From the SARA* Newsletter, March 1995:

President's Corner: Ham Radio Obsolete?

Recently, on an Internet news group, someone posted an article contending that the Internet and online computer services such as Compuserve and Ameria On Line will soon kill off amateur radio. This came within a month of a newspaper wire-service story recounting the use of electronic mail in getting messages into the earthquake-ravaged city of Kobe, Japan. This newspaper story quoted someone who said, essentially, that e-mail was the modern means of disaster communications, replacing ham radio "of the old days."

No one making these claims is a ham. Anyone who contends that using a commercial online computer service rivals the excitement of amateur radio communications obviously has no experience with our hobby. Still, others similarly unfamiliar with the amateur radio service might give some credence to such claims. That makes it worthwhile to point out some of the reasons why they're wrong.

The Internet article said that the world-wide communications capability of the online services and their ability to retrieve vast amounts of information render amateur radio obsolete. This contention overlooks the principal difference between such services and amateur radio. When using an online service or the Internet, you are a consumer; when using amateur radio, you are a participant.

A couple of weeks ago, I worked stations in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. I was using a 5-watt transmitter and a wire antenna. That was enjoyable, rewarding and satisfying. Now, I could have sent e-mail to most of those countries, looked at World Wide Web pages from many of them, or picked up the telephone and talked to someone in each of them. As any ham knows, that just wouldn't be the same thing. As long as people find it exciting to do such things with equipment in their own homes, without the benefit of untold thousands of technicians maintaining their network links, amateur radio will have a place as a rewarding pastime.

Any non-amateur who cannot understand the difference between amateur radio and use of commerical communication services should find a local ham and ask to sit in while the ham makes some contacts, perhaps on HF, VHF weak-signal, or via amateur satellites. I'm sure that few people will go away from such an experience without knowing the difference. If you know any non-amateurs who think ham radio is obsolete, offer to give them a demonstration.

I'm happy when the Internet or any other medium can help out during emergencies, but that doesn't make ham radio's role in emergencies any less important. Though online services can sometimes contribute to communications in an emergency, amateur radio will be a valuable resource in emergencies for many years to come. Its value comes from the fact that hams who prepare themselves for emergency service are a completely self-sufficient communications resource. Commercial services still largely rely on a surviving infrastructure; hams plan to work without infrastructure. That is, after all, what Field Day is all about.

Another role amateur radio has to play is in education. It provides the crucial element of hands-on experience for young and old alike who want to explore the world of science and technology. Many scientists and engineers will happily tell you they were first inspired toward their careers by amateur radio. Most people who pursue careers in science and engineering will agree that what gets young people excited about these fields in not reading or listening to lectures, but actually getting your hands on some equipment and making it work. Amateur radio is an excellent way to encourage budding technical professionals.

Amateur radio not only helps young people enter technical careers, but it also serves as a vital interface between people in technical careers and those in non-technical careers. Since the world is an increasingly-technical place, anything we can do to improve the technical literacy of the workforce is good for the nation. Over the years, ham radio has consistently drawn people with no technical background at all who develop a curiosity about not only radio but also other technical subjects. In this way, ham radio has expanded their intellectual horizons and possibly made them better workers, managers and voters.

The evidence contradicts any assertion that amateur radio's numbers are dwindling. With the no-code license, the service is growing at a healthy rate, and those who enter by this route are participating in public-service events, serving in their local clubs, and upgrading their licenses in large numbers. As the use of new digital modes and the numbers of amateur satellites increase, the scope of amateur participation and experimentation increase. New manufacturers offering ham gear, new ham publications, new ham stores and swelling local radio clubs are hardly the sign of a dying hobby.

Finally, try to say that amateur radio is obsolete to a classroom full of schoolkids who just talked to an astronaut aboard the Space Shuttle via 2 meters.

-- Dave Finley, N1IRZ

* Socorro (NM) Amateur Radio Association