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.


Big Gun DXer said...

By George, I think he's GOT IT!
A wonderfully perceptive piece about what amateur radio is about.

Yesterday, I got to experience the thrill of working a new DX entity. This little spit of land in the Antarctic ocean with a bunch of scientists on it, and one ham running a meager station has provided me with a great challenge. For weeks, I have been getting up in the middle of the night to try and even HEAR this station, with no luck. Yesterday for the first time, I was home during the day when he was on the air. I could actually copy him, weakly, but definitely copyable. After some frustration with my own station and just a little with the pileup, I worked him for a new one. The pleasure was in accomplishing something that required work, skill, and patience. I could drop him an email and say hello, but it wouldn't be the same. Not by a long shot.

Jay Dighsx said...

Everyone gets something different out of the hobby. Some like the tech, some like the struggle, some like to looking at awards hung on their walls.

Is ham radio for everyone? Nope. I love talking to non-hams about the hobby. I find you get two types of people, the people who's eyes glaze over and wonder whats wrong with you. And the people that think it's pretty cool and "get it". The latter are the people I try to bring into the hobby.

I've got an android phone and use the echolink app. I tell ya it's one of the coolest things I've done with the hobby. I travel away from my QTH a fair bit and don't have access to radio while I'm away. Having echolink on my phone lets me call our clubs node and talk to my friends back home. Now has it crossed my mind that I could just call them on the cell phone, yep. But whats the fun in that?

Jay aka KD8EUR

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comments. Jay, I'm glad you have fun with the EchoLink app. I hope you'll give me a call one day when my own node is up. But I'm intrigued where it is you go that you couldn't take an HT and make some contacts using real RF. Pluto? The Sahara Desert? :)

VE9KK said...

Hi Julian, very well written post, as I talk to my work mates about ham radio more often than not the questions is asked "why don't you just pick up the phone or go to the internet?? As you said it is all about the challenges you take into account to make the HF or VHF contact that brings the hobby to life. I find with this hobby there is always the opportunity for learning.

PE4BAS, Bas said...

Hello Julian,
Interesting writing about the main things of HAM radio. Though indeed times change. These times I very seldom meet people that know what HAM radio is all about. And even some HAM operators forgotten all about it, they should read your writing here. Last weekend there was a friend visiting me, I showed him and his little boy my radioshack. When I asked the boy what he thought it was he said he didn't know. My friend told him I could contact other people around the world wireless. So, he said (only 5 years old) what's the point? The younger people will probabely never know the HAM radio spirit....73, Bas

Unknown said...

That's a little bit sad, Bas. Of course, when I was a 5 year old lad, the world really was a big place and being able to contact or even just hearing something from round the world was a big deal. That magic has forever gone.

You have to be a bit of a geek to want to carry on trying to do it over radio just because it is difficult. I don't know how you get the idea over to someone if they don't instinctively get it.

Jay Dighsx said...

Where do I go that an HT wouldn't work? Honestly not too many places but I have found that nothing clears out a repeater faster then some new guy calling CQ. Maybe it's just my charming personality but I haven't had much luck meeting new people on 2m. So it's nice to be able to use echolink to get back home and talk with my friends there.

As for the next generation and ham radio. Our club puts on demos for more boy scouts then I care to think about. We have found that the quickest way to get some smarty pants kid to "get" ham radio is to shove a mic his his hand. We've had more kids come alive when you explain where the person is they're talking to. The other thing we do is we tell them that it doesn't matter how old they are if they can pass the tests they can do it. Kids are so used to being told what they can't do. How many of those scouts will become hams? Who knows but maybe we're planting a seed for the future.

Just to drone on a bit more, the other story that comes to mind this one: There were two boys who lived down the road from me that were about 8 and 10 years old. I bought them a kit to make a crystal radio. So one afternoon we sat down and put it all together. I helped them run out about 150 feet of wire for an antenna and told them that night to give it a listen. Well the next day they were all fired up because they heard some radio stations. But they wanted to know how it worked with out batteries. I explained it about 10 times but they just couldn't get the idea that something "electronic" could work without batteries. But that's the world they have known. To them all this is digital stuff is normal, we're the odd balls not them.

Paul Stam PAØK said...

The world is absolutely changing... no matter how. Also does HAM radio. In our VERON magazine I read that the average age of the radio amateur is sixty. What will be the future of Ham radio? The youngsters have internet, Twitter and iPhone & Black berry's. They communicate with each other without doing a technical exam, which will be infeasible for a lot of them. I am no dx-er, no rag chewer, no over technical, but I am fascinated by radio waves and the propagation of radio waves. 40 years ago I thought I needed 200 watt or more and very big antennas. Now I am fascinated by low power and low profile antennas. And if I can't talk to some one on air, I don't mind. I am interested if the software can decode my signal somewhere in the world. Everyone should do what he likes. Nowadays their is a lot choices on can make, to brighten up his/her life. 73 Paul

Theodore said...

The Tony Hancock piece on ham radio while sarcastic, was actually quite perceptive in my view. I use mainly digimodes and HF and have to admit I frequently feel I am in that TV skit.
I always have to smile when people say "why don't you just pick up the phone, or go on the internet?".
Calling random strangers on the phone or lurking (not complementary wording!) on chat sites is sometimes known as harassment or stalking.
When you put enough time into one area of ham radio, in my case HF PSK31, you eventually get to know even the DX stations, so what you form is an informal network of hobbyists.
The public nature of the communications (anyone can listen) also means you usually have quite a large audience who get to know the various personalities.
I have made many friends on HF (even overseas hams who have visited). If you take an interest in your contacts, you will eventually get to know them and that is what community is about.
Like birdwatchers, philatelists or any other hobby, the shared interest is what makes the hobby unique.
Trying to compare ham radio to the internet or mobile phones is as pointless as comparing birds to aircraft.