Ham radio is dying! No it’s not, it’s evolving

K0LWC

I’ve heard ham radio is dying since as far back as I can remember. It’s one of those common sayings you always hear. Like, “get off my lawn,” and “kids these days.” But is it true? Is there any evidence to support this? Let’s take a closer look.

Ham radio licensees are increasing

Data from the ARRL shows that ham radio licensees are increasing. When you look at the chart above, you see two significant markers that are likely driving this growth.

  • The removal of the code requirement by the FCC.
  • The economic collapse of 2008.

The Morse code requirement was always an intimidating part of obtaining your General FCC license. Learning Morse code is like learning a second language. It takes time and effort to learn, and that’s not a bad thing. However, it doesn’t change that it scared many people away from the hobby. When the FCC removed this requirement in 2007, I believe it opened the door for many who spent years on the fence. Then you have the economic downturn of 2008. What does that have to do with ham radio? A lot.

After the economic downturn, the United States watched as survivalism, now commonly calling “prepping,” entered mainstream culture. People were worried as the country was involved in multiple wars and our economy was on the brink of collapse. Citizens stocked up on food storage, water, firearms, and…communications equipment. As our country spiraled into more turmoil ham radio licenses steadily increased to more than 750,000 by the end of 2019.

Is ham radio a hobby or a public service?

The debate between ham radio being a public service or just a hobby is a common argument. The reason we exist is to ultimately have a trained citizenry that can response to natural disasters. This will always be a thread in our hobby, but this thread is merging more and more with digital functions, including the Internet. That’s where some people get grumpy.

FT8/JS8Call

FT8/JS8Call has drew the ire from older operators who don’t see it as “real ham radio.” Though the technology could have huge implications for passing traffic when conditions are rough in remote parts of the world.

Digital Mobile Radio (DMR)

Digital Mobile Radio has exploded in growth in the past decade. Many amateur radio operators use Internet-connected hotspots to operate from their shack without tying up local repeaters. These Internet-connected repeaters hold value, the biggest is the ability to have two different time slots carrying voice traffic simultaneously on one repeater, whether they have an Internet connection or not. DMR doesn’t need to have an Internet backbone to be a game-changer for emergency communications.

Ham radio will always be a hobby where those engaged are practicing to help if the need ever arises, whether they participate in public service events with local clubs or not. And younger operators are redefining how it’s done with new digital technologies — and that’s a great thing!

Millennials are not killing ham radio… they’re the future

Some ham radio operators believe younger hams are “killing” the hobby. These often dismissive and vile opinions are not great for the future of amateur radio. Integrating new technology like VOIP and microcomputers into amateur radio is what it’s all about—using the resources available to communicate and exchange information with others around the world. Who cares how we get it done?

Getting young kids involved in ham radio

We must get children interested in the hobby. Today, kids aren’t impressed with the ability to talk around with the world on 100 watts and a wire. They’re just not. How do we get young people interested in the digital age where they can communicate anywhere in the world with a tap of a button? The ARRL hasn’t done a great job in attracting young people — but there are things we can do!

Capitalize on the next generation of space exploration

The United States is embarking on the next generation of space exploration. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are making space and engineering cool again, and ham radio could easily ride that wave. Focus on targeting kids interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics and educate them on AMSAT and the potential to communicate with the International Space Station (ISS). Using space exploration as a drive for getting a ham license would be a fantastic entry point for space geeks everywhere.

Use remote HF and SWL stations to spark interest

For young ham radio operators who already have their license, look no further than Remote Ham Radio as a shining example of how to get kids interested in upgrading their license. They offer a program where kids can win free time using world-class remote DX contest stations. The young hams have to meet the following criteria:

  • Be 25 years old or younger
  • Hold a General class or higher license
  • Be a member of the ARRL
  • Have an interest or experience in DXing/Contesting
  • Tell us why RHR would be a good fit for you

Kudos to Remote Ham Radio for offering this program to young hams!

POTA/SOTA combines ham radio and outdoor adventure

Living in Colorado, I grew fond of Summits On The Air (SOTA) rather quickly. I mean, it’s cool. You can exercise while playing ham radio all at the same time. We should be focusing on how we can use these outdoor portable operations to attract young hams who love the outdoors. For the extreme outdoor enthusiasts, it would be wise to focus on the usefulness of being able to communicate from the wilderness where cell phone signals are non-existent.

Ham radio has evolved, albeit slowly compared to other technology sectors. That evolution is inevitable. We can’t fight it. We shouldn’t fight it. We need to find ways to encourage new exploration of communication methodology. That all starts with younger ham radio operators bringing new ideas and skills to our hobby.

Let’s not fight it. Let’s embrace it.