What If Ham Radio Were Much Easier?**
Yesterday I described the degraded "internet" of amateur (ham) radio. It's a fearsome place for those accustomed to routine web access and email communication, but it does have certain advantages. What if we reverse our perspective, and think about using the reliable internet we all know for ham radio?
No Antenna, Barely any "Rig"
While real radio communication requires a transmitter and an antenna, the internet requires only a connection and a router. Antennas are big! Antennas are expensive! If you're a city dweller, you probably did not have any opportunity to construct an antenna and spent your youth, as I did mine, envious of your country and penthouse buddies who had so much better opportunities than you did. Yes it's true. For example, I had this friend we'll call Bobby, which was his name, who lived on the top floor of an apartment house less than a mile from me. I had to make do with a piece of wire—meager and thin wire at that—hanging out of my apartment window, while he had a four-element beam antenna. With a rotator! I was forever scarred by this disparity and stayed awake nights plotting how I could cast "Bobby" from his penthouse and use his beautiful antenna for my radio exploits. This is the first time I've told anyone about this, and I hope you understand how it affected me. Everything you have read and will read in this blog is a reflection of those unhappy, almost-antenna-free years. I could have grown up well-adjusted, as did he. I believe he's a psychiatrist today instead of the pathetic, misanthropic mess of an alleged-human I am. (Although I'm probably a better speller than he is; It didn't affect everything.) And when I moved to the country, I got an even bigger antenna than he had. And TWO towers! With rotators on each one! Ha! Did I show Bobby or what?
Whoopsie, Sorry for the Digression
Sometimes I get carried away. It's much better to be an alleged adult and have control over my own antenna destiny. Did I mention my youth, when my friend Bobby had a much better antenna? Oh, yes I did. Never mind.
So am I saying here that using the internet for ham radio will save youths like I once was this mental trauma? No! Although it might. My point is that by artificially simulating all the flaws detailed in "yesterday's" blogitem, the internet can substitute for much of the expensive, difficult, and sometimes unobtainable aspects of real ham radio that use actual radio transmissions.
How Would You Do It, and Why Would You Want To?
Let's deal with the how before the why. The how requires at least one server and an app at the "stations" of the users. As a simple example, the app—connected to the server—would have a dial, which would correspond to a radio frequency. An ordinary headset with mic and earphones completes the setup. For two people to communicate using the app, they would have to set their app "frequency" dial almost identically, and one would call "CQ" which is ham talk for "I'm looking for a random contact." The other user would hear this and respond, and a conversation (a QSO in the jargon) would ensue.
Of course, this is no more than an audio-only Skype connection, with the frequency dial corresponding to the user ID of the contact. But to get closer to ham radio, simulation items would be added:
- Propagation simulation: One would have to pick a "frequency" good for the communication in question. Some frequencies work better at night or for short distances, others only during sunlight hours and for short and long distances. Other aspects of propagation include "fading" where the signal level and frequency response vary with time, over seconds to hours.
- Interference: If a number of people are using the same "frequency" they would mutually interfere. Some frequencies would get overloaded on, say, holiday weekends.
- Anyone who selected the same frequency would be able to hear other conversations, subject to propagation.
- And more—again, see "yesterday"—for how ham radio is a degraded internet, albeit without the physical danger of falling off a tower.
Things Hams Do
Hams aren't all the same. Some, such as myself, especially enjoy "DXing" which involves brief contacts with, generally, out of the way "entities." Most are real "countries" such as UN members and well known islands and possessions, such as Hawaii or Guam. Others range from obscure to virtually unknown, such as Bouvet or Cocos Island. The countries are generally easy to "work" and could be contacted over the simulated internet. The obscure ones can be very difficult and would require a contact via a real radio signal. Other hams enjoy a "rag chew," which is just like having a conversation with someone you may not know but in whose community of interest you probably reside, since you're both hams. And all of these contacts are typically made via voice connection or possibly Morse Code, with which many hams have reasonable fluency.
All the above, with the exception of the contacts that require real radio signals, can be accomplished over our simulated internet. What else? Contests! Hams love contests, which generally involve quick exchanges of minimal information with as many different hams in as many different locations as possible in a fixed time interval. Contests are a good test of communications skills, considering that there is often interference due to the many participants crowding the frequencies, and there is a premium on getting the exchange exactly right. This is not only fun, but it increases ones skill and is great training for emergencies. The simulated environment is ideal for running contests, Propagation in the real world is inherently "unfair" in that some contest participants will encounter poor radio conditions, some in other locations will have it much better. If you want to determine who is the most skillful operator, it would be possible to make sure propagation offers equivalent opportunities to all contest entrants.
Dial an Ionosphere, Punch in the Sunspot Number
Whoever is running the server will have godlike powers! Real radio propagation depends on natural phenomena, including when in the 11-year sunspot cycle we happen to be, and how it affects the earth's atmosphere. If we are going to use the internet for ham radio, we would hope for a lack of fractious behavior and competing servers! By its very nature, radio doesn't respect political or geographical boundaries. Americans could and did contact Soviet amateurs during the cold war. Balkanization will not work for internet hamdom! The hand (well, algorithm) that decides on the constantly varying ionospheric conditions, space weather, and sunspots must be a fair one, and, in my opinion, one that mimics to a reasonable extent what one would get in the real radio environment. To that end, one would hope a recognized national organization would run the server.
Yes, I'm Getting to Why
Ham radio isn't quite the popular hobby it was back when I was alive. Many of us "old timers" got our FCC licenses when we were teenagers, often for the same reason teenagers today use their somewhat more advanced communication appliances called "smartphones." We wanted to communicate—with our peers, with people in far-off lands. It's trivial to do that now. You don't need to learn Morse Code, radio theory, FCC regulations, or the rest of the ham catechism. But hams, by virtue of that catechism and to a large extent the limitations of radio propagation, found it much easier to contact our peers. They were nearby! You can't do that with a cellphone. Even if you call a number that is one digit greater or less than yours, you are likely to reach someone across the country who will be very annoyed! With ham radio, real or internet-simulated, you get a community of people who are likely to become good friends.
Q: What are you trying to say here? You're being somewhat (and only somewhat) uncharacteristically long-winded.
A: It's a fair cop. And I can summarize most of it quickly:
- Ham radio, my favorite and longest-term hobby, is suffering. Fewer young people are entering the hobby.
- The biggest reason seems to be the pervasive internet. It's too good, which makes it hard to interest people in a communications medium that is more restrictive.
- Of course, some will argue that ham radio is pointless, and for them, perhaps it is. But for many hundreds of thousands of people—perhaps millions worldwide—it has been and can be a gateway to an interesting and arguably productive life.
- By adapting the internet to reduce the barriers to enjoying aspects of the ham radio hobby and lifestyle, people can enjoy some of the benefits without some of the burdens, such as the expense of antennas and radio hardware.
Q: Well put, but I'm suspicious. You've hidden two "some"s in the final sentence.
A: For good reason. I'm up to something.