When all else fails, amateur radio will still be here and thriving

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Now is a good time to get technical. Creator communities are thriving around the world, the tools and materials for creating and adapting are now cheaper and more powerful than ever before, and open source hardware, software and information mean if you can think so, you can. learn how to do it and then make it happen.

For a group of technological explorers, this is more than a golden age of opportunity: it is providing the means to save one of the oldest traditions of electronic invention and self-education. , the one that helped shape the modern world: amateur radio.

Radio amateurs are getting a good deal, with effectively free access to many gigahertz of the same radio spectrum for which corporations pay billions. They deserved it. Throughout the history of electronics they have been at the frontiers of the possible, trying out ideas that business or government deems impossible or unnecessary and making them work. Here is just one example among hundreds: Allied military communications during WWII needed a way to reliably control radios used by frontline forces, replacing tuning knobs with channel switches. Hams had the answer ready and waiting: crystal oscillators. (These are also history of computing. You’re probably using about 10 of them right now.)

The trouble with a successful border territory is that it does not remain a border for long. As radio amateurs colonized new frequencies and new methods, government and business interests wanted (and they entered). What was unnecessary yesterday can be very desirable today, and many strips of ham in the once-fallow microwave and UHF spectrum now look very tempting. for wireless data, satellite downlinks and the constant chatter of the Internet of Things. Some attacks on the amateur specter have been repelled, others have been successful. Others are on their way.

It sometimes seemed like a losing battle, as the relevance of amateur radio apparently faded with the advent of the internet and cheap digital technology to play with. Radio amateurs were like the people of yesterday, as relevant as steam engine enthusiasts in the age of spaceflight. Never mind that they lose their specter if the rest of us can stream more HD chat videos as a result?

There is enough truth in there to make it dangerous. A large cohort of radio amateurs just want to play the radios and talk to their friends, but this attitude masks four things that amateur radio still does that cannot be easily replaced.

Tim Peake aboard the International Space Station, describing how he communicates with schools on Earth via amateur radio.

Start with STEM. In the days of valve radios, it was a standard rite of passage for 10-year-olds to take them apart and find out how they worked. The likes of Richard Feynman, Claude Shannon and Robert Noyce all started this way. Good luck remove the back of an iphone, kids, but everything from simple radio receivers to megabit interplanetary communication is still there. Amateur radio will accompany you every step of the way, bypassing barriers and making connections. There is a reason amateur radio is on board the International Space Station.

Then there is the backup. Take the European HAMNET, for example. It is a four thousand node high speed data network covering much of continental Europe and offering full IP connectivity at speeds of several megabits. It connects to the Internet– amateur radio has 16 million IPV4 addresses, believe it or not – but is independent of them, performing its own robust and flexible routing. If the Internet were to disappear, HAMNET would still work. The same goes for almost all amateur radio infrastructure. When all else fails (power, communications, roads), amateur radio is still there. Nowadays, it can even be a full digital medium.

This independence gives ham radio an additional advantage. It is vigorously non-commercial and non-governmental, and by law the format must be open – encryption is almost completely prohibited. It is open to all nations (and almost all allow it). He survived war, dictatorships, disasters and CB radio. If you want to use the airwaves, as long as you can take a simple technical test and pay a nominal administration fee, you don’t need any further permission. More and more it means unique creations that cannot happen otherwise, like global open access digital voice radio networks and international automatic satellite tracking and data systems.

This resurgence has helped amateur radio maintain its place at the negotiating table with regulators and lawmakers. It has kept the world full of active expertise in wireless, one of the main engines of modern computing and also one of the guarantors that things like commercial cellular networks are constantly monitored for abuse. Radio hackers at Def Con and Blackhat conferences who gleefully expose your cell phone’s loopholes and backdoors will usually be active amateur radio geeks.

It’s also a lot of fun. No one needs to be an amateur radio operator, but if you want to use radio in an inventive way, understand how it works, or create a communication link that does not respect other people’s boundaries or requires their permission, it is here for you. . Be there for it.

Rupert Goodwins started as an engineer with Clive Sinclair, Alan Sugar and other startups in the 1980s. Today a technology journalist, he has been writing and broadcasting for over thirty years on the digital world. You can follow him on Twitter at @rupertg.

List image by Getty Images



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