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The ever-shrinking radio spectrum

10 May 2021

Radio communications is cool.

Okay, it's not as cool as it used to be because it has become ubiquitous in almost every aspect of our lives.

Our phones, the key-fobs that control our alarms, cars and other devices. TV broadcasts, wifi -- in fact almost every aspect of electronics, right down to the humble light bulb, now has an element of radio-frequency communications built into it.

Back in the olden days however, radio was magnificent and mysterious. This is why there was a certane cache associated with being a ham radio operator. To get your ham license, you obviously had to know how all this back magic worked so you were "special".

And ham radio was important because it was a training ground for technicians and engineers who would get their toes wet playing around with this sort of thing before taking it on as a job or career.

However, times are a changing.

Whilst there is still an active community of ham radio enthusiasts, the whole thing has been "dumbed down" somewhat through the ready availability of store-bought radios and systems that have made entry-level ham radio little more than CB radio on steriods.

Gone are the days when you needed a pretty damned good knowledge of electronics and radio-frequency theory plus the ability to send and receive using morse code in order to span the globe with your amateur radio gear.

Today, many ham radio enthusiasts seem content to buy a ready-to-run radio system and may have never picked up a soldering iron in anger.

Then there's the other threat...

Radio spectrum is an increasingly valuable resource which has seen regulators and those with commercial agendas casting a careful eye over the frequencies used by hams.

With the demand for radio spectrum growing almost hourly, some of the most useful and commercially desirable frequency bands are still allocated for ham radio use -- but for how long?

Recent advances in 5G technology have, at least for the time being, enabled commercial users to find some relief in the higher reaches of the RF spectrum but there are some things that can only be done using lower frequencies. These lower frequencies have less "path loss" and can propagate through obstructions that totally block 5G signals and thus they have very specific applications that make them much sought-after.

One could also argue that since the arrival of the internet and the ubiquitous communications it delivers, the argument for sustaining the allocation of valuable RF spectrum to mere "amateurs" is questionable.

Why waste valuable RF spectrum just to allow a group of hobbyists chat amongst themselves when they could go online and use any one of a thousand different VOIP apps or something like Discord, Twitter or whatever?

Sadly, I fear we're going to see increasing pressure placed on the frequencies used by hams and over time it's inevitable that they will lose access to some of the bands they are presently entitled to use.

That's a tragedy because there is far more value to ham radio than just chatting with strangers half-way around the world -- as we repeatedly discover during times of widespread civil emergency. On occasions when mainstream communications links fail and fibre goes dark it's the ham radio enthusiasts who will be there providing critical comminications links over long distances. The real hams will have standby generators, portable HF, VHF and UHF rigs with a ready ability to set up and maintain the comms infrastructure that will be essential to coordinate rescue and relief activities over a wide area.

Let's hope that commercial pressures don't kill one of our most important emergency safety nets.

I think it would also be nice if we promoted ham radio as a hobby-option to a wider group of young people. Sadly, I suspect this just isn't going to happen and who knows, by the time the last ham band is handed over to commercial users, there maybe nobody left to notice.

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