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Radio amateurs need a mindset shift

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Since its inception, amateur radio has moved with technological developments and often led some of it, for example the application of low orbit satellites. Low earth orbits were once considered of no practical use, yet today they are in great demand for GPS satellites and the internet constellation announced by Elon Musk of SpaceX.

In an article by Chris Rolinson (G7DDN) titled “The reality of amateur radio in 2018” he wrote: “I love the fact that the history of our hobby is littered with the regulatory authorities of their day allowing us access to bands considered ‘useless’ and then watching as we showed over time what immense value they could have – yes, even the most supposed ‘line-of-sight’ bands. It is somewhat ironic today that the most in-demand spectrum across the world commercially is VHF/UHF and microwave, the most ‘line-of-sight’ bands discovered in the 20th century.”

“As radio amateurs, we face challenges every day from local sources of interference; power-line adapters, non-compliant devices imported from the east, hissy routers, noisy house appliances, power supplies and all other manner of electronic hash. It doesn’t seem to be getting any better!”

The acceleration of the intensity of radio frequency noise is threatening the quality of HF communication and there is no stopping the speed with which non-compliant devices and equipment enter the market. The introduction of electric cars and the wireless power transfer (EV WPT) systems to keep their batteries charged may be considered good for the environment, but it’s a nightmare for communication. The talk about taxis changing their combustion engine minibuses with electric versions is a scary thought.

Another way out?

Rolinson in his article asks, “Is there a sense of ‘If we can’t beat them, join them’? Is one solution to take amateur radio and move it into that realm that we perhaps secretly despise and yet simultaneously almost adore? The online arena? I find it slightly odd that, as hams, we are more than happy to embrace the internet and computers when it suits us – for example, CW-ers make extensive use of the Reverse Beacon Network, data mode enthusiasts embrace programs like PSK Reporter – DX-ers rely on their preferred cluster, and so on. We all probably have our favourite logging software, our favourite contesting programmes and websites we frequently visit, even if it is just to have a moan!”

The internet an alternative form of propagation?

Are we just a little too apprehensive to accept the internet for what it already actually is? A man-made alternative method of propagation? Many radio amateurs and most likely many readers of this monthly column in EngineerIT are struggling in thinking about the internet being a form of propagation, even though intellectually most of us can see that it clearly is! Like in the commercial world, the internet could be considered the backbone, with the last mile still amateur radio.

Rolinson makes the comment: “Have we got so used to ham radio being so much like ‘hard work’ that if technology creates a means of propagation that makes our lives easier, we almost have to pooh-pooh it? Is there a bit of an attitude issue? You know the kind of thing… ‘I had to work hard to make that rear contact so why should it be able to do it more easily?’ Who says we can’t play in both playgrounds at once? Surely it is a case of both methods of propagation being usable, if that is what makes one happy?”

Change of mindset needed

For some of us, it’s difficult to get our heads around the new technologies but once we accept the “internet as a means of propagation” argument, a whole new world of amateur radio opens. This does not take away from traditional amateur radio, it just widens the scope. It opens a new world which will resonate well with Generation Z, the new amateurs of tomorrow.

Generation Z, young radio amateurs pointing antennas to the BACAR high altitude balloon carrying a camera and transmitter built by the Jeugland Amateur Radio Club and decoding images on their cellphones and laptops.

Opportunities unlimited

Even if the next solar cycle (commencing mid 2020) is the worst in 200 years, HF communication will still be there with so many more opportunities using weak signal digital communication, FT8, even in an adverse noise riddled environment.

The FT8 digital mode is the latest in a series of weak signal applications for amateur radio. Conceived originally for enhancing esoteric propagating modes such as high-speed meteor scatter and moon bounce, Joe Taylor (K1JT) developed a series of applications including FSK144, JT6M, JT65, and JT9. When FT8, jointly developed by Joe Taylor and Steve Franke (K9AN), was announced it was described as designed for “multi-hop Sporadic E (Es)” where signals may be weak and fading, and openings may be short. It is now widely used on all frequency bands and on amateur radio satellites.

The VHF and UHF spectrum available to radio amateurs offers many interesting opportunities for experimenting. VHF and UHF are not simply frequencies for short distance line of sight or satellite communication, there are many different propagation modes at play, some known, like Sporadic E and Tropospheric ducting but also many not yet identified and quantified on  how they will enhance propagation of VHF and UHF signals. An exciting field of play!

Radio amateurs are no different to Jo Soap in the street. We must open our minds and stop clinging to the past. Sometimes it may be difficult but those who can change their mindset from the amateur radio of the past to amateur radio of the future, will find accepting the idea of the internet as just another mode of propagation not so challenging.

It also needs community organisation to lead way. In SA, the amateur radio world must be led by the South African Radio League and local radio clubs. Internationally, the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) needs to take the lead.

Your comments are invited – write to me at hans@intekom.co.za

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