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KIØJU Amateur Radio -- Extra Class

updated: 28-Mar-2009


There are some serious problems brewing in amateur radioland....

When they reduced the code speed requirement for the Extra Class a few years ago, I went in and took the written test. I only studied a couple of hours and yet I had only one wrong answer on my Extra class test. This is the highest class of license available, yet the test is trivial.

You really don't have to know anything about RF or electronics, you just read though a test guide and then go in and pass the test. It seems to me that the ham radio tests should actually show that you know something useful about RF and electronics, but the present tests do not accomplish that goal. Apparently, the ARRL's primary goal is to assure that there are lots of new hams, even if they don't know (or don't care) about electronics.

transceiverAs sort of a reward for getting the Extra Class license, I bought a little bitty amateur radio transceiver, the Yaseu VX-5R. It is an amazing piece of technology. It transmits on the 6 meter, 2 meter and 70 cm ham bands with 5 watts and receives almost any frequency from 550 KHz through 1 GHz. Utterly amazing little radio.

However, the technology that goes into a marvelous little device such as this is really not anything that would allow the average, or even above average, amateur to pull some parts out of the junkbox and whip up such a great little transceiver. Therein lies the problem. These days, it is virtually impossible for an individual ham to advance (or even approach) the state of the art.

Background:

My entire life-long career in electronics was initially triggered by a ham radio operator whose 40 meter QSOs (conversations) routinely interfered with my all-important Saturday morning TV episodes of Sky King. He was unwittingly the catalyst which changed the course of my life by introducing me to the world of electronics. Because of him (I think his name was something like "Art Martens", in Galion, Ohio), I was interested in ham radio by the age of about 13, and have now been involved in electronics for about 50 years.

Actually, I would have enjoyed getting a ham radio license back then, but after many unsuccessful attempts at memorizing the Morse Code, I simply gave up (for about 40 years) on ham radio because other projects such as short wave radio listening, building non-RF electronics projects and modifying citizen's band radio equipment (such as building external mic-preamps, as well as designing beam antennas, and linear amplifiers) were sufficient to fill my needs to tinker with RF electronics in the 1960's.

Then, in early 1997, after I had being away from ham radio for many years, my old hometown buddy, Rick Swain W8AIT, challenged me to go get a ham license and get re-involved in amateur radio. So, during the Spring of 1997, I set out to finally get my ham radio license.... some 40 years after my initial introduction to ham radio. It took me several weeks to learn the silly Morse code, but the written tests were very, very easy... much too easy I think.

But the really troubling issue in ham radio today is that the ever-more-sophisticated RF technology which now exists, largely due to the commercialization of cellular telephones and wireless internet, is both a curse and a blessing... on one hand we get wonderful products such as my little Yaseu VX-5R transceiver which were utterly unimaginable a few years ago, while on the other hand, hams have effectively lost the ability to homebrew and tinker with anything which is even close to the state of the art in RF electronics.

Thoughts about the present condition of Amateur Radio:

In the early days of radio, the world of RF was a place for pioneers, creative minds and inventors, a place of homebrewed equipment and a spirit of adventure. There was no other medium which offered the lure of world-wide communications, and there was no other medium which was such a bold step into the uncharted territory.

For many years, the amateur radio operator could homebuild receivers, transmitters and antennas which were on par with the best commercial offerings and the hams were often able to establish radio communications in situations which others often thought were impossible. The early ham radio operators were often creative innovators who advanced the state of the art in RF communications.

Even as recently as the 60's and 70's when CB became so popular, there was no other means of world-wide communications readily available. With so many people being hungry for some form of personal communications, amateur radio, as well as CB radio, continued to be a big hit.

But, over time, the situation has changed. Other means of high quality communications are now readily available world wide. The old hit and miss radio contacts, fading reception, unpredictable interference and crackling static are really not very popular. Today, the internet and cell phones are easier, faster and much more reliable.

The majority of society simply doesn't care about ham radio, and why should they? It was never intended for the masses, it was for us oddballs who wanted to grab a soldering iron and a junkbox full of parts and create something new. But alas, that pioneering spirit of radio innovation is largely dead.

The state of the art techniques for radio communications have advanced so rapidly in the last few years and require such specialized construction and assembly techniques, that the average amateur can't possibly build anything which even approaches the state of the art in features, functionality or miniaturization. And, as if those weren't enough obstacles, the Federal Communications Commission rules currently forbid us from using many advanced digital modulation schemes, such as those which cellular telephones rely upon.

Sadly, the monetary investment required for the tools and equipment to produce state of the art RF devices is out of reach of the average ham these days. In fact, the technology in a digital cell phone is mindboggling.

It is unfortunate that the hams, who were once the major innovators and proponents of RF communications, have largely lost the ability to significantly advance the state of the art in communications. RF is big business nowadays, and the  government officials, perhaps due to stupidity or perhaps due to $$$ in their pockets, tend to support the whims of big business. 

Adding to the overall problem is the fact that there are some people who don't really care about "radio" or "RF" technology, but would just like to chat on the airwaves. Sadly, such "appliance operators" are unlikely to contribute to the technology or the state-of-the-art in anything other than mere chatter. If chatter is what the ham ranks are all about, then that's fine. But to me, being a ham is all about the technology of electronics, radios, electromagnetic waves, and antennas, not mere chatter. Yes, hams may babble a lot, but at the heart of it all is a love for the technology.

Consequently, it seems to me that ham radio is dying a slow, but inexorable, death due to the lack of technical innovation and lack of technical knowledge in the amateur ranks. Indeed, big business will soon own virtually all of the RF spectrum, and only big business will have the technological (and financial) capability to create the software and build the hardware using today's most exotic SMD components. As a result, there will be less and less opportunity for amateurs to make the sort of important contributions to the art and science of RF which were once so common.

That's a pity...

73 de Richard KIØJU