I’m asked why amateur radio survives, why it remains vital 102 years after the first domestic amateur radio club was founded—considering how cell phones are ubiquitous. Actually, ham radio has just entered a new age of growth: There are 308 million Americans in total, more than 700,000 of whom now have amateur radio licenses, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In other words, one in approximately every 450 Americans is a ham!
Whereas cell phones limit conversations to merely two speakers (except for expensive conference calls), radio provides efficient communications among multiple people. Radio transmits to anyone within range, and though it certainly isn’t the best medium for private conversations, ham radio enables on-air air chat rooms for coordinating responses to emergencies and managing events. For example, the Cal Poly Amateur Radio Club (CPARC) provided communications and logistics support at the SLO GranFondo Cycling Event. When one of the rest stops ran short of orange slices to feed riders, our net control operator quickly polled the other stops, found a group with oranges, and arranged for a course vehicle to have them delivered. The whole process took less than a minute—about the time it would have taken to look up the number for one rest-stop captain, make a call, hope for an answer, and move on to the next possibility.
Thousands of amateur radio operators pitch in nationally every year at such events—including the Boston Marathon and the Race Across America—providing communications for public health, safety, and enjoyment. Close to home, hams provide communications for the San Luis Obispo Bicycle Club Wildflower and Lighthouse Centuries, Templeton Wine and Roses Century, and notably the Wildflower Triathlons at Lake San Antonio. CPARC has provided communications support for the Wildflower Triathlons for more than a decade and is the logistics backbone that allows the 30,000-person event to run smoothly, which is impossible to do with cell phones.
Thousands of hams volunteer for emergency communications services, training weekly to maintain efficient teams and systems that can jump into action when disasters strike. Recent disasters underscore how vulnerable the modern communications systems we ordinarily rely on can be. After the terrible earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, amateur radio was the primary communication link to the most seriously damaged zones. When satellite-phone, cell-phone, and Internet infrastructures fail, amateur radio is on hand to provide effective communications. The San Luis Obispo Emergency Communications Centers were activated at Morro Bay and at Cal Poly immediately following the March earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunami along the West Coast. Communications operators in Morro Bay worked closely with local law enforcement to provide links between the cities, while the Cal Poly Center passed first-hand swell reports from Morro Bay to the nationwide Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN). Amateur Radio is also being used by volunteer organizations in such developing nations as Kenya and Ghana to provide Internet service and e-mail, where the existing communications infrastructure is severely inadequate or simply nonexistent.
Amateur Radio is an amazing resource for educating the next generation of engineers. At Cal Poly, CPARC, along with the Electrical Engineering Department, developed a Freshman Licensing Initiative to help a record number of students pass tests to earn FCC licenses, truly enabling them to learn electronics, radio, and communications by doing. Since 2009, CPARC has helped license more than 300 ham radio operators, giving them access to a huge part of the radio spectrum and the freedom and knowledge to experiment, learn, tinker, and develop the next generation of communications technology. Countless students have used amateur radio in their senior projects, and the practical, hands-on skills they learn from the hobby give them a big advantage in today's tough job market. Whether students build their own transmitters and antennas or learn about direction finding with special antennas, amateur radio helps them learn first-hand about electronics and develop as knowledgeable engineers.
When Heinrich Hertz first demonstrated radio waves in 1887, he could never have imagined how important his work would become. Today, there are radios in cell phones, laptops, wireless mice, wireless telephones, cars, trains, space stations, and even light switches. Amateur radio operators continue to be at the forefront of technical development (check out descriptions of WSJT software for weak-signal communications) and provide a vital medium for community and emergency communications. ∆
Marcel Stieber, a graduate student in electrical engineering at Cal Poly, holds an extra-class amateur radio license, call sign AI6MS. He’s a volunteer examiner for the American Radio Relay League. Garrett Dong KI6YML, Justin Kenny KJ6KST, Glen Bruner KJ6MNL, and John Chen KI6QDF contributed to the commentary. Send comments to the opinion editor via email@example.com.