Today, amateur radio is an integral part of the early warning system of natural disasters, and ham operators have been honored for their role in supporting relief efforts during tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. They’ve used their radio skills to help fight wildfires and communicate in areas where cell phone towers were knocked out. And during a spate of extreme weather events in 2017 — from hurricanes in the southeast U.S. to wildfires in the west and floods across large parts of India — amateurs were on the front lines, relaying weather reports and helping emergency responders pinpoint areas that needed help most.
The number of U.S. amateur licenses has remained at a flat 1 percent annual growth for the past few years, with about 7,000 new licensees added every year for a total of 755,430 in 2018.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission does not track operators’ demographic data, but anecdotally, white men in their 60s and 70s make up much of the population. However, due to various factors, ham radio has been in decline for many years. Part of this is due to modern society’s changing needs, but much of it seems to be a lack of interest from younger generations.
1. Ham Radio is an Egalitarian Technology
Anyone can talk to anyone else, anywhere in the world, for free, no license required. It’s a technology that has a special place in the history of black Americans. During the Jim Crow era, ham radio created a network that spanned from coast to coast. Black operators used it to communicate with each other when traditional means of communication weren’t available. Johnnie Johnson, a Navy veteran and originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, tells a story of bootleggers using ham radio to warn each other of police raids when the government-controlled phone networks.
Now ham radio is facing its biggest challenge since its inception: how to survive in an era when anyone can communicate via text message or Facebook. Amateur radio operators may look like an endangered species—the number of hams in the U.S.
2. Uncertain Place for Ham Radio in the Era of the Internet
The Internet has made communicating with people much more accessible. Still, the growth of cell phone networks and social media platforms has done little to make the majority of Americans feel like they know their neighbors. Amateur radio is a place where you can discover those around you. It’s a place where the young, the old, the rich, and the poor meet on a level playing field. If you’ve ever lived in a big city, it can be easy to forget that it’s even there.
The reason that ham radio is so overlooked today is its focus on an emergency or public service communication. This niche has become more critical as the role of government communications has expanded in recent years, and many people in rural areas rely on ham radio to communicate during emergencies like hurricanes and floods.
But ham radio is still used mainly by hobbyists whose primary interest is long-distance communication. And this is where things get complicated. Amateur radio operators communicate with each other using a variety of transmission modes and frequencies.
Yet hams are still hams. They continue to install antenna on water towers and build repeater systems in upstate New York. The worst that might happen, they say, is that current radio frequencies might decay or, in the worst-case scenario, we could lose most of our electronic infrastructure, forcing us to rely on ham radio to keep us connected and informed.
Regardless of whether you believe at the end of the world or not, you can’t help but wonder what happens when the grid goes down, and your cell phone is no longer charging. The best bet is to arm yourself with one.
On a side note,many of the same electronic components that are used to build a ham radio can also be used to build a cb radio. Many retailers such as Walcott Radio and others carry kits that include all the components necessary to build either radio type. In fact CB radios are made using Ham radios. A CB radio is a regular ham radio that is used for commercial purposes. While many people who use cb radios are public safety officials and truck drivers there are lots of hobbyists who enjoy building CB radios.
3. The Future Of Amateur Radio Looks Crowdy
The best news is that we’re now in the midst of a renaissance. Amateurs around the world are building new radios, writing new software, sharing ideas and working together to keep the hobby alive. It’s great! And it’s thanks to teamwork between hams, non-hams, manufacturers, regulators, and non-manufacturers.
So, is there a future for amateur radio? I think there is. Not everyone will join the ranks of amateur radio operators. Not everyone will even build their own kit, but there’s still a place in this world to indulge our curiosity, to explore a diverse and fascinating hobby, to build cool stuff, and to add to the pool of knowledge for others to benefit from.
If I’m right, then amateur radio will endure. If I’m wrong, then amateur radio will fade away and be replaced by other means of communication. There won’t be a grand battle or a glorious last stand. Just the slow fading of an antiquated mode of communication as we all get on with living our lives in the rapidly-changing world that’s all around us.