Awww geeze, not another blog!

Welcome to A Fine Blade!

This blog will focus one of my lifelong passions and one of man's most basic tools - the knife!

As time and events permit we'll tiptoe into other territory where we can use the knife as a metaphor in discussions about current events and have a little politically incorrect fun.

Because you see, knives rank just below guns as the most politically incorrect subject on the web today.

Guns & Knives = Bad. Gay Marriage & Recreational Drug Use = Good

We'll see if we can't have some fun with that.

So stay tuned, and welcome aboard!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Ham Radio - A Decade On

About a month or so ago I started getting back in to Amateur (Ham) Radio. This renewed interest in the hobby was triggered by an innocent question from a long time friend and fellow Ham, who asked if I'd been on the air lately. After I told him that no, it's been a long while since I've been on the air I asked myself "just why haven't you been on the air?"

I've been a licensed Amateur Radio operator since 1995. I got my Technician-class ticket (KC5YNP) while stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. There were a few repeaters in the Killeen/Copperas Cove area that I enjoyed chatting on. One was a closed repeater run by a used car salesman. For $10/year you'd get use of the repeater and phone patch capability. At a time when cell phones were just coming on the market the ability to make a free phone call from a handheld radio was actually a neat and useful function. I bought a Radio Shack HTX-202 handheld transceiver and would take it to the field and let my Soldiers make phone patch calls back home during long field exercises. At our house on base I stuck a cheap 2 meter ground plane antenna up in the air on a piece of PVC pipe lashed to a fence and using a signal amplifier I was reliably hitting repeaters in Austin, over 60 miles away.

One ominous afternoon in 1997 my wife and I stood in our back yard and watched a nasty looking cloud formation move south past our house. To this day that is the ugliest storm system I've ever seen. We gathered up the kids and dogs and got them inside and I fired up my radio and just listened. The storm system passed us by, but 30 miles to the south it put an F5 tornado on the ground that wiped the town of Jarrell off the map. It was literally gone - if you were not underground when the storm hit you were dead. As I listened, the Amateur Radio repeaters within earshot were lighting up with reports from weather observers and storm chasers describing the ugliness and intensity of the storm and the fact that there was a huge tornado on the ground that was sweeping away everything in its path. It was fascinating - morbidly fascinating - to listen in as the realization of what had happened unfolded live over the radio. I was hooked.

About a year later the Army moved me and my family to Germany and all the radio gear went into storage. In 2000 we found ourselves back in the US, living just south of Atlanta. On one lazy spring afternoon I pulled out my trusty old HTX-202, found the settings for a local repeater in an old copy of the ARRL Repeater Directory and threw out my callsign. I was amazed when the acknowledgements came flooding back over the radio. In Texas it was common to sit on a repeater frequency for an hour or more and not hear any activity. Here in Georgia there were what seemed to be a half dozen or more folks on the local repeaters at all hours of the day and night. I didn't realize it at the time, but I had plopped myself and my family right smack in the middle of one of the most active Amateur Radio scenes in the southeastern US!

In short order I went out and earned my General-class ticket, giving me access to the high frequency radio bands that provide the real fun in Amateur Radio, built up an impressive 'shack' full of HF/VHF/UHF gear that allowed me to talk (literally) around the world and got deeply involved in the local Amateur Radio scene, ending up as the president of the local radio club. I even petitioned the FCC to reassign me my late father-in-law's callsign (W8BYH).

Then life got in the way. I changed jobs, put kids in college, found myself taking on other responsibilities in other areas and I found myself burned out on Amateur Radio. Slowly, bit-by-bit, I dismantled my gear and put it in storage. The antennas came down during home renovations but never went back up. The final blow came when I sold my old Ford Ranger pickup and had to pull all the radio gear out of it. The gear never made the transition into my new F-150. I had gone silent.

Now almost a full decade later my interest is coming back. I've spent the last month or so just poking around the Amateur Radio scene to gauge what's changed. I think what's surprised me most is what hasn't changed. The old repeaters are still working on the same old frequencies with the same tones and offsets. Most of the same equipment manufacturers are still making the same old radios with the same old features. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is still the single most influential voice in Amateur Radio, still seems the place to go to follow all the Amateur Radio discussions, you still go to to look up callsigns and MFJ still means 'mighty fine junk' (just kidding!). In many ways it's like all I did was take a 20 minute nap.

But in reality things have changed, some for the better, some for the worse:

  • Amateur Radio as a hobby/service still seems to be on the decline. In the age of the cheap smartphone, where any kid with a data plan can instantaneously call or text their friends around the world, this isn't a bit surprising. After all, you actually have to work and study to get an Amateur Radio license, and who wants to do that when you can't even get the latest updates on the Kardashians over that noisy, hard to use radio. (Does this mean Amateur Radio is irrelevant? NO - it just means we are dealing with changes in culture and expectations and perhaps need to do a better job of 'selling' Amateur Radio and what it offers.)
  • Ten-Tec is gone. I was (and still am) a huge Ten-Tec radio fan, even taking the time one weekend to attend their annual open house/hamfest in Sevierville, Tennessee. Their Jupiter radio was the centerpiece of my high-frequency station or 'shack'. The word on the internet is that the owners wanted to retire and had trouble finding a buyer, and the buyer they did find has been dragging his feet in getting the Amateur Radio side of the Ten-Tec line back into production. So much for a well thought out succession plan. My quandary now is, do I trade in my orphaned (but still capable) Ten-Tec gear for something more modern or do I hang on to it in the hopes it increases in value enough to contribute significantly to my 401K?
  • Just as surprising, while Ten-Tec has faded away there still seems to be a fairly strong Amateur Radio manufacturing base in the US. Amateur Radio is a very niche market and there's not a lot of market room for manufacturers, but companies like Elecraft seem to be doing quite well.
  • It's quiet and lonely out there. As I said earlier in this post, when I moved to the Atlanta area the local repeater scene was very active, with lots of local Amateurs hanging out and chatting virtually 24 hours/day. Today those same repeaters are all but dead quiet. I've had my multi-band VHF/UHF radio monitoring almost constantly for the past two days and all I hear are the automated repeater IDs. It appears that, like me, so many others have left the hobby or, sadly, have passed away.
  • True digital modes on VHF/UHF. When I left the hobby there was a lot of discussion starting up about the introduction of true digital communication modes in the VHF/UHF bands (as opposed to digital data carried on analog signals, like APRS or Packet). The portions of the VHF/UHF spectrum allocated to Amateur Radio were becoming increasingly crowded and in many regions it was becoming difficult to find repeater frequencies and tones that didn't interfere with other repeaters. Everyone knew digital was coming - it's just more efficient. The question 10 years ago was, which digital standard? It seems that the D-STAR standard developed by the Japanese Amateur Radio League has won the day. It's an open standard (meaning anyone can adopt it) and seems robust and well supported. There's a D-STAR repeater just down the road from me and it looks like I'll have to give it a try.
  • Speaking of the Japanese, the big four Amateur Radio manufacturers - Icom, Kenwood, Yaesu and Alinco - seem to be going strong. In my opinion these four manufacturers are singularly responsible for keeping Amateur Radio alive around the world. They offer extremely well designed, world-class equipment that is very affordable. I suspect these manufacturers don't make a lot of money in Amateur Radio manufacturing (all of them are big-time commercial telecommunications systems manufacturers), and may actually lose money on this side of the business. But since many of them got their start making radio gear for American and European ham radio operators in the 1950's & 60's and I think they stay in the market as a way to honor their roots.
  • Like just about everywhere else in the manufacturing world, the Chinese have stuck their noses under the Amateur Radio tent and are now making what seem to be very capable transceivers at rock bottom prices. This has to really be hurting the Japanese manufacturers. 
  • Shortwave. In addition to Amateur Radio, I was a fairly active shortwave listener. Shortwave monitoring and Amateur Radio have always been very tightly intertwined. I'd spend hours tuning in broadcasts from Radio Havana, BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, Radio Netherlands, the Voice of America, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and more (my Ten-Tec Jupiter was also an outstanding general coverage shortwave receiver). I'm saddend to find that the Internet has all but wiped out many of these excellent shortwave services. I understand that shortwave broadcasting costs money and that delivering programming via the internet is much cheaper. But compared to shortwave broadcasting, the digital architecture that delivers that programming to the end user via the Internet is much more expensive and fragile. And regardless of what Google likes to claim, Internet service is NOT ubiquitous and won't be for a long, long time (if it ever does happen). On top of that, when a major disaster like an earthquake or hurricane strikes a 'developed region' the Internet is one of the first things to go dark. That's why aid organizations still hand out thousands of inexpensive self-powered radios every year. Radio - particularly AM and shortwave - just works, and keeps working in the worst of situations.

My new 'shack' in its very luxurious surroundings

So now that I'm re-entering the hobby where do I go from here? I'm still trying to figure that out, but for now I've got a bunch of gear to sort through, radios to test, wire antennas to untangle and battery packs to recharge. Hopefully I'll see you on the radio sometime soon!.

Stay sharp & 73!