Monday, December 28, 2009

Spectrum inventory and reallocation snowball keeps growing...

Recently on the 9AM Talk Net mailing list Kristen K6WX noted an AP article "Cell phone mania forces scramble for more airwaves". This article came out on the same day Mashable reported that AT&T has stopped selling the iPhone in New York City; presumably because AT&T is finding that their network can't handle the data traffic. The AP article reports that the CTIA is asking the FCC for an additional 500 MHz of spectrum to handle current and anticipated capacity needs.

FCC chairman Genachowsky began talking about a looming spectrum crisis back in November, so it's not a surprise to me that a month later AT&T is shutting off iPhone sales in one of the most densely populated and highly-mobile cities in the USA; what better way to build populist outrage which will encourage Congress to support bills such as John Kerry's SB 649 "Radio Spectrum Inventory Act" and Henry Waxman's companion HR 3125? I wrote about SB 649, and how it potentially threatens amateur radio, back in March 2009.

Another recent development from the FCC is an effort which would terminate most or all over-the-air (OTA) broadcast television. Theoretically; if the FCC could migrate all OTA TV to cable, wired broadband, or some sort of multiplexed digital wireless system this would free up 300 MHz of spectrum. CTIA is asking the FCC for 500 MHz of spectrum, so the FCC would still need to locate 200 MHz of additional spectrum. It's unlikely that any amateur bands below 1 GHz would serve the cellular industry's needs, but consider our allocations above 1 GHz:
  • 1240 - 1300 MHz = 60 MHz
  • 2300 - 2310 MHz = 10 MHz
  • 2390 - 2450 MHz = 60 MHz (In reality; 10 MHz see [a])
  • 3300 - 3500 MHz = 200 MHz
  • 5650 - 5925 MHz = 275 MHz (In reality; 0 MHz see [b])
[a] It's unlikely that the FCC would disturb the lucrative Wi-Fi business, so I presume that 2400 - 2483.5 MHz will be off-limits i.e. this leaves 10 MHz available for reallocation.

[b] This band overlaps with the UNII 5.7 GHz band's channels 128 - 165; so again the Wi-Fi (802.11a) industry will likely trump any CTIA interests.

Thus I'm going on record today with my prediction that 3300 - 3500 MHz is the band likely threatened by SB649/HR3125 or future variants. Of course it could be argued "So what?" and you'd be right; in all honesty how many hams are active in the 3300 - 3500 MHz band? A few guys in the 50 MHz And Up Club? 200 MHz of spectrum will bring in a LOT of money in a spectrum auction.

And the FCC will need that money, because apparently the FCC is planning to pay the NAB and TV broadcasters (who never paid for, and thus don't actually own, their spectrum) about $12 billion to shut down OTA television and migrate to the aforementioned cable, wired broadband, or multiplexed digital wireless system.

An additional $9 billion would be spent (think "DTV Converter Box Coupon" program -- on steroids) to migrate households to the new system. So in the end; the FCC wants to spend $21 billion dollars to ensure that the cellular industry has room to grow. Good thing Congress recently raised the debt ceiling to $12.4 trillion, eh?

I suppose that in the long run this makes sense; the tax revenues from adding more mobile phone subscribers is potentially huge; especially if the IRS succeeds in making it harder for taxpayers to count mobile phone expenses as a deduction. What frosts me is the idea that the NAB, who didn't pay for their spectrum to begin with, stands to reap a $12B windfall. Good work if you can get it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

NIST will re-test P25 radio under high-noise scenarios in 2010

A while back (July 2008) I discussed a report from the International Association of Fire Chiefs on NIST/NTIA testing of digital vocoder performance in high-noise environments such as firegrounds.

NIST has announced that they'll be re-testing in 2010 with new DVSI vocoders. Urgent Communications reports that next year’s tests will be similar to the previous tests, in that the same noise environments will be explored. Key differences include the use of a mask with an internal microphone, use of radio reference systems to avoid manufacturer settings and the addition of "radio-channel impairments" that are designed to emulate the impact of a firefighter receiving a weaker signal when entering a building. This latter aspect (effects the so-called "digital-cliff" in low signal or degraded propagation environments) was a key component missing from the 2008 tests and I'm glad to see it being included on this round.

I'm still not sure about the wisdom of using proprietary vocoders (DVSI) for radio systems. We have enough interoperability challenges as it is; do we really want to tie next-gen radio systems to licensing from a single manufacturer? The digital radio world really needs to come up with a viable open-source vocoder.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

An example of why amateur radio is failing to attract young people

I follow various hams on Twitter and in blogs. Some because they're friends, some because they're part of my local radio community, and some just because I like what they have to say. There's another smaller group I follow, which is people I tend to not agree with. In the same way that conservatives will listen to NPR and watch CNN as a way to better understand and counter the liberal/socialist viewpoint, reading these people's tweets and blogs helps me understand why amateur radio continues to slide into obscurity.

Mike WA4D's "MEWCOMM" blog and Twitter commentary is one which I typically don't agree with. His position on matters relating to amateur radio are highly representative of a mindset which pervades the hobby, and which I believe is ultimately counter-productive to the hobby's evolution. I will use Mike's writings as proxies for opinions held by others, so apologies to Mike in advance; this is not intended to be a personal attack at you. To be fair; I like and agree strongly with Mike's perspectives on politics and foreign policy, but his judgmental attitude towards no-code hams (i.e. those who have not learned Morse Code or "CW" in the parlance) happens to be a perfect example of why amateur radio is failing to attract young people into the hobby. A sampling of Mike's comments include:
  • People who don't know how CW "are not real hams".
  • Removal of the CW testing requirement was equivalent to "affirmative action" or a "back door".
  • CW defines the "soul of the hobby" and "defines what a real ham is in the 21st century".
In 2006 the FCC was in the process of implementing WRC-03 recommendations which would later eliminate CW testing as a requirement for amateur radio licensing. I filed comments with the FCC during the comment period in support of this decision, in which I asked "Is the true measure of technical prowess the ability to understand what amounts to a language?" Indeed; my experience is that hams who know code are no better or worse operators or technologists than hams who don't know code. Some of the smartest hams I know -- hams who have contributed real value in the application of computing technology to radio -- are Extra-class hams who never learned Morse Code. My opinion? These people, and the technology they're developing, will truly define amateur radio in the 21st century.

Mike recently wrote that no-code hams "know not of the 'thrill of recognition'", which I infer to mean that they're not real hams because they're never experienced the "satori" moment of completing their first Morse Code contact. Having experienced the "thrill of recognition" for CW and other modes I can say that while the satori moment for CW is indeed exciting, it's no stronger or more "real" than the satori moment I had when I made a 10,000+ mile contact using JT65A on HF at 50 watts of power into a hand-made antenna cobbled from $2.00 worth of spare parts and wire. I remember both experiences equally well, and yet the JT65A contact is more memorable (and a source of greater pride for me) because I did it using a new (at the time) mode on jury-rigged hardware. But following Mike's logic I guess this wasn't a real accomplishment because it involved use of a computer, and at the time I didn't know how to send & receive CW..?

Amateur radio is a "big tent" hobby which offers something for everyone. If the hobby were healthy, growing, and not in danger of obsolescence I would say "Live and let live" and be done with it. But opinions such as "people who don't know or use CW are not real hams" are too prevalent among a majority of hams, with the end result being that bright young people who might want to explore amateur radio's application to computers and digital communication are scared away by older hams who insist on defining "real radio" in terms that they can understand.

The danger is that, as older hams pass on and are not replaced by younger hams, we will reach a point where the government decides that amateur radio spectrum can be put to better use. ARRL or not, the ham population will be too small to defend our allocation, and combined with decreasing relevance and value to emergency communications we will eventually lose our spectrum. Proficiency in CW and adherence to traditions will not solve this problem and help us keep our spectrum. The only solution is to open our minds, embrace change, and get over this self-defeating need to hold up 100+ year old technology as the gold standard against which new technology must compare.

The crux of the problem is that the prevailing majority has defined amateur radio and its reverence of traditions as an immutable core. This is horribly wrong and ultimately self-defeating. We should instead be seeking ways that encourage the applying of amateur radio to new technologies, and in doing so continuously finding new relevance and recruiting new hams. "Real hams" are those that are creating innovative technology which applies amateur radio to technology, such as Chris K6DBG's hack that converts a Wi-Fi router into an APRS receiver. Speaking the "language" of Morse Code isn't proof of technical ingenuity, doesn't prove that a ham is innovative or intelligent, and arrogantly judging hams based on their ability (or not) to use CW drives away new recruits and will NOT save our hobby.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Drinking the Kool-Aid

A while back I set up a Twitter account for the Wireless Communications Alliance ( and have, on occasion, tweeted from it about non-WCA events. Not a problem, but I thought it was time to set up a personal account so if you like please follow me via

in reference to: David W6DTW (W6DTW) on Twitter (view on Google Sidewiki)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

TV repair tools: screwdriver, wrench, drill...Did you say "drill"?

A few weeks back my Samsung DLP TV went on the fritz; showing a green tile pattern when playing analog sources, and randomly freezing when playing HDMI sources. After doing some research I found that this is known problem in the digital board on the HLR5067WAX/XAA and other TVs in the series where the DNIe chip (which is a BGA-type package) develops a loose connection. (Root cause was probably a mistake in the solder mask or poor QC on application of the solder paste prior to chip placement.)

The problem can be resolved by (of course) purchasing a new digital board for hundreds of dollars. Some of the sharp minds in the peer forums over at Home Theater Shack have found that if you can apply pressure to the DNIe chip, the problem goes away. So I opted to follow the process outlined by Leonard and Tito over at HTS for installing a mechanical pressure arm to push on the DNIe chip. I figured it was a few bucks, a trip to the hardware store, and some of my time.

I built the arm into the digital board's RFI/EMI cover, adjusted it to apply just a bit of pressure, and re-assembled the TV. Works 100%. Saved myself a few hundred dollars and now I can say I once fixed a TV with a drill and a tube of Loctite.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

SO2R -- The hard way

This past weekend I had the privilege to be a guest operator for the Radio Club of America on their special event station W2RCA, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the RCA. The station was co-located with the anniversary event in Washington DC, and I wasn't able to attend in person, so the operation was handled using remote PC access and VOIP software, similar to the setup which I described back in late 2007.

A problem with remote setups is that they require a fast Internet connection to work well; the primary challenge being the speed (or lack thereof) at which you can switch from receive to transmit and back again. Because the W2RCA special event station was scheduled to happen during the ARRL's November SSB Sweepstakes, it was decided that we would work the contest as W2RCA. Being in a contest situation meant that rapid TX/RX switching would be a must.

As it turned out the network connection between my home and the RCA event location wasn't quite fast enough for the furious pace of the contest. I was having a hard time getting the remote radio keyed quickly enough to bust the pileups. In some cases I would bust the pileup only to have the target station get frustrated because I wasn't coming back to him fast enough. Not good, not good...

Out of curiosity I turned on my home station and tuned to the same frequency as the W2RCA remote. I found that despite being separated by 2,500 miles I could hear the target station well on both radios! Not wanting to give up on the contest for lack of fast TX/RX switching I decided to try an odd twist on SO2R (Single Operator-Two Radios) setup. I activated transmit on the W2RCA remote station, muted my microphone, and plugged my headphones into my home station. Because SSB is carrier-less mode the remote radio would not transmit any power with the microphone muted.

The next time the target station called QRZ I unmuted my microphone and called him, and heard him come back to me on my home station! I was able to work several stations this way, although there were still a few challenges. First was the effort of keeping the frequency of ftwo radios in sync. Second was some of the stations I could hear clearly on my home station were outside the range of the W2RCA remote station. But in general it worked and was an interesting way to get around the slow TX/RX switching issue.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

..-. .. .-. ... - -.-. --- -. - .- -.-. - <= (First Contact)

This week marked a big milestone for me; I successfully completed my first radio contact using CW aka Morse Code. It was a tough contact; conditions were bad but the guy I worked was polite and patient with me so we managed to pull it off.

I had always believed that I simply did not have an "ear" for code; it sounded like noise to me and I was never able to get past a basic understanding of the mechanics. After the amateur radio code requirement was lifted I was thankful and quickly upgraded to the highest level license. Still, in the back of my mind I felt I should make a real effort to learn code; if for no other reason than to overcome a personal limitation. (If you think I have a strong aversion to being told what to do; I have an even stronger aversion to being told what I can't do -- even if I'm the one doing the telling.) So my 2009 resolution was to learn enough code to complete a radio contact. It took me nine months, but I made it. I don't know that I will ever be a "real" CW operator, but right now I'm having fun and feeling good about my accomplishment.

I would like to thank the following people who helped make this happen for me:
  • Gerald Wheeler (W6TJP) - Author of the Code Quick learning method. A great basic foundations course.
  • Fabian Kurz (DJ1YFK) - Developer of the website. An awesome online Koch-method trainer. Did I mention it's free?
  • Leon "Skip" Stem (WB4DAD) - CW operator, FISTS member, and the first entry in my CW contact logbook. Thanks for being patient with me.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

You, um, expecting trouble? BIG Batteries...

Through a contact at an SF Bay Area web hosting company I recently obtained for free a set of used -- but still very strong -- UPS batteries; the Deka/Unigy 31HR5000. This hosting company offers their customers a 100% uptime guarantee which means that they can't wait for their UPS batteries to fail; they are used for a number of months and then they're replaced. Since the hosting company has to pay someone to come haul them away they're happy to see them repurposed.

These batteries aren't the typical deep-cycle marine variety you see on Field Day. They weigh 95 lbs each. Fresh from the factory they're rated at 135 amp-hours, which is about 1,800 watt-hours. My main HF rig (Kenwood TS-2000) consumes about 200 watts worst-case (when keyed on 2 meter FM, set for 100 watts) which means that using one of the Deka batteries I could leave my rig keyed-down on 146.520 FM @ 100 watts and it would remain on the air for about 9 hours.

I now have 3 of these monsters running in parallel on my home station. That's over a full day of continuous talk time. Left in receive-only mode my station will run off-grid for about 8 days.

Total cost? About $40 for some 4-gauge jumpers and misc hardware.

Bring on the zombie attack. I'm ready.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Secret History of the Silicon Valley

I'm really enjoying Steve Blank's article series on the Secret History of the Silicon Valley. A very well-written series that has also been presented live at venues such as Google TechTalks, etc.

Most interesting for me is the confirmation of something I've believed for a long time; the "Silicon" Valley might might just as well have been named the "Wireless" Valley.

Frankly, I prefer the latter...

Sunday, May 31, 2009

-- --- .-. ... . -.-. --- -.. .

For a while now I've been forcing myself to spend time studying Morse Code. It's no longer required for amateur radio but I felt I needed to have some proficiency in it, and it's something that I've never been able to quite grasp. I've always believed that I simply don't have an "ear" for code; some people can hear it and some can't. Now I think that's probably true for fast code but I believe now that with some effort an "effective speed" of 6 words-per-minute can be achieved.

The method I've been using might seem unusual. I started out by obtaining W6TJP's Code Quick audio CDs. This is an innovative method for learning which teaches you to associate a "sound-alike" and a humorous image with every Morse character; for example when you hear "DAH DAH dit dit DAH DAH" the sound-alike is "Coma, it's a coma" the image is a bear laying in a hospital bed, and thus the character is "comma" (coma). W6TJP claims that this method ties the Morse Code sounds into your brain's language center, and I can believe that it in fact does. For slow code, to pass a basic test or decode repeater IDs it works and it's good enough.

The problem is that it takes time to mentally process the sound-alike, the funny image, and then recognize the character. So there's an upper limit to the "effective speed" you can reach with this method. I should make a note here about the difference between "effective speed" and "character speed". Character speed is a function of how long the dots and dashes last, and their timing relationship to each other. Effective speed is a function of the duration in pauses between characters. You can send Morse Code at a character speed of 18 wpm, but at an effective speed of only 6 wpm; this gives the receiver time to process each character before the next is sent.

Thus once you've mastered the sound-alikes, and you want to increase your effective speed, you need to "unlearn" the sound-alikes and learn to hear the code directly. One method for doing this is called the "Koch Method" where you start out with two characters and after you reach 90% correct copy you add another character. This type of method typically requires a computer to handle generation of the audio and "grading" of what you type in response. The best trainer I've found for this is "Learn CW Online" at The reasons LCWO is so great are (1) it's free and (2) unlike a lot of websites done by hams it's very well designed.

I started out with LCWO doing fairly well; the number of characters was small (the first 4 taught are K, M, U and R) so if I got stuck I knew the right answer had to be one of those. As the lessons progressed I no longer had that luxury; the answer could have been any one of 40 characters (26 letters, 10 digits, plus comma, period, slash, and equals sign). And yet I also found that I was actually more accurate than I thought I would be! As you increase the effective speed you can't dwell on each character; you have to make a choice and move on. If you get stuck you'll likely not only miss the character in question but also the next few after. So in some cases I'll hear a character but won't be sure, and will just type what I think it is. At the end of the session I'll be thinking "Well, I must have really flubbed this one" but in reality I only missed one character out of 40. So clearly there's some kind of subconcious connection being formed here between my ears and my fingers which is bypassing the rational/analytical part of my brain.

I'm not sure I'll ever be one of those 50+ wpm code guys who hears entire Morse Code sentences in his head, but with luck I might be able to actually hold an on-the-air conversation using Morse Code some day.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Sound of Silence, Part II

After the recent surge in 10 meter contacts due to Sporadic E propagation I reported in my last post it seems that hams have again lost interest, yet meanwhile the 11 meter CB DX scene is still going strong. This echoes observations I've made in the past about the differences between what hams and CBers consider "good" propagation.

Here's what I observed... Around 1630 UTC (0930 PDT) on 22-May-2009 I was mobile near San Jose International Airport. Figuring that 10m Sporadic E might bless us again with another day of great propagation I was tuned to 28.400 MHz, but heard nothing on or near that frequency. I figured at first that the Es just weren't there, but then remembered that the CBers and Freebanders often congregate around 27.385-LSB as their "DX calling channel". I tuned down to 11 meters and man, what a ruckus! I was hearing stations from all over the western US, some on the pre-defined CB channels and some were VFO-tuned to whatever frequency they happened to be on.

So as I've asked before; why the dramatic difference in activity? Clearly there was Es propagation to support contacts in the 10 meter band. Yet 28.400 MHz sat there idle, while 27.385 was so crowded CBers were changing frequencies to continue their conversations. One explanation suggested to me was that since CBers have only 11 meters they're forced to make the best of what they have, while hams can easily say "10 meters isn't yet as solid as I'd like, I think I'll drop down to 20/17/15 meters and see who's around down there." Fair enough, I guess. It still seems to me a shame that we're not making better use of the spectrum we have available to us.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Summer Es - Sporadic E season

In the past week we've seen some increased solar activity; solar flux peaked at 74 and that led to some interesting band openings. I worked LY1000A in Lithuania late last night (20-May-2009) on 20 meters -- an opening to Europe near midnight local time certainly qualifies as "interesting".

The summer sporadic E season (often referred to as "Es") kicked in today with reported 10 meter openings from the west coast to the east coast. I worked KJ7OX in western Washington state just before midnight local time; solid copy on him and after I signed off he was still going strong.

Given that 10 meters was pumping I also listened up on the 11 meters CB band. As expected they were going strong too; I was hearing a lot of AM stations down below channel 23 and I also learned that apparently CB channel 38-LSB (aka 27.385 MHz) is the popular sideband DX calling channel. It was good to see the hams having as much fun as the CBers for a change.

There was an interesting study done on Es propagation by Art KA5DWI; compiled over four years of PropNet monitoring data it shows that "sporadic E" may not be so sporadic after all. One noteworthy finding; Es propagation during ARRL Field Day weekend is typically poorer than the preceding and following weeks.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

S 649 : Radio Spectrum Inventory Act

I posted this because I think Senate Bill 649 : Radio Spectrum Inventory Act (intro'd by Sen. John Kerry-Heinz, D-MA) is the first shot in a battle I've been predicting for some time; the application of populist politics towards spectrum management and allocation. You need only spend an hour tuning around with a decent all-band receiver to discover that the vast majority of spectrum is nothing but static. The real targets of this "spectrum socialism" are the big guns; broadcasters, the military, and even divisions of the government itself (such as NTIA) which has been "warehousing" spectrum for years while hypocritically requiring auction-winning licensees for cellular/PCS spectrum to demonstrate high levels of loading; i.e. subscribers.

Radio amateurs, I believe, are especially at risk from unintended consequences if this bill becomes law. I've previously blogged that many amateur radio frequencies are largely unused. Some amateur bands; such as 1.25m (aka 222 MHz) and 23cm (aka 1.2 GHz) are used only in certain regions of the US. (1.25m is popular in the Los Angeles area because 2m is so laden with bootleggers and jammers it's effectively become CB radio.) One reason for this is that the radio manufacturers are not selling equipment for these bands; the last 1.2 GHz equipment was the Kenwood TS-2000X which was introduced 9 years ago. Alinco is reported to be releasing a 1.2 GHz handheld, but that's not enough to drive adoption of the band. If the RSIA is an attempt to document usage of spectrum as a precursor to re-allocation based on purpose and usage, then 23 cm is one of the most likely targets for re-allocation once the limited use of that band becomes public knowledge. Our only hope is that the proximity of 23cm to radio astronomy likely precludes the allocation of that band to commercial use; but it could still be lost.

Equipment availability is one issue but at a higher-level the problem amateurs face with RSIA is simply that there are fewer radio amateurs than there were in the past; younger people prefer communicating via the Internet and if they do express an interest in amateur radio they're all-to-often turned off by the arrogance of a few hygiene-optional curmodgeons who tend to hang around at club meetings and hamfests complaining loudly and constantly about how the demise of Morse code testing will lead to the death of amateur radio; ignoring the fact that it's their own urine-soaked elitism that's probably a key element in keeping younger people from the hobby. So when faced with a trend towards populist politics and thus policies, a Congressional Budget Office estimate that the federal deficit may exceed $1.5 Trillion dollars, and huge swaths of amateur spectrum laying increasingly fallow as the number of amateurs continues to decline; the likelihood that the government will pull spectrum from amateurs and attempt to auction it off as a revenue source is increasingly likely. It's critical that we change the face of amateur radio (even if it means slaying a few sacred cows) in order to attract licensees or the day will come that some lawmaker will decide that it's politically low risk to start pulling spectrum from amateurs in order to pay off the deficit.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Economy takes a dive; amateur radio vendors fail to notice

You'd have to be living in a cave to not know what's going on with the economy, or at least what Washington D.C. is trying to terrify us into thinking is going on. Setting aside this Recession vs Depression debate for the moment; it's clear that the economy is struggling at some level. We're seeing home values drop sharply, credit is hard to obtain, auto dealers in some parts of the country offering 2-for-1 deals, etc. One need only visit your local Best Buy, Fry's, etc to find smoking hot deals on consumer electronic equipment. A buyer's market you say? Apparently not for amateur radio.

Recently I decided to buckle down and learn CW aka Morse Code. I've been using various tools, including a great online trainer called LCWO (Learn CW Online). I've also been using W6TJP's Code Quick; good for getting the sound-alikes for each character but my advice would be to save your money on the optional software and focus on sites like LCWO.

Needing a paddle/key in order to practice sending CW I decided to stop by Ham Radio Outlet (aka "the candy store" and buy the Bencher BY-1 for what their printed catalog said was $99. I pulled up in front of the store and the parking lot (normally full of vehicles festooned with antennae) was so empty I had a momentary thought that maybe it was a holiday and I'd just forgotten. I walked into the candy store (normally full of amateurs festooned with antennae) and was greeted by one lonely salesman. Recession? Depression? Clearly business is slow.

Inquiring about the Bencher paddle I found it was in stock...and that it cost $109. Ex-squeeze me? Catalog says $99. Yes, but the price went up. Since when? Since the catalog was last printed, apparently. I see... So other retailers are slashing prices, people are spending less, your store is completely empty for the first time I can recall...and you're raising prices.

To his credit my friend gave me the catalog price. Normally I'd also get a discount for being a member of the Cactus Intertie group, but not this time. It started me thinking that I've not really seen prices fall on amateur radio equipment the same way that mass-market consumer electronics have fallen. For example; I've been saying that I'll buy an IC-7000 once the sale price drops below $1,000. And yet the price remains above $1,300 and from some retailers seems (like my Bencher paddle) that the price have actually increased.

Is amateur radio immune to economic downturns? Sure seems like the manufacturers and retailers think they are.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Looking forward...

With 2008 officially behind us I've spent the last few weeks (as I'm sure many did) contemplating where we've been and where we're going. There seems to be a pervasive sense of relief, some trepidation about what 2009 might bring, but also a growing sense of hope that we're leaving behind a lot of baggage and moving into a period of revitalization and renewal. I believe that it's human nature to think that the troubles of today are unusual, unprecedented, and thus we long for days of old when "life was simpler". The reality is that in each generation there occurs a crisis of some sort that must be addressed. As the saying goes, "This too shall pass". Fortune, bad or good, is a fleeting thing. Our forefathers struggled, we struggle, and I guarantee our children will struggle. In between these struggles are periods of great happiness, and periods relative calm which often pass by almost unnoticed. From an amateur radio perspective I think 2008 will be remembered as a period of struggle, and hopefully in hindsight will be seen as a time when things began to change.

Amateur radio struggled during 2008. We ended the year with the lowest number of sunspots since the early 1900's. The sun's been so quiet for so long that any time the sunspot number isn't zero, or the solar flux index climbs over 70, everyone gets excited. The quiet surface of our sun was echoed in many ways throughout amateur radio. At the 2008 Dayton Hamvention (and smaller events such as Pacificon 2008) equipment manufacturers offered almost nothing new. In some cases popular equipment such as the Kenwood TH-D7A APRS handheld was suddenly discontinued. (It's speculated that certain parts in the TH-D7A were not ROHS-compliant and Kenwood couldn't get drop-in replacements.) It's worth noting that two of the biggest product offerings of 2008 were the Icom's IC-7200 HF transceiver, and Yaesu's VX-8R quad-band APRS handheld. The IC-7200 has "new" features such as (drum roll please) a USB port for audio I/O and control! How innovative! (I'm being sarcastic.) The VX-8R was shown at Dayton in early 2008 but wasn't actually shipped to customers until mid-December. It contains cutting-edge features such as APRS - which works if you buy their "GPS-Mic" which is insanely large and quite expensive. How is it that my Blackberry Curve can feature a high-contrast LCD display, QWERTY keyboard, battery, multi-band voice/data radio and a GPS in a housing that fits in my hand, but Yaesu needs that much room just to house a microphone and GPS? To add insult to injury; I had an on-the-air QSO with KI6CRL once he finally received his VX-8R after several months on a waiting list -- and it turns out it's got a thermal problem where his transmit audio level drops to nothing as the radio gets hot. This is the hot (no pun intended) new product people waited almost a year to buy?

Perhaps the Japanese manufacturers simply observe that amateur radio is struggling to grab the attention of younger people and believe that it's therefore not capable of producing a good return on investment. I would say that this is both a correct and incorrect observation. It's correct that in its current state amateur radio is largely unattractive to younger people. It's incorrect in that it doesn't take into account the concept of "making a market"; more on this later.

Why are young people not getting into amateur radio? It's not because it's technically challenging; you need only look at the surging popularity of the Maker Movement to know that technical innovation is alive and well among the younger generation. The fact of the matter is that it's our own Luddite mindset that's at fault: It's hard to recruit younger people into a hobby where the equipment manufacturers have only just this year discovered that USB is a viable interface option! I once watched a guy at Ham Radio Outlet whine for five minutes about how hard it was to get RAM modules for his 486 laptop; and amazingly he was finding a sympathetic audience. (By the way this happened in 2006, not 1996.) I was once chastized in an online discussion group for promoting the proliferation of APRS iGates; devices that route packet radio traffic onto the Internet -- my detractor stated that he felt "anything which blurred the lines between ham radio and the Internet" was a bad idea. Finding ways to revitalize older technology with the most pervasive technical revolution since the telephone is a bad idea? Give (unto) me a break.

Even when amateurs use computing they often miss the point. Many people who use APRS are still using the DOS version. One of the most popular APRS applications is UI-View32; the author of which (G4IDE) has been dead for several years -- and specifically asked that upon his death the source-code be destroyed rather than be placed into the public domain as an Open-Source project. How about despite the fact that it's marketed as a stand-alone APRS/packet solution Kenwood continues to build its TM-D710A without a USB or even a PS/2 keyboard jack. Simply put: Amateur Radio can't reach a younger audience until it integrates modern technologies and embraces development/collaboration concepts such as Open Source that younger people associate with "good technology".

You might be saying, "So what? Who cares if we fail to attract and retain younger people into amateur radio?" The answer is simply; we stand to lose everything. The current mood in Washington DC is already somewhat negative towards the FCC; there have even been calls for Obama to dismantle the FCC and implement a new innovation-centric technology governance model. Amateur radio is nothing without our spectrum allocations, and given how we're not really using the spectrum we have it's likely that under the new FCC leadership we'll lose some spectrum in the coming years; someone's going to have to pay back that $700 billion bailout and spectrum leases can be auctioned off to raise cash. As time progresses the incoming FCC leadership is going to be increasingly younger, and likely resistant to the idea of leaving large swaths of potentially cash-generating spectrum in the hands of older amateurs who insist on using out-dated computing technology that increasingly doesn't integrate with modern systems.

So how can we solve this problem? How can amateurs help "make a market" and create a potential for vendors to recoup long-term return on their engineering investment? First and foremost we have got to actively embrace modern computing technology, Maker-style hardware re-purposing concepts, and an Open Source licensing model for software and firmware. This means that:
  • All amateur radios going forward should have USB ports, and if appropriate should support USB host-mode.
  • I should be able to plug my HF transceiver or my handheld into my laptop and control it or configure it over USB.
  • I should be able to plug a keyboard into my TNC-capable rig and type text without a computer.
  • Rather than a proprietary interface, and a proprietary configuration app, all amateur radios should contain an on-board web browser (just like a $30 Linksys router does) running from an embedded controller and an Ethernet jack. I should be able to connect the radio to my LAN, and ideally I should be able to plug in a USB Wi-Fi dongle and attach to the radio wirelessly.
  • The embedded controller should be some kind of standard (ARM-core, etc) and the operating system firmware should be Open Source and modifiable; picture OpenWRT or some variant.
We must start doing this now, or by the time we realize our mistake it will be too late. I firmly believe that a radical departure from our current mindset is the only way to move amateur radio forward.