think contests, DXing) where the unreliability and unpredictability of it is what makes it a challenge.

D-Star's use of a proprietary codec closes that aspect of the system to experimentation. It doesn't even permit interested amateurs to look at the code and see how it works. This is contrary to the spirit of amateur radio and the openness that has facilitated most developments to date by letting one idea lead to another. But to be honest I'm not all that bothered about the issue because codec technology, whether proprietary or not, is a closed book to most. I am more concerned about the possibility that digital voice modes might one day make analogue modes obsolete so that building a simple phone transmitter using SSB, FM or AM becomes a pointless activity. Ham radio does not have to slavishly adopt new technology, especially if that technology forces more of us to become appliance operators by making simple rigs that anyone can build obsolete.

As for digital end to end routing, why do we need it? We already have a system that can do that. It is called the mobile phone network. I didn't get into ham radio in order to be able to do something ordinary people can already do. I want to be able to do things that they can't. The unpredictability of propagation and the uncertainty of who you might work on a given band at any time are what makes a ham radio contact more interesting and more of an accomplishment than making a phone call. D-Star may be very clever technology but what it delivers is not what ham radio is about.

If the time ever comes when I think to myself "why am I struggling to make this contact on 20m SSB or whatever when I could simply type the guy's call into my D-Star radio and have a comfortable chat" then that is the day I will give up the hobby for good. And I make no excuses for resisting the adoption of technologies that will bring that day closer.
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