Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Future of Amateur Radio

Reading a bit about the past of amateur radio has got me thinking about where amateur radio is going to be going in the future.  The challenge that I see is going to be keeping the aging body of the amateur community from miring us in the past and keeping us from making the innovation necessary to maintaining the appearance that amateur radio is relevant enough to justify our spectral grants.

Hams are going to face increasing demands for their spectrum, as the demand for more and faster wireless connectivity places increasing demands on the limited amount of usable spectrum available.  The commercial services are all looking at ways to squeeze more signal into limited spectrum, mainly by heavy use of digital modes that provide far more spectral efficiency than the old-fashioned analog modes that dominate voice communication in the amateur service today.  If hams want to retain their spectrum grants, they're going to have to prove that they're not wasting their spectrum on spectrally inefficient modes like double-sideband AM (which, I hear, is making a comeback in 75 meters).  Largely, this means wider use of digital voice modes, and not just in UHF (which is where most of the digital voice is today).  We've practically been ordered to do so (eight years ago) by Dale Hatfield, the Chief of the FCC's Office on Engineering and Technology.

At the same time, I don't want to see amateur radio embrace closed technologies like the AMBE codec used in D*STAR.  We need to be more spectrally efficient, but with open standards so that our ability to improve further is not curtailed by having to navigate around restrictive patents.  It is therefore essential that we develop freely available codecs that are at least as spectrally efficient as AMBE.

Reinvigorating packet radio, or something related to it, to create a real digital message network (akin to the "Global Backbone Project" I've written about elsewhere) would also be a good idea.  And not just as a gateway to the Internet, either; we need to build and maintain a network that can stand alone if it has to.  Building a multilayered network like this would go a long way to filling our spectrum with justifiable activity, too.

But I think the main thing is as Jeff KE9V writes: we have to look forward.  Ham radio has and must be primarily about innovation.  Once a technology is mature, it's no longer properly in the ambit of ham radio.  We can use mature technologies to accomplish our other goals, but we must never become complacent, satisfied that the solutions we have today are "good enough" for our purposes.  There's a reason the public generally thinks of ham radio as "obsolete"; while to some degree that's due to a lack of public education, it's also because so many hams are still stuck in 1965.  It's not 1965 anymore.  Practically everyone has a cell phone today, and enjoys more communication freedom than even the most qualified, capable, and equipped ham did in 1965.  Your hot and fancy Icom IC-7800 doesn't make you any more innovative if all you're using it for is analog SSB voice on 75 meters.

Fundamentally, we need to move away from the "Communicator" model of the ham, a model which dominated the hobby through the 50s and 60s; other services now provide much easier access to the same capabilities without forcing the communicator to learn about things they really don't care about.  Trying to recruit new hams by stressing the communication opportunities in ham radio just makes us look old-fashioned, and probably chases off as many as it brings, especially with younger people.  For those of you who are communicators, enjoy it while it lasts; there will be plenty of communicators to talk to for some time yet.

The area where we need to recruit more is with computer technologists.  It's plainly obvious that software-defined radio is going to be a huge aspect of the radio art for some time yet, and it's important that we recruit people who can do this.  The radio art is already too large for one person to understand all of it, and as computer technology (also something too large for one person to understand all of it) becomes ever-more enmeshed with radio, we're going to need to collaborate more and more to continue to advance the art.