Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Internet killed the radio chat

The unwillingness of many hams to chat or ragchew on the air is becoming a frequently raised topic on blogs and forums. One QRP blogger recently complained after one of his CQs received a "599 TU OM" type of reply.

It's sad but, I think the disappearance of the ragchewer is inevitable. Thirty five years ago when I was first licensed, if I wanted advice on something I was doing I would call CQ and hope someone knowledgeable would reply. Much of what I learned about radio after getting my ticket I learned from on the air conversations. Today I would go on the internet where I can find out much more, much faster.

In the late 1980s I added my first modem to my home computer and discovered bulletin boards - the forerunner of today's internet. There I could chat with fellow computer enthusiasts without any of the aggravations of QRM, QRN and QSB that afflicted ham radio communications. My ham radio usage fell right off to the extent that I eventually sold my gear and let my license lapse for several years.

Whilst playing with radio is fun, especially if you like building electronic things or are interested in propagation, the internet is a much better system for finding like-minded people to chat with and provides more reliable ways to communicate with them. We're all guilty! Every mailing list or forum thread and every blog post with its follow-on comments is a conversation that once upon a time might have been conducted on the air. The internet has changed ham radio and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

That isn't to say there is no point to ham radio any more. But the point is increasingly about how far (or where) your radio signals reach, not what you actually say. Contesting and award chasing with their "599 TU" exchanges are popular like never before. And there is lots of interest in modes like WSPR and QRSS beaconing that allow you to see how far your transmissions go without the bother of having to contact somebody and receive a report from them.

The art of on the air conversation is dying out. The reluctance of digital mode users to venture beyond sending their pre-prepared macros is one example of this. Making a ham radio contact no longer requires an exchange of personal information, you simply need to receive enough of someone's signal for it to be identifiable as theirs. And digital modes have been developed that facilitate the exchange of just this minimum information.

The popularity of the JT65A mode on HF can be explained by the fact that it allows people to make "contacts" without having to speak or type anything, because the exchanges are all coded into the software. VHF enthusiasts now work each other using weak signal digital modes whilst they are in constant contact, not using radio, but via ON4KST Chat, an internet chat channel. When you need to keep in contact, it seems, radio is too unreliable. The same appears to be true for DX Cluster spots. How many people still receive them using packet radio?

The ham bands are becoming no more than a playground for those in which the unpredictable vagaries of propagation provide the key element that makes their activities a challenging and absorbing pastime. But as a serious communications medium, unless you're half way up a mountain or in the middle of Africa where the internet and cellular networks aren't available, radio is becoming somewhat redundant.

If you want to talk to somebody about your favourite ham radio topic why worry whether the propagation gods are feeling kind to you when you could just start a thread on Yahoo Groups or QRZ.com or go on Echolink?


Paul Stam PAØK said...

Hi Julian,

don´t be a grumpy old ham. ;-) It´s the spirit of the age. Nothing wrong with it. Things are changing, so is ham radio. Don´t worry too much. Be happy with the things you do. I chat on 2 meter with locals here, I chat sometimes on 80 meter net rounds. But I like QRP CW too, and JT65A, and PSK31. live and let live, is my device. I enjoy the new things too. Just trying, and when I don´t it like at all, I stop Ham Radio and will a read a book or go biking.

73 Paul

Jay Dighsx said...

I'll give you the view from a newer ham (me). I've been on HF for only about 3 or so years. For the most part I tend to keep QSOs short because it seems that most of the time the band changes so fast I end up losing the other end. My entire on air HF life has been under pretty poor conditions. The idea that you could have a conversation with someone far off without the band shifting seems amazing to me.

But at the same time this is why I have started to love the digital modes. They seem to hold up better but just when you want to talk to someone you do run into what I call "Macro Fever".

There's my two cents, spend them as you see fit.

Jay aka KD8EUR

GB said...

My main complaint is the use of phone protocols and verbiage in digital modes. The ARRL and other like orgs should promote CW style QSO's. Short es sweet would lead to more chats. To type "is this frequency in use?" when QRL would suffice is a sad waste.
PSK is great for ragchews, but only both sides avoid time wasting words and phrases. And worst of all, I seem to see just about every exchange beginning and ending with both callsigns. Aargh...

GB - kc5gb

Jspiker said...

Hi Julian,

I also dislike the "559- 73's" exchanges but there's a time and a place for everything. Some guys get a satisfaction by adding "numbers" to the log book.

But I can't begin to list the 30 min + CW QSO's I've had on 40 meters. (many close to an hour)
I've developed a LOT of friendships in the 300-500 mile range. (and there's a LOT of Hams in that big of a circle) Of course, my station is very modest (QRP with an simple wire antenna--no gain) but I've found a good CW "fist" is such a pleasure to work, that many like minded operators go out of their way to "chat" with each other. I think we see ourselves as members of a special club and take a real pride in being a member of that group.

Just as an example, one friend travels all over the east coast for business and operates from hotels. Another lives in New York City and uses a random wire hanging out his apartment window. Another lives near the railroad line on the Hudson River. I have another friend that lives here in West Virginia and one that lives in Canada. I recently traveled to a city about 700 miles from here and called a friend on the phone that I've talked to on 40 meters several times.

We each recognize each others calls, move off the calling frequency and "chat" about everything from music, keys, military service, the garden, camping, hiking, and traveling.

Maybe I'm fortunate to live in an area where "chatting" has become the norm instead of the exception?

But I could probably find at least a dozen operators that I've chatted with for more than half an hour every time we hear each other on the band.

I actually talked to a German ham once for about 10 minutes before the 20 meter band shifted. (But that was a real exception to the rule).

QRP CW is a powerful mode in more ways than one.

WB8ROL Gary L. Robinson said...

I don't have any problem finding folks to ragchew on digital modes. Of course, I stay away from PSK and RTTY in particular since they don't really lend themselves to ragchews all that much.

A lot of hams don't even get on digital because they have been told that or believe that Digital = PSK and from what they have heard listening to PSK QSO's they often feel inclined to disregard digital totally.

If everyone was told that Personal Transportation = Bicycle (and they were ignorant enough to believe it) then there would not be many people taking vacations far away from their homes. Bicycles just don't lend themselves to vacations a thousand miles away .....

So, I don't buy the notion that ragchewing is dead. It's alive and well - with albeit a smaller number of people - partly because most folks don't know about the better digital modes that work well for longer QSO's.

Of course many folks don't like to ragchew PERIOD. That is NOT new in ham radio. Many folks have limited time, don't type well, and fear computers.

But don't dig the grave for ragchews yet - they are still alive and well on digital and other modes.

--Gary WB8ROL

The Z said...

I disagree with the comment that PSK-31 cannot be used for ragchewing. I once chatted for over 40 minutes with a fellow ham from Italy. We talked about many things including the difficulty of retiring in this economy. I've had similarly long chats with other hams here in the states on PSK-31. You just have to get a feel for who wants to rattle through their macros or who is willing to talk a little. It's no different than any other mode.


Steve GW7AAV said...

I think the lack of ragchews has more to do with poor HF conditions than anything. I know of a few nets that use a Skype or Echolink connection so anyone not hearing a certain station does not feel left out. It is always interesting to see the sometimes one way nature of radio propagation that we don't normally notice. I think we just are not using new technology to full explore our 'old' hobby of amateur radio yet. There will be a radio renasaunce sooner or later and it will be Internet fired.

Steve GW7AAV said...

Ragchews on PSK? I cna't type that fast. Yuk!

Steve Silverman said...

For those of us who would rather rag chew on whatever mode we are using, a simple "RC" inserted into the CQ string not unlike "test" for contesting would signal the desire for more than a 599 TU exchange. This could be the "no macro zone" and would promote some real communication like JSpiker and Gary described above. For me, this is what ham radio is all about, but there is room in this great hobby for whatever floats your boat.
Steve KB3SII

John said...

I'm fascinated by the fact that there are so many communications modes, but it's daunting, too. I've been a ham for 10 years and operated HF for 2-3 years, thanks only to some guys in our local club who lent me a rig and antenna and put it up for me. It was a lot of fun. I've been an SWL since 1985, and it's sad to see so much shortwave going by the boards, but it was fun talking to hams in different parts of the world. I could do EchoLink or operate some remote station, but it's not the same to me. I'm on 2 meters for our local ham net once a week, but not on it much more than that. I figure whatever works in time of need is good. What will we do when the Internet is down? Will we still be able to operate on the ham bands?