The Perennial Debate: Is Ham Radio Dying?

If you’ve been around ham radio for even a year or two, you’ve no doubt heard or participated in the debate as to whether or not ham radio is dying.  The question is as perennial as the grass.

Recently, this was a topic of discussion on the ARRL PR mailing list. Allen, W1AGP, the ARRL’s Media & PR Manager, generated this chart to show that ham radio is NOT dying:

Ham Radio is Not DyingThis chart is fairy dramatic, until you not the values on the y axis.  Even so, the good news is that the number of licensees is quickly approaching 700,000, and should surpass that number shortly.

Upon seeing this chart, Jerry, N9TU, did a little statistical analysis of his own, producing this chart, which shows the distribution of licensees in his zip code.

From this data, he deduces, “If this is an average sampling of deceased members, expired members and club licenses there are roughly 90,000 fewer licensees than shown in the data nationwide. I have no clue of the error rate involved with my data. Your results may vary.” My guess is that his zip code is probably pretty typical, and that his analysis is essentially correct.

There’s also the question of activity. Previously, I’ve guessed that nearly half of all licensees are inactive, and that if we could figure out a way to activate those hams, then we’d really be able to say that our hobby is not dying. It’s something worth thinking about, but there’s certainly no easy answer to this problem.  As  Yogi Berra is purported to have said, “If people don’t want to come out to the ball park, there’s nothing you can do to stop them.”

Overall, though, I think the numbers are headed in the right direction. Let’s all keep up the good work.

Think the Ham Bands are Safe? Read This.

The October 2010 issue of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineer’s (IEEE) Spectrum has an article titled, “The Great Radio Spectrum Famine.” The culprit, of course, is the wireless Internet. As more and more people buy smartphones, they demand more and more bandwidth.

The article states:

Regulators have few options to head off the coming bandwidth crisis. They can’t realistically expect to reduce demand. Nor can they expand the overall supply. That leaves the daunting chore of squeezing today’s users into narrower slices of the radio spectrum, thereby eking out more space for other things. That’s sometimes possible, but it’s not easy. To reengineer existing radio systems—or their users—is a bit like trying to overhaul a car’s engine while it’s barreling down the highway.

Policymakers, at least in private, sometimes hold out hope for a fourth option: that some game-changing technical breakthrough will save the day at the 11th hour. But nothing now on the drawing board suggests that technology alone can get us out of this predicament.

It goes on to target the swath of spectrum that’s currently the most coveted:

Every application of radio works best within a certain range of frequencies, and mobile broadband is no exception. Its sweet spot is relatively narrow, roughly in the range of 300 to 3500 megahertz. That’s because radio waves that are much above 3500 MHz (shorter than about 9 centimeters) do not penetrate well into buildings or through rugged terrain, leading to frustrating dead spots. Lower frequencies are better in this regard, but they require awkwardly large antennas for efficient transmission; 300 MHz is roughly the lowest frequency compatible with a reasonably efficient antenna that’s small enough to fit in a handheld device.

While the article doesn’t mention amateur radio in particular, read between the lines. No service is sacred. At the very least, this should make you think about joining the ARRL if you’re not already a member, and if you are, supporting the spectrum-defense activities a little more solidly.

Amateur Radio Ranks Are NOT Shrinking

Apologies To Ham Operators
Two weeks ago, Microwaves & RF, a magazine I frequently reference here, published an article titled, “Amateur Radio Ranks Are Shrinking.” Well, we all know this just isn’t true, and a number of hams quickly set the editor, Jack Browne straight.

Yesterday, Browne published the retraction below. Browne says, “In fact, the number of ham operators is growing and the membership in the ARRL is strong.” While the first part of that statement is certainly true, I still don’t think ARRL membership is as strong as it should be, but that will be the topic for another blog post.

Thanks, Jack, for the clarification!

Jack Browne
October 7, 2010

Two weeks ago, in this column, a statement was made that the ranks of amateur (ham) radio operators were shrinking. As it turns out, the number of licensed amateur radio operators is growing in the United States, as in membership in the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL). The comments on shrinking numbers were based on a misleading report from an industry company newsletter. In fact, the number of ham operators is growing and the membership in the ARRL is strong, as pointed out by a multitude of responses from spirited ham operators. My thanks and appreciation to all those who wrote back and helped to correct erroneous reporting at this end.

Further details on the growth numbers can be found in the Editorial for the October issue of Microwaves & RF, which indicate growth from 2008 to 2009 and from 2009 to 2010. Regarding the number of e-mails that came as a result of that “shrinking” report, it points out that the amateur radio community is not only growing, but a vibrant group, unwilling to sit back passively when misrepresented in the press. It is a group that understands fundamental RF communications and appreciates the elegance of making a direct connection with another operator. It is also a group that may prove vital to this nation’s security one day as an emergency communications network, should a severe national crisis occur.

18,270 New Licenses Issued Through June 2010

From the July 15, 2010 issue of the ARRL Letter:

With more than 18,000 new Amateur Radio licenses issued in the first half of this year — 18,270 to be exact — 2010 is shaping up to be a banner year for Amateur Radio. So far, the number of new licenses issued by the FCC in 2010 is outpacing the January-June 2009 totals by almost 8.5 percent; at this time last year, the FCC had issued 16,844 new licenses. As of June 30, 2010, there are 694,346 licensed Amateur Radio operators in the US, an almost 1 percent rise over all of calendar year 2009. Broken down by license class at the end of June 2010, there were 16,299 Novices, 342,064 Technicians, 154,284 Generals, 60,059 Advanced and 121,640 Amateur Extra licensees .

Read complete article.

I still think we’re not doing enough to help new hams get involvedin the hobby and really learn ham radio, but I suppose that having more hams is a good thing. Despite my rant five years about leaving no ham behind, I’ve found that many new hams are either reluctant to ask for help or just want to make their own way. I haven’t figured out which it is, but I do know that few of the students in my one-day class ever take me up on my offer of help.

What do you think?