Yaesu VX-8DR handheld transceiver

Yaesu VX-8DR transceiver, image from www.ka1mzy.com

On previous personal blogs, I’ve written about my love/hate relationship with amateur radio (AKA “ham” radio). I’ve had a FCC amateur radio license (KC0EZH) since the late 1990’s, and during that time I’ve done some fun things like contact the space shuttle. I used to talk to my Dad on my morning commute to downtown Denver back in those days, and that was a fun way to get comfortable with talking on the radio while keeping in touch with the folks. But now I find that I’m using ham radio less and less, and I’m not alone.

This morning I turned on my little handheld transceiver (a Yaesu VX-8DR) and guess what I heard? Absolutely nothing, except the required automated messages from the repeater every ten minutes or so. No conversations, nobody asking about traffic conditions, not even the local pundits talking politics.

Why do I bring this up? Back at the end of the 20th Century, I could turn on a ham radio on the 2m or 70cm bands and here chatter all day long. Most of it wasn’t worth listening to, but at least people were using their radios.

What’s killed the VHF/UHF radio bands? It’s easy — when you can buy an iPhone 5s for $199 that is basically a friggin’ supercomputer in your palm, with a user interface that’s simple to understand, a wealth of available apps, and the capability to do much more than a much more expensive VHF/UHF radio can do, why the hell does someone what to buy the more expensive, less capable device?

For example, back in the early 2000s I used a handheld transceiver and a GPS unit to enable APRS (Automatic Position Reporting System) and let my wife track my position on a computer while I was bike riding. Now? I do the same thing with Glympse on my iPhone, and it doesn’t take a computer for Barb to see where I am.

The user interfaces on most modern ham radios are awful. With the exception of some software-defined radios that unfortunately usually require running Windows, what you can expect is to push a bunch of tiny buttons and roll little scroll wheels to go through a list of almost indecipherable menu choices. And that’s usually on a tiny monochrome LCD display, at least for the handheld devices.

I have to admit that I haven’t gotten into the really cool part of ham radio — using the longer wavelength bands to communicate over long distances. There’s a very good reason for that: my neighborhood has restrictive covenants that prohibit large antenna arrays on houses. I suppose I could be stealthy about it — there are a number of websites that have specific articles about how to hide long and big antennas from sight — but I’ve just never had the desire to do that.

If I want to talk to someone overseas, I can use my Mac, iPad or iPhone, pull up Skype, and make a free video call. I don’t have to use Morse Code (yes, a lot of hams still love this low-power way of communicating), nor do I have to put a big freakin’ antenna outside my house. I’ve made a number of friends overseas through the wonders of Skype and other free audio and video streaming systems.

By this point you’re probably wondering why anyone would even participate in the amateur radio hobby. There are people who love doing low-power distance work (called QRP) to see how far they can communicate with as little power as possible. There are others who find that they like to help out emergency services and weather spotters through ARES (the Amateur Radio Emergency Service), and still more hams who like to contact people through amateur satellite communications. For me, though, it’s a lack of time that keeps me from trying things like these — and that’s why the hobby seems to be so skewed towards retired people…

There is one little thing I’d like to try, though. It requires a ham license and a Raspberry Pi single-board computer, and consists of setting up a beacon that can be used by other hams to determine listening conditions on various bands. Called WSPR, this could be a fun way to use my Raspberry Pi and hopefully do some long-distance ham radio without having to actually go through a lot of work.