I recently spoke with David Sumner (K1ZZ), the CEO of the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), at the Dayton Hamvention, the big ham conference held every year in Dayton, Ohio. If you’re a ham, you know about the ARRL, which supports and promotes amateur radio.
The organization is the ham’s interface with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and it lobbies for spectrum and other rights and benefits. It publishes the monthly magazine QST as well as the highly technical QEX magazine, in addition to The ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications and dozens of other ham-related books. The ARRL, around since 1914, now is more than 175,000 members strong and has become a major force in the hobby.
According to Sumner, there are about 3 million hams worldwide, but that number varies depending on how the different countries count the various operator and station licenses. There are roughly 680,000 hams in the U.S. and approximately 500,000 in Japan.
In general, the ham population is growing. Recently, in the U.S., the FCC ended the requirement for passing a code test to get a license. Learning and mastering Morse code has always been the most challenging part of getting a ham license. Over the years, the FCC reduced the code speed requirement, making it easier, but that stumbling block still kept many away. Dropping the code requirement in 2007 resulted in a spurt of new licenses. While a ham can still operate CW, no code test is needed. Most hams use voice communications anyway.
Sumner also indicated that there may be a lull in operation these days, since the spectrum used by hams is now under the influence of the dreaded 11-year sunspot cycle. Sunspots produce radiation that blankets major portions of the high-frequeny spectrum with noise, making communications more difficult. It will diminish shortly, though, creating a much more welcoming ham band.
Another spectrum issue is the overlap of some ham bands with the proliferation of unlicensed wireless devices over the past decade, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and other industrial- scientific-medical (ISM) devices. That means more interference to contend with. And speaking of interference, the ARRL was instrumental in influencing the FCC to change and improve the rules governing broadband over powerline (BPL) systems.
These systems transmit high-speed data over ac powerlines to offer broadband Internet service in competition with cable and DSL. The initial results produced massive radiation from the powerlines that interfered with ham radio operation as well as shortwave-listener (SWL) reception. Thanks to ARRL’s Ed Hare, the electrical utilities have reduced and continue to deal with the interference problem.
Another big effort is the ARRL’s new Emergency Preparedness and Response training program. The amateur radio community has always been a major factor in providing communications in hurricane, earthquake, flood, and other disaster situations. It can do more, but better organization and training are needed these days to coordinate with the many other local and national emergency prep services, like FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. The ARRL now has a new manager assigned to this need.
Sumner also noted a growing interest in the digital transmission modes. A good example is PSK31, which uses a very low-speed binary phase-shift keying (BPSK) signal to transmit data in very narrow channels on the existing ham bands. Instead of a hand key, you use a PC to send and receive messages at low speed. Hams can experiment with dozens of different digital modes.
Amateur satellite communications efforts are also on the rise. It’s easier than ever to transmit and receive through satellites in low earth orbit designed and built by hams. The Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT) designs and launches satellites. You can see the group’s work at www.amsat.org. And, of course, the SDR effort is growing—the ARRL now has an SDR working group.
Overall, the amateur radio hobby is healthy and spreading. As Sumner pointed out, ham radio is still a major source of RF and wireless knowledge and experience. RF communications engineers and techs are always in short supply, but hams are a great starting point. The hobby also provides a fantastic way for younger people to learn about radio and electronics and can ultimately lead to lucrative employment in the field.
For more details about the AARL, check out the group’s extensive Web site and additional resources online at www.arrl.org.