Revisiting Amateur Radio

I took my Radio Amateur’s Exam (RAE) in 1978 – I’d been interested in electronics as a child but I was never going to be able to afford any gear, I thought a technical interest would add a little bit of colour to my application to do Physics at Imperial College. My grandfather had been a radio amateur and he gave me an old homebrew crystalled 2m AM rig. But when I fired it up and my Physics teacher who was a radio ham looked for the signal at his home about 500 yards away there was nothing there, and I didn’t have the skill or gear to know what to do. I had a multimeter but no ‘scope. I could do the RAE, with a general electronics background and revising the licensing terms on the train up from southeast London to City and Guilds which was taken in what the University College London building in Malet Street. Imposing joint, I think it looked like this.

Somewhat doctored form of my old RAE ;)
Somewhat doctored form of my old RAE 😉

I got into Imperial. Didn’t do anything with the pass for over ten years until I came to Suffolk, and there were a few radio amateurs in the group I joined, and I got my amateur licence in 1991 – next year I will be eligible for the QCWA 😉 Initially I used a modified Tait PMR rig on 2m, but getting crystals cut got old quickly because it was dear. I then bought a secondhand FT290. However, I was living only 15m above sea level in the town, and I never got my head round all this propagation malarkey, and not having Morse meant I had to stay 6m and up ISTR. I stuck with 2m and I was never going to be doing this working the world thing without HF[ref]I’ve simplified things a lot – I had technical and engineering skills but no talent for operating[/ref], and was always a second class licensee ‘cuz only Real Men used HF.

The Internet and Amateur radio

Packet radio and the early TCP-IP over KISS modems was interesting and how I learned some of how routeing went. Then the Internet happened and basically ate amateur radio’s lunch, well, what was left of it after GSM mobile and SMS became widespread. It’s difficult for anybody born after 1990 to realise just how poor communications were, but in the end when you want to just get in touch then a modern mobile phone has solved most of the problems amateur radio had uniquely addressed, if we leave out the self training and experimentation lark. Amateur radio had been doing okay with data communications and packet AX-25, but then that Berners-Lee chap invented the Web, and broadband showed up. It looked like game over, and, well, as for so many people, life and work kinda gets in the way.

A different era, and different applications

Recently I had a use for APRS, and I take another look and I like what a new generation have done with amateur radio, they’ve grabbed it by the short and curlies and dragged it into the 21st century, working with modern networking and tech rather than harking back to the golden days of Morse and tubes. I have nothing against Morse or tubes and indeed now that I don’t have to pass Morse to get on HF I am messing about with it.

I read James M0ACQ’s blog about how he went from a standing start to Full Licence in a year. Not only is he doing good stuff with it and indeed some things I may take a fancy to, but there seem to be others doing more with it.

Given it’s over three decades since I passed the RAE I figured I ought to really check that after three decades I was still in with a chance of passing a modern licensing test. I took some hints from James and got a copy of QADV and took it for a spin.

1512_qadvMy average is let down on operating, which isn’t surprising since I have never made a phone contact with someone I didn’t know and was mainly a digital modes guy – I constructed a BSX TNC in the 1990s and experimented on packet and then ran UIView. So I will beware of this and research operating and bandplans before transmitting. But I’m okay on the technical stuff, well, having worked as an electronics engineer for a couple of decades I’d hope so 😉

In the past let’s face it, as a generalisation amateur radio was an old man’s hobby, for the simple reasons that you needed money and you needed time. I’m not the first to have started as a youth, taken a while out and then return to it after finishing work. It is much, much less expensive now – that secondhand FT-290 cost me £220 in 1992 ISTR. It was an upgrade on a previous Tait ex-PMR rig, but getting the crystals cut for the latter made the low cost of entry a bit dearer. That’s over £400 in today’s money. Even the Tait rig cost me £12, about £24 in today’s money and then I needed to get crystals cut. You can now go on ebay and buy a Baofeng 2m FM handy for about thirty quid these days brand new. I thought about whether it was worth it when I pulled out my FT290 to recommission it and it came up all scratchy as the electrolytic capacitors repolarised, and the relay needed some work.

My FT290, most of the dings were put on it by the previous owner
My FT290, most of the dings were put on it by the previous owner

I did fix it and test out modulation into a dummy load, because it seems wasteful to just scrap a rig because of laziness, and it does SSB and CW. But I have to find a frequency reference to check that it is still on frequency after 30 years and/or adjust as necessary, and replace the memory backup battery.

But to do radio well you do still need time. However, having recently come across SOTA and WAB I figured that now I have more time I could have some fun with radio, keep fit, see some new bits of the British countryside and indeed track progress back home – although you shouldn’t address third parties with the UK regs is open to everyone to see the unconnected broadcasts and is legit even with UK restrictions – as would indeed be simply monitoring the signals off the radio with a scanner.

What has massively moved on is that amateur radio seems to have finally stopped looking back at the halcyon days  – as roughly summarised in Ward Silver’s 2015 DCC ‘Amateur radio, now what?’  presentation. At one time it seemed that the response to the Internet was going to be what’s termed ‘radio sport‘ – contesting, a topic that leaves me totally cold at the moment [ref]contesting seems to polarise views – I have no problems with it, it’s just not my thing but good luck to you if it is![/ref]. SOTA has some aspects of sport, of course, but without the frenzy.

Looks like people have sorted a few things out in the intervening 20 years, like APRS

The APRS-IS, for instance, makes the APRS network a lot more usable in the field by working positively with the Internet, as opposed to the ranks of grizzled old hands grousing ‘it’s not radio’. Things like the Raspberry Pi and PICs make digital modes easier – faced with the choice of gassing up my old BSX TNC  and running direwolf on a Pi it was a no brainer – the BSX is the old way, direwolf works better, it’s more capable and the Pi could do a load of other stuff. There’s innovation and it’s exciting again, and amateur radio is all a damn sight cheaper now. What’s not to like? Congratulations to all the people who took something I thought was moribund in the Internet age and dragged it into the modern world.


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