A Future Vision
Towards Communications Convergence
This page has received hits since May 1 1999
This page is dedicated to Amateur Radio, what it has been, what it is now, and most importantly, what it could be in the future. Amateur Radio has a long and proud history dating back to the turn of the 20th Century, when experimenters tinkered with primitive spark gap Morse Code transmitters and receivers. In those early days, amateurs were at the leading edge of radio technology, pioneering developments such as international H.F. transmissions and SSB (single sideband). In additions, amateurs have traditionally been called on to provide emergency communications in times of disaster, right up to the present day, offering their communication skills and equipment for public service. An excellent book on the early days of Amateur Radio is Two Hundred Meters and Down, which describes the early decades of the hobby and the rapid technical progress made by radio amateurs during this period.
Today, Amateur Radio is a diverse hobby with many facets. As an amateur, one can work overseas stations on the H.F. bands (known as DX'ing), participate in contests, chat with amateur friends over the local VHF or UHF repeaters, build their own radios, antennas and accessories; communicate via orbiting satellites, try their hand at Morse Code (which is still as popular as ever), or even connect their personal computer to the world wide radio network (packet radio). This list is far from exhaustive.
Sadly, Amateur Radio at the turn of the 21st Century is under threat from several fronts. Firstly, spectrum space is becoming increasingly scarce, as more and more commercial uses are found for radio applications. This has resulted in situations such as the allocation of part of the 70cm band to the Year 2000 Sydney Olympics during the course of the event, and the conflicting allocation of Low Interference Potential Devices on the input frequencies of Australian 70cm repeaters, which has already caused problems.
In addition, there is the issue of the ageing amateur population, and the relatively low intake of younger people into the ranks. Even in the short 10 years I've been active on air, I've noticed a significant decline in on air activity on the local repeaters, and if this trend continues, then the authorities are quite justified in selling our bands away to companies that can make better use of them (which is the last thing I want to see happen! :-( ). Unless something changes, it could be that the only "contacts" I have in my retirement years, still a few decades away, will be by telephone (videophone?), or some gadget that runs over the Internet, such as a descendent of current voice over IP software, and the only "radio" I'd ever transmit on would be a mobile phone or an electronic key for the car or house! Hardly an attractive scenario.
What can we do?
Firstly, let's look at the problem. Why is Amateur Radio in decline? I can see a couple of reasons. When I was growing up in the 1970's - early 1980's, radio was still a novelty to kids, and "walkie talkies" were a popular toy, or the more traditional building of crystal sets (I built my first one when I was 10) which sometimes led to a lifelong interest in radio. At the time, the CB boom had hit, so anyone looking for something "better" than CB could sit for their licence and become an amateur. I remember looking longingly in the data section of Dick Smith catalogues at all the amateur bands and dreaming of one day operating there myself (as you'd have gathered by now, I've achieved that goal :) ). Today, it's a different story. Most households have a "2 way radio" capable of global communications, in the form of a mobile phone. Computers are now the favourite "tinker toy" for most technically inclined kids, and there are now so many less educational distractions competing for the modern youngster's attention (can anyone say "Sony" or "Nintendo"? :) ). Within the existing amateur population, there have been many changes. Equipment has changed from home brewed to sophisticated commercially built radios which offer more features than any amateur could be expected to duplicate. Unfortunately, I also suspect this has significantly slowed the rate of technical innovation by amateurs as a whole (I know there are still some hacking away, but they seem to be a minority). By contrast, the computer movement is seeing an increasing number of individuals doing interesting things, especially with software, the most notable achievement being the Linux operating system, which was conceived by Linus Torvalds, a university student, and has seen input from many thousands of people around the world (I'm about to beta test a new Linux patch myself that someone has modified in response to my request).
Compared to the sophisticated computer technology in many homes, the typical commercially built amateur radio still seems a simple device. Except for the refinements of microprocessor control, digital signal processing and phase lock loop synthesis (and improvements in the analogue circuitry), they are still basically the same old analogue transmitters and receivers that amateurs once built decades ago out of valves, right down to the superheterodyne design of receivers typically used for the last several decades.
I, myself fall between these generations. Old enough to have been bitten by the radio bug, but still young enough to get into the computer scene, which was one of the factors responsible for me being inactive for a few years (I'm active on air now, and enjoying the radio again :) ). I also work professionally within the computer industry. Through my "mixed" heritage, I can a potential growth avenue for amateur radio - high performance digital networks. Before you say "We don't want faster packet!", keep in mind that digital data could be _anything_, from this web page and terminal sessions, to digitised voice, or even video. Such a network could span the world, via amateur satellites and Internet 'wormholes', and existing low speed digital or analog systems, such as packet BBSs or voice repeaters could be linked into the new network. Imagine pulling out the trusty old handheld while on a train, punching a few keys and calling an old amateur friend across the country or on the other side of the world!
An experience several years back stands as testimony to the interest and excitement this sort of connectivity could provide. I used to travel by train to Uni., which took over an hour. As I was very active at the time, it was the rule, rather than the exception that I pulled out the radio and had a ragchew to whoever was on the local repeaters. On this morning, a week or so before Jamboree On The Air, satellite links were being tested and made available for amateurs to use, and the VK3RGL repeater was linked to the New Zealand UHF backbone via one of the then Aussat communications satellites. These links were very popular, but once the ZL's discovered I was on a train, well, I was stuck on the repeater until I lost the signal nearly an hour later, despite repeated attempts to hand the channel to others waiting in line! Suddenly the "ho hum" of repeater ragchewing became something out of the ordinary on both sides of the Tasman Sea. Amateurs could lead the way in high speed digital radio technology, which is still a developing field, and provide permanent, amateur designed and operated links as part of an integrated digital network, instead of the temporary, commercially sponsored satellite I spoke on.
If anyone is wondering how this could help revitalise amateur radio, look at the following possible follow on effects:
The challenge is to get our act together and co-operate to advance amateur radio into the 21st Century, and restore its position as an exciting, leading edge technical hobby with many spin off benefits, both personally and in the art of radio, and to make it relevant in the digital age we currently live in. This challenge lies in many areas, such as sharing the development work, co-ordinating the system, and most important of all, attracting new amateurs with new ideas and skills into the fray, to carry the hobby into the future. If Linus and the many GNU/Linux code hackers managed to create a world class operating system, why can't we build a world class radio network?
The only thing certain (besides death and taxes :) ) in this world is change. It's up to us to adapt to the changes, or go the way of the dinosaur. Every threat is also an opportunity, if approached from a different angle. The computer revolution that threatens to make Amateur Radio irrelevant also promises to provide new avenues of growth. And such growth need not mean the loss of something we currently enjoy. For example, packet radio, RTTY and the shack bound PC haven't meant the demise of Morse Code. If anything, they've either had little effect, or enhanced it in some ways. This page, in itself, is an attempt to use the Internet to the advantage of Amateur Radio, by making it available for as many people as possible to read.
Would you like to help design or build some high speed digital radio links?
Check out N6GN's Higher Speed Packet Page for some ideas that are being considered by amateurs around the world.