21st Century Schizoid Ham

This post is an attempt to bring my thoughts on the future of ham radio into focus through the lens of computerized digital modes. Last week I poured out a lengthy brain dump regarding digital modes, specifically FT8 and it’s associates. Three posts ago I went on about the evolution of communication modes. What I am focused on today is how radio hobbyists have embraced (or fought) the march of technology.

When radio was born the primary technologies being leveraged for more reliable communications were output power, antenna design, and modulation modes. That this is a fair description of the challenges faced by radio operators today is a testament to how strong the foundations of radio communications are. Just over 120 years ago Marconi was giddy at sending a coarse unmodulated signal across the English Channel. About 2 years later he sent a Morse Code “S” over the North Atlantic and it was received. From that primordial ooze advances in radio technology have been a succession of technological refinement and hybridization. Better tubes led to early solid state devices, led to (begat!) better solid state devices, led to the microprocessor and so on.

And that is how it should be. Most hams today use high tech in at least some part of their signal chain. The lack of enthusiasm for drifty VFOs and heavy transformers bears this out. Some of what I see in the commentary from today’s “old guard” is essentially a semantics debate, without the debate. Some want the technology used only inside their transceiver, but not “over the air”. Some are fine with one digital mode such as RTTY, but not another like FT8. Both employ a form of Frequency Shift Keying (FSK) and both rely on a machine to encode and decode text messages. This concept of using machines to do what the human body can’t is as old as the Stock Ticker. In the case of Radio Teletype (RTTY), could you learn to decode a two-tone encoding scheme by ear? Yep. Could you do it at RTTY speeds? Nope. We utilize a machine. That machine is now primarily a computer.

RTTY was first an analog process which gradually became computerized. Over the years the mechanical devices became museum pieces. One reason is electromechanical devices are entropy attractors. The wear out and break down and require mechanical repairs. Maintaining them means ready access to parts and service documentation. Certainly there are operators of mechanical RTTY terminals on the air, but they are in the minority (and I’m being generous). The era of “no serviceable parts inside” has mostly won the day here in the 21st Century. That’s a fact. I saw the transition from analog to digital firsthand as my father and grandfather both made their livings in electronics.

From the 1950s through the 1970s my grandfather owned and operated a TV and Appliance shop. He sold and repaired TV sets and radio consoles. His world was one of SAMS Photofact and a tube caddy and kept those TVs humming with his experience and some simple test equipment. The day the new TVs came with no service manuals he started to close his shop. That was almost 50 years ago. He saw the writing on the wall, and his mentality was fixed on keeping those sets in service. He was a product of the immigrant experience during a global depression and great scarcity. You did not throw things away. You repaired them until they were more valuable as parts, which you used to repair another set. The era of disposable consumer technology was his exit ramp from the business. He never changed. The world did. Far from being a luddite, he was an early adopter during the birth of technologies we take mostly for granted today. From the 1930’s onward he was right there jumping in on the birth of electrification, radio, television, and photography. He was my ur-geek.

As a child of a very different time I have been free to live in a world of unbridled futurism. I came of age during a great social awakening with social and technological changes happening at a blinding pace. I wasn’t so much dreaming of the future as I was living it. The space race fascinated me the way kids today get into dinosaurs or pokemon or whatever. I’ve been using actual computers since 1978. Before that I learned to do four function math on a Heath-Kit Hex Programming Trainer with NIXIE tube display. All I have seen is a steady drumbeat of miniaturization, automation, and leaps in electrical efficiency. I type this on an ultrabook weighing about two pounds and it the performance is fantastic. It draws about 1/50th of the power of my first PC-XT. The USB chip has more processing power than that 8088 had.

See, I’m digressing. I think you get the point. I will now focus!

My concern about the future of the technical evolution of ham radio has to do with the resistance to technical advances by some of the loudest voices in ham radio. And I do mean loudest. I like big antennas and I can not lie. You other ops can’t deny... But there are other ways to get the job done. In the case of FT8 we implement commodity computer hardware to expand the usable dynamic range down below what can be done with the human ear. This is not even all that high-tech. It is actually an extension of rather old tech, adapted to low cost CPU hardware.

Today’s hams largely operate in an early 20th Century manner, using 21st Century devices. We are often using a computer to emulate discrete component technology or even pure analog technology. That computer is often a “black box” running code we don’t understand on devices we can’t physically interact with. Most of this computerization isn’t a breakthrough, it is “re-platforming” of existing tech. While a boon to the operator it doesn’t seem to be equating into higher tech knowledge among the ham community. A survey of our publications, chat forums, and social media platforms show a continued focus on what should be Radio 101 topics: basic antennas, basic tuned circuits, basic inductors, the trans-match, the audio signal path… Yet I continue to see new hams struggling with the difference between rig control and audio, AC and DC, the concept of an IF, simple voltage/current concepts, and so on. One reason may be our teaching tools haven’t caught up with the pace of technology. Three-inch thick manuals in an age where bookstores are extinct might not be the way to get it done. #jussayin

At some point the practices and frameworks need to advance. We are doing ok, but we need to do better.

The Finale: I understand this is bordering on TABOO, but I’ll close this post with questions that I hope sum up my outlook on Amateur Radio as it waddles into the 21st Century:

Do our current band plans look like what we would draw up based on the technology we have at our disposal today?

As well, do our current band plans create a chilling effect on the adoption and implementation of new technologies?

Are we so anchored to the past that we have limited our ability to reach forward?

Can we create better technical standards, better education materials, and move toward better informed hams who can help move the pursuit forward and step beyond appliance operation?

I’m not pointing fingers (maybe a little). Those are questions I often ask about myself. I am largely an appliance operator. I build a few kits when I have time, make my own cables, build basic antenna systems, and am dedicated to self-education. I lean on a foundation of electronics basics and I want to learn more. But I also want to learn better.

I am using the FT8 discussion as a backdrop because we should be able to conceptualize how important decreasing the power and antenna requirements for ham radio is to the survival of the hobby. It is democratizing, and allows the ham radio experience to be enjoyed by the many. It also leans on tech that a 21st century ham takes completely for granted. If anything the challenge for today’s hams is adapting to the use of older tech that is used virtually nowhere else. The RS232 Serial Port is a great device, but try finding one on a modern computer. The urge to learn the technology is as strong as ever in the next generation of hams, we just need to lay a functional understanding of radio tech over that urge. That is difficult if the tech we are teaching and using is not current.

PostScript: I don’t see modes like FT8/JS8 as an end. I hope they are the foundation for more versatile and robust modes to come. We will always have SSB and CW and modes like RTTY. But unless we can get behind what the future holds we run the risk of being a bunch of radio-wielding Civil War reenactors. And one day we might show up to the battlefield and see a big CLOSED sign. Nobody wants that.

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