Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Is technology good for ham radio?

Several ham radio blogs have linked to the Wired article Why Ham Radio Endures in a World of Tweets. "What is it about a simple microphone, a transmitter-receiver and the seductive freedom of the open radio spectrum that’s turned a low-tech anachronism into an enduring and deeply engaging global hobby?" the author asks. He goes on to describe the thrill of establishing a direct, person to person long distance contact and exchanging QSL cards, which he contrasts with "a world of taken-for-granted torrents of e-mails, instant messages and Skype video-chats." It's a point of view that QRP enthusiasts and many others will identify with.

In the comments to the article many have been keen to say that ham radio is not low tech, citing "VoIP Radio" and digital techniques as examples. They may be true, but I'm afraid the commenters miss the point. The more high-tech ham radio becomes, the less magic there is. Developments like D-Star are about as far from the concept of a simple transceiver and the freedom of the open radio spectrum as it is possible to get. It isn't simple, it isn't free (since it depends on a network controlled by someone else) and it isn't open. Which is why it is anathema to many of us.

There is a danger that the pursuit of technology could turn ham radio into a poor copy of existing communications networks. Ham radio has endured because it has held on to its traditions involving relatively simple technology that most hams can understand and even build for themselves. If we ever lose sight of that the hobby is as good as dead.


Dick said...

Well expressed, Julian. I couldn't agree with you, more.

Paul Stam PAØK said...

Hi Julian, what will be left of ham radio when all the 50+ are dead and gone? Will the youngsters go on with the old technology? Maybe, maybe not. But as long we are here, we pull out signals from the noise with our ears. 73 Paul

Jeff Davis, KE9V said...

Every question about ham radio can eventually be broken down into the 'Sailboat or Speedboat' analogy. Some like to go fast and others like to go slow. Thankfully there is room for all.

And for what it's worth, the "low-end" argument can spiral down just as quickly as the "high end". I've read arguments that "real" ham radio requires all homebrewed gear, running from a battery, tapping two bare wires together to form CW...

Extremists are abundant on either side of your argment in this hobby.

73, Jeff KE9V

Glenn DJ0IQ and W9IQ said...

Hi Julian,

I couldn't agree more except I believe you are way too progressive for the real hams among us.

In order to experience the true magic of Ham Radio we all need to be on spark gap transmitters. This new fangled SSB mode with its suppressed carrier, I & Q quadrature mysteries, and now SDR gear is simply too much for the ham radio community to absorb - much less to experience any magic. The twenty year olds of today will surely be looking only for the wonderful glow of vacuum tubes when considering ham radio as a hobby when they are in their fifties.

It is also totally unrealistic for the average amateur to know how to use a computer, load software that supposedly can communicate with other hams below the noise level (get real!), or much less use the Internet to discuss ham radio topics that should only properly be expressed in a monthly printed periodical or via morse code when on the air.

The next thing you know, so called hams will proclaim that they can program a PIC processor to communicate in some new fangled digital mode like PACKET while the real hams who are experiencing the real magic will scoff at what is becoming of ham radio.

It is absolutely essential that we suppress this wave of technology that is threatening to overtake our magic hobby. Quickly rewrite the texts to take us back to the romantic and simple days of door knob condensors, kilocycles, and bleed resistors. Make certain that every new ham extols the fragrance of high corona discharge and forgets this nonsense of imaginary numbers and digital signal processing algorithms. I might even go so far out on the limb as to say any ham radio text book that is printed in color is a natural enemy to slim chance of keeping the magic alive.

I would love to carry on with you but it seems my cat whisker has come undone so I won't be able to hear your reply. 73.

- Glenn DJ0IQ and W9IQ

James said...

Glenn, now that is funny.. thanks for the laugh.

Julian, I can't agree with many of your points. For instance, the one about losing the magic; Here's a page about people receiving TV signals over hundreds of miles.. http://www.oldtvguides.com/DXPhotos/ There's quite a few DTV pictures there. That's pretty magical. Just because it's new technology, that doesn't mean it's forbidden to be magical.

I absolutely agree with any criticisms of D-Star however. The mere fact that you can't talk or listen to anyone on it without using a proprietary chip that is only available from a single manufacturer should be enough to sink it. I'm keeping a keen eye on codec2 developments for the future of digital ham radio.

I could see a day when D-star or other digital repeaters are interconnected not only over the Internet but also over a radio backbone that will serve as a backup in case the local Internet connection goes down. That, and the audio encoding is codec2 and not AMBE. :)

SDR is pretty magical too. I have one of Tony Park's KB9YIG softrock ensemble rxtx that's partially complete. Anyone could build something like that and receive/transmit on HF. The SDRcube, made by n2apb and oh2nlt, is pretty cool too as it will allow you to operate ssb/cw on a softrock or other SDR without needing a computer, it has a dsPIC chip inside doing the processing. I'd be surprised if I /didn't/ see that sort of technology in an HT in the next 5 years.

Unknown said...

Glenn, your comment is amusing but I think you miss the point. It isn't necessary to take things to the equivalent of rubbing two sticks together to create fire for people to experience the magic of radio. It is only necessary for it to be simple enough for ordinary hams to build and understand. A handful of components can get you receiving Morse and sideband, and with only a few more you can be transmitting. Try that with D-Star. The more sophisticated the technology you need, the harder it is for ordinary hams to understand how it works never mind build something for themselves and the less "magic" appears to be involved. I use Echolink myself but there is no magic feeling about making a contact with it and if that's all the hobby had to offer I'd give up.

James, I have trouble seeing the magic in SDR. Like many others I too have a partially complete SoftRock. But SDR doesn't have to use SMT parts that are too small for many of us to work with. The problem is that most of the "magic" happens inside the computer using an application that is an unfathomable black box to most of us.

I've seen people say that with SDR you can tinker with the code. But the difficulty I - someone who has written all the programs on the software page of my website - have found even making small modifications to PIC processor modem code makes me think that just isn't true. A basic level of electronics knowledge will allow you to play with simple transmitters and receivers. A basic level of computer programming knowledge won't allow you to do anything useful.

Those that have the expertise to experiment with new technologies in ham radio probably learnt those skills professionally. The reason why I am against the incursion of advanced technologies into this amateur hobby is that it forces more and more of us true amateurs into being mere appliance users.

Jeff Davis, KE9V said...


Your last comment and the fact that you own a K3 suggests that you hold the source code for all of the software that powers it and that the typical ham has the ability to easily modify and improve it without having been professionally trained...?

Jeff, KE9V

Rupert Goodwins said...

Hello, Julian!

Like so many debates - bandplans, code/nocode, new-fangled modes of all sorts - this one has run since the dawn of time and will until the heat death of the universe. "Appliance operator" was an insult when I was first licensed in the early 80s, with 'proper ham' being reserved for those who could use their teeth to carve their own transistors from blocks of granite...

Radio is not a zero sum game. Because something is popular, it doesn't stop others from doing other things. Almost anything that means we're out there using the bands is important and worthwhile. I love building stuff, and I love using my FT-817, playing with software modes, having a pop at satellites, all that stuff. As long as the other chap is out there and fancies a chat, that's good enough for me!

Rupert, G6HVY

Unknown said...

Jeff, I didn't mean to imply that one must *only* use rigs one has built or developed oneself. But the magic of radio for me is that you can understand exactly how your voice or code gets from A to B, which I think is what was being pointed out in that article. The more complex the technology becomes, the more obscure its operation is to the average person. I'm afraid ham radio will lose its unique magic if such high tech modes become the norm rather than a minority specialization.

Rupert, great to hear from you! We must have a chat over the air some time (with Echolink assistance if necessary, since I doubt that your FT-817's signal will reach here unaided.) I agree, as long as something doesn't stop others from doing what they want then there is nothing to worry about. But I hear from people who, because some in their area wanted to go D-Star, now no longer have an FM repeater accessible from their mobile or hand-held. It's that kind of "march of technology" that worries me.

James said...

I believe one of the Genesis Radio kits are entirely through-hole. http://www.genesisradio.com.au/ I haven't worked with SMT before. I've been too busy lately to work on that part of my softrock also. Many people claim it's not as hard as it sounds though.

There are a couple things about the sdr technology you could call magic. For one thing, once you get the hardware down you can basically have all-mode for free. No extra components required to implement am/fm/ssb/cw, and given enough processing power you could even do digital modes on top of that so psk, packet, rtty, sstv, gmsk, etc.

The second part to this is the ability to receive multiple frequencies at the same time. That could give rise to ways of operating that simply weren't possible before. For example, http://www.dxatlas.com/CwSkimmer/ This program can decode morse code transmissions over a fairly wide bandwidth simultaneously.

Of course, this is mostly limited by sound card bandwidth right now. Someone could make a mcu/fpga based device with a wider bandwidth. I could imagine a 2m HT built with sdr technology that can sample the entire 2m band and let you monitor multiple frequencies at once. It could receive and decode silently the APRS frequency, while you monitor your favorite repeater, the 2m FM calling frequency and maybe even the 2m ssb or cw calling frequencies. You might only listen to one at a time but it could instantly switch to what your priority is, no scanning. Of course, transmitting anything would interrupt the multiple receive and there's no real point to transmitting on multiple frequencies. I guess if you time it right and the APRS frequency is clear when you transmit, it could automatically send a beacon.

I'm not sure how much power that would use, but that would be another experiment to run on the technology. Maybe it could receive one frequency in a low power mode and then kick up to multiple in a higher power mode.


Unknown said...

I guess we have different ideas of what's magic. SDR isn't magic, it's just a lot of very clever code. Transmittting a few milliwatts and having it received half way round the world is magic. Making a contact using a transmitter you built yourself is magic. Perhaps it's a generational thing, perhaps it's just technology overload. When I was young I was awestruck by computers and the Apollo program. Today I feel that you can accomplish anything with technology if someone is willing to invest the time and money in researching, developing and producing it, and it's the simple things that seem like miracles.

Fenris said...

It's a fact of modern life that complex, but ubiquitous, consumer devices use DSP techniques to do things that would be next to impossible using analogue circuitry alone.

Amateur radio needs to find a way to remain relevant without throwing away its heritage in modes like CW and SSB but at the same time allow people to educate themselves in DSP techniques so that they can understand how these work and then apply them to a professional career if they choose.

If that doesn't happen then eventually the modes that we all grew up with will become totally disconnected from people's experience of radio and become a curiosity instead of a useful way of communicating.