Category: Admin’s Soapbox

Yes, you can say it… But should you?

Ham station with laptop PC connected to DMR radio for programming.

A laptop PC is connected to DMR radio for programming. The IC-7200 station is in the background.

Cast your thoughts back to the middle of the 20th century.  Yes, I know many of you can do so – you were born in that era and, though childhood memories may be a bit fuzzy.  Lots of us are old guys who grew up in a Minnesota that was much more rural and young and Christian and white. We pretty much agreed on most things.  That made it relatively easy to manage our politics, but even back then we knew our best bet was to keep our traps shut about that topic during Thanksgiving dinner.

In fact, when I got interested in electronics during high school, the more or less default advice on being a good ham radio operator was to never broach any of three deadly subjects on the air:  sex, religion, and politics.  

That was good advice then and it’s good advice now.  In fact, it’s even more so in 2020, when our new Minnesota is so diverse and our political landscape is so polarized.  We come to ham radio because we share a common interest in one or more of its many facets – circuit building, antennas, public service, contesting, DX, hidden transmitter hunting, space communications, digital modes, CW, DMR, SOTA, portable operation, special events, teaching and volunteering, and so many more.  Most of us leverage those topics by making them part of our on the air activities.  

No one is suggesting that talking about non-ham related activities is a bad thing.  In fact, it’s fun to connect with others who share your interest in other hobbies or topic areas like history, science, aviation, firearms, or stamp collecting.  

But much of life is about being practical.  Making good choices. Thinking about consequences. 

So yes, we can talk about the toxic three: sex, religion, and politics. The question is whether we should, because going there is like stepping into a minefield.  You may get through unscathed, but like as not someone is going away unhappy. Back in mid-20th century Minnesota, we were more alike than different, and the mines were further apart.  Today, we are way more diverse – different in our ethnicity, age, religious background, and yes, politics. That makes for a minefield with a lot more mines.  

Don’t assume that the op you are talking with on the air shares your beliefs on these toxic three.  You may be surprised that even those in your own demographic think differently on one or more of them.  Furthermore, the damage can filter outward from such conversations and be bad for Amateur Radio in general.  I have lost count of the remarks about “old dudes on 75 m” that I have seen on social media platforms frequented by younger folks.  Guys going on about their politics and religion are a MASSIVE turn-off to young people who might be interested in ham radio. 

Are we in it for fun, friendship, public service, and learning?  Yes!  

Are we in it for arguments and proselytising?  Not me. Let’s make better choices on the air. Please. 

Wanted: More HF Operators

Pat, WA0TDA, at HF station during special event

Pat, WA0TDA, at HF station during special event

We need more HF ops!

Tune across the HF bands anytime but a contest weekend and you’ll hear plenty of nothing – unless you happen upon the FT8 frequencies – they always seem to have activity. Even so, there’s plenty of empty real estate, and even the CW portions of the bands seems wanting these days.

Yes, the solar cycle is bottoming out and conditions have been generally poor. I’ve been through these minima before, and this one is different – and worse. The bands have never been so empty. There’s plenty of competition for “radio time” from our connected world that includes streaming video, worldwide communication, and interactive gaming.

Perhaps you don’t realize this if you are not a gamer, but MMRPGs (Massive Multiplayer Role Playing Games) are an immersive experience that allows players to communicate in real time (video and voice) with other players around the world while playing an engaging game in a virtual world. That means if you expect to lure a newbie into amateur radio with a gee-whiz story about how you can “talk to people around the world”, you are probably going to be disappointed by their “So-what ?”reaction.

We have to up our game.

And soon. We can’t be Fortnite, but…

We can add value to the Technician license with some HF privileges. VHF and UHF FM repeaters are not enough these days. Most are inactive all day long and this silence can lead newly licensed hams to get bored with ham radio. Why not give them more opportunities to get on the air and make contacts?

Look, I’ve heard all the contrarian arguments hundreds of times over the years – every time something needs to be changed. Yes, we all had to pass our exams to earn our privileges. Yes, these noobs would get HF privileges without jumping through the same hoops we did. Yes, they might make mistakes on the air. Yes, we had to pass code exams in the day. Yes, yes, yes.

None of that matters. Times and circumstances have changed, and we need to change with them. Join me in getting on the FCC website and supporting the ARRL petition to add limited HF privileges to the Technician license.

Commenting Electronically on FCC Proceedings (Easy)

Those interested in posting brief comments on Petitions for Rulemaking (PRMs) to the FCC, such as the ARRL Technician Enhancement proposal (RM-11828) using the Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) should access FCC Electronic Comment Filing System Express at, https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filings/express .

In the “Proceeding(s)” field, enter the number of the PRM, e.g. RM-11828 (using this format), complete all required fields, and enter brief comments in the box provided. You may review your post before filing. All information you provide, including name and address, will be publicly available once you post your comment(s).

Visit “How to Comment on FCC Proceedings” for additional information at,
https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/how-comment

73 – Pat, WAØTDA

The State of the Art:  Demographics, meet ARRL

Pat Tice, WAØTDA

Pat, WA0TDA, at HF station during special event

Pat, WA0TDA, at HF station during special event

ARRL has asked the FCC to expand HF privileges for Technician licensees to include limited phone privileges on 75, 40, and 15 meters, plus RTTY and digital mode privileges on 80, 40, 15, and 10 meters.  Here’s why it’s an idea whose time has come.

A visit to a hamfest tells the tale:  Ham radio operators like me (an old dude) have plenty of old dude company.  Oh, sure – there are the ladies and the younger folks, but by and large we are the Boomer generation, and many of us have enjoyed Amateur Radio for decades.  Most of us are definitely NOT new Technician Class ops.

The good news about being in this demographic is that many of us have time to spend on the air or build projects because we are retired.  And by the time we have endured all those years of work and made it to retirement, we mostly are well enough off to afford our radio hobby.  So here we are, Boomers with enough spare change and time to spend it, and we like HF radios.  Is there any down side to this?

Maybe.  Or maybe not. ARRL has been working hard to promote Amateur Radio through traditional media, social media, in public service, and in schools.  But in HF-land our Boomer demographic still prevails, and this means that as the next decade unfolds, there will be some trends to watch.

To understand how Amateur Radio will be affected, we can look at some other interest areas shared by our demographic.  Take large “hog” motorcycles, for example.  The demographic is the same; Boomers with money.  As these motorcyclists age, rides become shorter and less frequent.  Finally the realization dawns that the bike is gathering dust, and (after a brief mourning period) it gets sold.  But Millennials don’t want big bikes.  The market shrinks.  Harley-Davidson sales decline.  The headline in USA Today, “Amid sales drop, Harley-Davidson wants to teach more to ride” (December, 2017) reminds us of the League’s efforts to recruit new hams.

Okay, another interest area is firearms.  Same demographic, and headlines like “Falling Sales Concern Gun Industry – (ABC News, May, 2017).  And what is the remedy?  The report goes on to say, “The gun industry says it’s working hard to attract a new generation of buyers.”  Sounds familiar, right?  It is the same strategy in play for everything from traditional service organizations to industry trade groups and state departments of natural resources – and ham radio.

I’ve enjoyed shooting sports and have motorcycled across the nation, but time does catch up, and we all make practical decisions based on our own circumstances.  Ham radio is still in play for you and me, but things are going to change.  Change is coming to everything from bowling leagues to bicycling clubs and service organizations.  Dealing with it means testing new strategies, and that is what ARRL is doing with its latest petition to expand Tech HF privileges.  Without any change at all, our trajectory is already set, and we can look forward to a steady decline in HF participation.

The future scenario unfolds like this: 

I’m happy with my HF station and use it every day.  My antenna system stretches across the back yard and all is good.  Perhaps I even have a tower and beam for the higher frequencies.  Eventually though, things start to wear out.  A leg of the dipole drops in a storm and needs to be pulled back into place.  The rotor stops turning the beam.  I used to be able to fix those things in an afternoon, but now it’s not so easy to climb the tower, but I can rehang the dipole – for now.

Climbing stairs is getting harder for both me and my wife.  One of us broaches the idea of downsizing to a condo.  I’ll miss having my own antenna farm, but I won’t miss stair climbing, lawn mowing, snow shoveling, and tower climbing.

Do you see where this is going?

Now multiply by the number of Boomers reaching the age – perhaps mid-70s – when all of the same decisions are being mulled at the kitchen table.  Here is my prediction:

  • There will be more used HF equipment on the market as we downsize.
  • More of us will operate HF remote stations (Already happening!)
  • More clubs will follow my local radio club’s lead in providing remote resources for members who cannot have traditional HF stations or who travel south for the winter.
  • HF activity will decline, like motorcycling, bowling, and hunting. The bands already seem “dead” on non-contest weekdays!
  • VHF/UHF repeaters will continue to languish as radio “dead zones” unless they are DMR, Echolink, WIRES, or IRLP-enabled.
  • The HF participation rate among Boomers will continue to decline, even as Tech licensees remain mostly inactive, and many will let their licenses lapse.
  • The “Silent Key” page in QST will continue to grow.

Now, don’t shoot the messenger!  These are demographics, and the changes are inevitable – unless!

…Unless we can engage new licensees in HF operation. 

That is obvious.  We need to tap into an existing pool of mostly inactive hams who find dead repeaters boring and their licenses mostly useless.

Yes, there is some hand-wringing and outrage on social media over this, but remember that ARRL did research this, and no one is in a better position to know the pulse of Amateur Radio than the League.  The objections fall into several categories:

  • “Amateur Radio will be like CB”.   Remember that this petition doesn’t ask for removal of testing requirements.  It proposes more (but still limited) HF privileges for Techs who have already been tested with HF operation in mind via the current question pool structure.
  • “We had to test through multiple levels to get HF phone privileges and they should too!” Seriously?  Nothing has changed in 50 years?  This is the weakest of arguments against virtually anything, since it considers nothing but whether candidates go through the same initiation ritual.  Tradition may be comforting, but in a technical activity like ham radio standards should track the reality of the current situation.
  • “I am dropping my ARRL membership – that’ll show ‘em”. Yikes, this is a bit extreme, especially since the League staff have researched this and come to the conclusion that they have in recommending the petition.  As with any membership organization, it is better to be inside if you want to effect change.  Ironically, when ARRL first promoted the idea of “incentive licensing”, some hotheads reacted exactly the same way.  Some things about human behavior never change, I guess.

Let’s welcome the newcomers to HF phone on frequencies that are unused most days, even when those bands are open.  Let’s work with HF newbies to help them learn the quirks of HF propagation and the best practices of HF operation and digital modes.  Remember, new Techs on the HF bands have roughly the same HF background experience as newly-licensed General Class ops – little to none.  They could all use our help and encouragement.

And thank you, ARRL.

73 – Pat

wa0tda@arrl.net