For more than 30 years, amateur radio (a.k.a., ham radio) was a major part of my life. I loved every minute of it: Feverishly operating contests, driving down the highway with a key strapped to my leg, and climbing mountains to set up equipment in remote places—the works. This all ended abruptly about 15 years ago as life got in the way. Now that my kids are grown, the itch has returned. So I decided to find out what’s changed in amateur radio over the years since I’d gone “dark.” Whether you’re a ham, thinking about becoming one, or just curious, you’ll probably find this article interesting.
For me, the thrill of being able to communicate anywhere in the world without wires was what got me and many others hooked to amateur radio. Today, anyone with a smartphone can do this effortlessly, so you’d expect that the number of ham amateurs would be in decline—but it’s not. In fact, the amateur ranks have been growing every year, no doubt helped in part by the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) elimination of the code requirement for all license classes in 2007.
However, there’s more to it than that: The biggest factor driving amateur radio’s growth is that it has evolved and is now fully ensconced in the digital domain. Digital technology has transformed everything from equipment to operating modes, Internet integration, and many other things (Figure 1). It’s made things possible that were inconceivable before, and, as proof, I offer you what to me is one of the most striking (and somewhat controversial) developments I’ve come across: Remote Ham Radio. To understand its significance, you have to place it in context.
Figure 1: This is not your grandfather’s ham radio station. The high frequency (HF) transceiver at lower left is digital, has an integrated real-time spectrum analyzer, two independent receivers, and more than 90 knobs and buttons. The radio on the right is just slightly less formidable. The monitor in the middle is used for logging and assorted, formerly analog, functions. On the far right is a 1kW radio frequency (RF) power amplifier. (Source: Emil Neuerer, DJ4PI / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The quest to communicate over the longest possible distance has always been a facet of wireless communications, and radio amateurs were there from the beginning. Hams are still pursuing the same goal today, with gusto. This is called “DXing,” which is attempting to contact a ham in every place with an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) designation and confirming the event with what’s called a QSL card.
An offshoot of DXing is the “DXpedition,” which involves traveling to some remote or otherwise exotic place where there are either few or no radio amateurs or, sometimes, no one at all. A DXpedition is a huge endeavor, from getting permission to operate in an obscure place, obtaining a call sign, dealing with government bureaucracy, and ultimately finding a way to transport people, equipment, and sustenance there and return alive.
For hams contacting these stations, it’s a way to add one more prefix to the number required to join the American Radio Relay League’s (ARRL’s) coveted DX Century Club (DXCC) through verifying contact with 100 countries. The DXpedition to Clipperton Island in 2013 is a terrific example (Figure 2). Clipperton is an uninhabited, 2.3-square-miles speck in the Pacific Ocean, 795 miles southwest of Acapulco. During the month that the operators were there, they logged more than 100,000 contacts with more than 30,000 amateurs throughout the world. The event and others before and after it are even listed on Clipperton Island’s Wikipedia page.
Figure 2: Clipperton Island, nearly 800 miles from land, is a DXpedition favorite. (Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA))
Remote Ham Radio is an organization founded by Ray Higgins and Lee Imber, the former a retired Pepsi employee and tower company owner and the latter his business partner. Both hams are ardent DXers, and the goal of their group is to create a way for one ham to operate someone else’s station located anywhere in the world remotely via the Internet. They have funded this effort entirely with their own money, and their goal isn’t to get rich.
What makes this even more interesting is that it lets anyone become one of the “Big Guns,” at least for a while, because the stations you can operate are arguably some of the most formidable in the world, whether they’re in New York, California, Nova Scotia, or, incredibly, Haiti. Ham experts operating at stations in the best locations with the best equipment (and thus the biggest signals) invariably win the major contests.
The remote operation concept isn’t that new, but its implementation here must be seen to be believed, and I encourage any reader, even someone who is just curious, to visit the organization’s website and view the introductory video. What you’ll see on your monitor is a comprehensive web page that contains a list of participating stations and the ability to control all of their characteristics, from turning their huge antennas to decreasing or increasing RF power, changing modes, and dozens of other things with just a keyboard and mouse. From an operational standpoint, the experience is probably close to being there, even though you could be many thousands of miles away. But there’s a catch: You have to pay for it. Thus, the controversy.
The beauty of amateur radio has always been that anyone, not just a Big Gun, can build his or her own equipment, set up a station, and, depending on propagation conditions, talk to other stations throughout the world—for free. Remote Ham Radio changes this paradigm and it isn’t sitting all that well with some hams or with the DX Advisory Committee of the ARRL. The committee attempted to change the rules for earning DX Century Club (DXCC) credit, making it a requirement that the operator’s home station and where the contact was made from were no more than 200km apart. However, it failed.
There’s also plenty of discussion on forums, which are likely to get more intense if someone uses one of the stations for an entire contest. The fact that the premium stations cost up to $0.99 per minute of operation reduces this likelihood. So, if you operated for 20 hours, it would cost you just shy of $1,200. On the other hand, it’s also the only way most hams will ever get to experience the thrill of operating an absolutely first-class station.
Remote Ham Radio is just one example of dozens that illustrate just how far amateur radio has come in the last decade or so, some of which admittedly stretch the definition of amateur “radio” to include operation solely via the Internet. But not to worry: Amateur radio is alive and well, and as the man said, as for the times, they are changing.
Barry Manz is president of Manz Communications, Inc., a technical media relations agency he founded in 1987. He has since worked with more than 100 companies in the RF and microwave, defense, test and measurement, semiconductor, embedded systems, lightwave, and other markets. Barry writes articles for print and online trade publications, as well as white papers, application notes, symposium papers, technical references guides, and Web content. He is also a contributing editor for the Journal of Electronic Defense, editor of Military Microwave Digest, co-founder of MilCOTS Digest magazine, and was editor in chief of Microwaves & RF magazine.
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