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Ham Radio? Is That Still A Thing?

Someone noticed an Amateur Radio logo I was wearing and asked the question, adding that a relative had been a “Ham” once upon a time, but does “Ham Radio” really still exist because “Didn’t cell phones do away with all that?” 

That misconception is not unusual and with good reason. For the general public, communication has always focused on reaching out to friends and relatives or for business reasons. Why would anyone go to all the work to set up a radio station and an antenna just to do that? 

Of course, that was never the reason for a Ham to set up a station. Ham’s use their cell phones just like everyone else. They use their personal radio stations for other reasons. In fact, Amateur Radio stations are licensed by the federal government for specific Services (Emergency communications, advancing radio technology, radio “art,” providing a pool of trained communications experts, and advancing international goodwill.).

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Some of those, in fact most, sound serious, and they are. So why is Ham Radio usually spoken of as a hobby? Well…. it is…. sorta. The real genius of Ham Radio is the way each of the FCC Service functions has evolved into its own fun-to-do activity. Let’s take the example of Emergency Communications. 

Emergency Communications imply the ability to provide communications services when normal infrastructure support (cell phone/landline/residential electrical power) has all been swept away (hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, landslides, floods, forest fires, etc.). The Ham needs to set up his/her radio, an independent power source (battery/solar cells/generator, etc.), and a suitable antenna and contact stations outside the “crater,” as one of my friends puts it. 

In the early days of Ham Radio, amateur radio clubs got together and designated the 4th full weekend in June as “Field Day,” when the members would gather for two days of setting up equipment away from their normal station locations and spend 24 straight hours making as many contacts as possible on the bands of their choice. Of course, this also involves the families of the licensed operators, and the entire weekend becomes a social gathering along with the serious side of verifying equipment functionality and developing operator skills. This tradition goes on every year with several hundred radio clubs around the USA, Canada and Mexico taking part.

About 10-12 years ago, a genius Ham in Great Britain began going to local high points with his equipment and making contacts. This became Summits on the AIR or SOTA, which evolved into an ongoing contest among Hams from every country. Not to be outdone, Hams in more vertically challenged countries stepped up and created Parks on the Air or POTA. In this version, Hams visit identified State and Federal parks to set up and exercise their equipment and develop their contacting skills. Now, every day of the year, we find different stations competing with each other to see how many contacts they can make, all under the same conditions that would prevail in an actual emergency. Of course it is fun, but serious fun. 

So, if Ham radio is still “a thing,” just how many people are really involved in this activity? Currently, available numbers indicate that there are more than 700,000 Ham in the USA and over 3,000,000 worldwide! 

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I think it is safe to say that Ham radio is still alive and well.

kw N8FNC

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