By Jaideep Chanda, VU2YYE When does a hobby die? As per an article in The Mirror, lower disposable incomes, longer working hours and the distraction of social media are the three things that are killing hobbies. Another article in the Verde Magazine suggests that that hobby has given way to the extra-curricular – the institutionalised […]
Published Date – 12:15 PM, Thu – 27 July 23
By Jaideep Chanda, VU2YYE
When does a hobby die? As per an article in The Mirror, lower disposable incomes, longer working hours and the distraction of social media are the three things that are killing hobbies. Another article in the Verde Magazine suggests that that hobby has given way to the extra-curricular – the institutionalised horizon broadening exercise, instead of an activity undertaken for the sheer pleasure of it rather than for the educational or other benefits. A third article blames the hustle culture for the demise of hobbies. That brings us to the question that why is it that amateur radio a.k.a. ham radio, refuses to die?
What is ham radio?
Let’s begin with understanding what ham radio is. The official definition is that ‘it is the use of the amateur radio frequency spectrum by amateurs for purposes of non-commercial exchange of messages, wireless experimentation, self-training, private recreation, radio-sport, contesting, and emergency communications’.
In plain speak, this means that the aspiring hams prepare for a relatively simple exam conducted by the Wireless Planning and Coordination (WPC) Wing of the Ministry of Telecommunication and acquire a licence which gives them a unique call sign. This call sign reveals their nationality, licence class and a two or three alphabet combination which is unique to the user. Thus if a call sign reads VU2YYE, it means that amateur radio operator is from India, since the prefix VU is assigned for India (like all Indian airplanes start with VT); the numerical 2 indicates that the ham holds a General licence which is higher that the Restricted licence (which is indicated by numerical Finally the letters YYE are unique to the licence holder.
Having acquired the callsign, the new ham thereafter proceeds to either build or buy the equipment and ‘get on air’ meaning that he or she starts transmitting on the ham radio frequency which is globally common with minor variations and contacting other hams world-wide and speaking to them. The conversation generally weaves around the hobby, the equipment being used, the weather, promotion of each other’s country and so on. It generally steers clear of politics, religion and other potentially controversial topics. The end goal of amateur radio as a hobby is to achieve communication over the authorised radio frequency bands. Variations include other modes such as using Morse Code for communication or using various digital formats (with cryptic names such as FT4, FT8, PSK31 et all) amongst others.
As hobbies go, ham radio is fundamentally archaic and generally associated with octogenarian war veterans, some Bollywood Hindi movies such as Raazi (remember Alia Bhatt, as Sehmat, tapping out messages in Morse Code), eccentric tech geeks and indulgences of the rich and the bored. Amateur radio operators boast of being the original social media practitioners.
Why it should have died?
Apart from the reasons mentioned in the article in The Mirror i.e. lower disposable incomes, longer working hours and the distraction of social media, there are more contextual reasons why the hobby should have petered into obscurity. Since the main goal of the hobby was communication, with the advent of the internet and mobile communication, this has ceased to be a preferred mode of communication. Today, there are far better and more reliable ways of communication at much lower costs with equipment that is far easier to use. But yet ham radio lives on, and in fact thrives in USA. Let us look at some of the reasons why ham radio refuses to die.
Harnessing the Internet
The hobby and its practitioners have successfully reinvented themselves away from obscurity by embracing the internet. Hence you now have the possibility of global contacts (or QSOs as the hams like to call it) with short range VHF contacts through internet over a feature called Echolink. It is an extension of conventional voice modes, particularly FM. EchoLink communicates over the Internet digitally but does not transmit any digital signals over the air.
It involves a VHF radio transmitting normally but being picked up by a repeater connected to the internet. This repeater then transmits via voice over internet protocol and the receiving repeater does the same end and transmits the voice over the VHF frequencies enabling hams at the other end to communicate over their regular walky talkies. So basically, the first and the last parts of the link are actual ham radio links while the middle is over voice over internet. Purists of course say this is not ham, but it is still very popular world over, especially with new hams.
Commercial high frequency (HF) radio sets i.e. the long range radio sets, offer possibility for remote operations i.e. operation even while physically separated from their radio rooms (i.e shacks). This provides a lot of flexibility to the hams especially those travelling. This remote operation is done using mobile phone based apps and the radio set is controlled through these apps via the internet. Think of it as the reverse of what happens in the echolink case. Here the initial part of the communication link is via the internet while the major portion is via the HF radio waves.
Digital modes involve linking the radio sets to computers, typically using the sound cards and sending coded sound signals across the world which are picked up by other hams using the same software (e.g. FT8) to decode the signals and are automatically responded upon by them. Physically, once set up, the radio and computer configuration starts sending signals and receiving them and actually having a text conversation with other hams. This set up does not even need anyone to sit at the shack continuously and monitor the radio like in the voice mode. Note, there is no use of the internet for transmission unlike in Echolink. The entire transmission is over the radio waves. Again, this is also scoffed at by purists, but is very popular nonetheless.
Availability of high quality equipment
In India, ham radio was constricted for many years by the availability of equipment. This gave rise to a community of homebrewers who did wonders with scrap equipment. With the opening up of the economy, the availability of high quality commercial ham equipment increased giving a boost to the hobby.
Availability of locally made equipment
As a result of the homebrew culture in India, especially in Southern India, some hams started making their homebrew radios commercially available. The BitX series of radio made by HF Signals brought a decent low power radio available for less than ₹15k and was lapped up by locals and new hams. Similarly the Airpal series of radios too were locally manufactured.
Popularity of QRP operations
QRP operations refers to operating ham radios with miniscule power outputs i.e. less than 5 watts. These are small radios and can be mistaken for walky talkies, but given the correct location, antenna and time of the day, can provide voice communications over thousands of kilometres. This provides flexibility to hams who want to travel with their equipment and operate from national parks, beaches, mountains and so on. These operations are called e.g. Parks on the air (POTA) or Summits on the air (SOTA) and so on. The thrill of communicating over continents using just a few milliwatts of power is unbelievable.
The amateur radio operators have successfully rebranded their sport to move away from the clichéd emergency communication platform to what they now proudly refer to as a scientific hobby. The growing popularity of STEM education has also boosted the acceptance of this hobby amongst college goers and administrators with many colleges now offering ham clubs as facilities in their infrastructure.
However the existential threat to the hobby remains and unless it continues to constantly reinvent itself, it runs the risk of going into obscurity.
The author is an alumni of the Takshashila Institution, a technophile and a ham.