Does This Make Ham Radio “Better”?

Here’s an editorial by Ward Silver, N0AX from the August 10, 2005 Contest Rate Sheet. It’s reprinted here with permission from the ARRL. About the only thing I’d change is his translations of the purposes of amateur radio as set forth in Part 97.1. Other than that, he’s right on….Dan

In preparing a presentation for the Pacific NW DX Convention on new ways of visualizing radio information, I felt that it was important to evaluate the ideas for their possible effect on ham radio. After all, if new technology, techniques, or activities don’t make ham radio “better”, then why implement them?

The implied part of that question is that we actually know what “better” is. The quick reply is usually, “Well, of course I know!” But when pressed, it can be difficult to say exactly where the Good Arrow points. A legalistic definition would be to point to the FCC’s Part 97.1 – the Basis and Purpose for the Amateur Service, paraphrased here as:

  • Voluntary communications, particularly emergency communications
  • Advancement of the radio art
  • Advancing skills in the communications and technical phases of the (radio) art
  • Expansion of trained operators, technicians, and electronics experts
  • Enhance international goodwill

Those are a little dry, so translating those principles into more personable statements in no particular order:

  • Increase understanding of the physical environment of radio
  • Improve an operator’s efficiency, accuracy, and breadth of expertise
  • Encourage technical learning about communications systems
  • Develop new radio services and techniques
  • Create new opportunities for building and innovation

These are pretty much where my particular Good Arrow points. I don’t expect every possible change to ham radio to score a plus on every one of those five points, but if a change can’t muster a little enthusiasm in any of those areas, then maybe it’s not going in the direction of the Good Arrow. Conversely, the more goals a change promotes, the better the change may be.

Some changes have uniformly good effects, but most will be of the “some steps forward, some steps backwards” variety. This leaves us to count the steps, weigh them, and decide whether there is a net benefit. Things get even more complicated when combinations of changes are occurring. Two rights might make a wrong! Then there is the fact of having thousands of humans all acting and reacting at once – that makes life genuinely interesting, doesn’t it?

When presented with such a rich and frothy brew of possibilities, it’s usually easiest to just pull the covers over one’s head and reject them all. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Of course, this conveniently ignores the fact that radio and radio operators are continually changing, whether we embrace change or not.

Undoubtedly, amateur radio is in a watershed period, just as it was in the years following World War II, a period of dramatic technical change and a rapid change in the population of amateurs. While there was a lot of complaining, that upheaval seems to have turned out OK. Today, the rapidly hybridizing Internet-Radio combination, changing license requirements, and accelerating technical evolution of radio will probably transform ham radio to the same degree as before and after WWII. Radio in 1960 looked an awful lot different to an amateur that got started in the 1930′s – a situation in which many of us find ourselves today.

As you browse the Web, read the magazines, and kick things around with your friends, you’ll encounter divisive and difficult topics such as CW testing, spotting networks, digital radios, bandwidth and band plans, and on and on. Even in such an environment, where it’s difficult to know the long-term benefits and costs of changes, one can still apply Good Arrow measuring sticks and support the aspects of change that line up closest. Then it becomes a question of whether you choose to dwell on features that measure up or the ones that don’t. Ham radio is molting – all we have to do now is decide which parts will make up the new lobster and which parts the old shell.

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