Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Barely making contact

I was reflecting on what I wrote yesterday about the EchoLink app for Android and why I find it and similar developments disturbing. I thought it was because it made me uneasy having to face the fact that the internet and a cellphone appears to make ham radio redundant by allowing us to make the same contacts so much more easily without using the ham bands at all. Then I had a blinding revelation. Ham radio is not about making contacts. It is about not making contacts, or making them only with luck and some difficulty.

I almost stumbled across this truth a few months ago after I sold my first VX-8R to do APRS on a smartphone using Lynn KJ4ERJ's excellent APRSISCE software. It worked far better than the 2m radio, allowing me to be tracked and exchange messages in places where there was no 2m signal. But I went back to using RF for precisely that reason. The smartphone didn't provide the interest of allowing me to see how VHF RF propagates around the local terrain. The disappointment of not being tracked as I slogged up the mountain was balanced by my surprise when a beacon was gated from a location I wouldn't have thought possible and the interest created in working out how it happened. There is also the technical challenge of finding ways to improve coverage and get a radio signal out of difficult locations, for which buying a smartphone is simply a cop-out.

When you look at other ham activities that remain popular or are even gaining in popularity it's obvious that the interest is not in how easy it is to make contacts, but how hard. DXing isn't about pressing the PTT and ticking another entity off the list a minute later, it's about what you have to do - buy equipment, improve your antennas, learn about propagation, develop operating skills, be patient - in order to achieve it. People boast about the DX they've worked, but what keeps them interested in DXing is the places they haven't worked and how hard it will be to work them. Dialling up a contact using an internet application has nothing to do with it.

Contesting isn't popular because it's easy to amass a winning score but because you need the best equipment, the best antennas and lots of skill to get even close. It isn't meant to be a level playing field. That's why many people dislike developments like reverse beacons and skimmers that take away some of the skill required.

QRP pursuits like WSPR or MEPT beaconing aren't about making contacts at all, but just about seeing how far a whiff of RF can go. The excitement isn't in being received by someone for the nth time, it's that first barely detectable trace on the screen of someone or somewhere new that makes you punch the air (if QRPers go in for such QRO expressions of emotion.)

The thing about VHF FM activity is that for the most part it isn't about the achievement of the contact at all. It's just about being able to converse with people. When I was first licensed, before mobile phones and inclusive call packages, chatting on 2m FM was actually the best and certainly the cheapest way of keeping in contact with my local ham friends. But things have changed over the last 35 years and I haven't been paying attention. I'm the dinosaur who wouldn't disclose his mobile number to the radio club database because I felt that if someone wanted to talk to me about radio they could wait until they can contact me on the radio. But I suspect that everyone else has moved on. If they want to speak with one of their ham buddies they pick up the phone. Which may partly explain why the VHF bands these days are almost dead. Or even the development of D-Star, which provides some of the convenience of calling someone on the phone without totally abandoning use of the ham bands.

In only a handful of pursuits like SOTA and WOTA where the point is to make a contact direct using radio is 2m FM still used in what I would call a traditional manner. People will struggle to hear their signal report even if the activator is right down in the noise and get a feeling of having accomplished something when they are successful.

So EchoLink on a smartphone really doesn't change anything. It already changed. Whether hams call one another on the phone using their phone number or their EchoLink node number really makes no difference. It has just been blinkered thinking on my part to have felt that if people hold ham radio licenses they ought to talk to each other using ham radio even if it isn't the most convenient way of doing so.
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