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?
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