Ham Radio Needs To Embrace The Hacker Community Now More Than Ever

As many a radio amateur will tell you, ham radio is a hobby with as many facets as there are radio amateurs. It should be an exciting and dynamic place to be, but as those who venture forth into it sometimes sadly find out, it can be anything but. Tightly-knit communities whose interests lie in using $1,000 stations to chase DX (long-distance contacts), an advancing age profile, and a curious fascination of many amateurs with disaster communications. It’s something [Robert V. Bolton, KJ7NZL] has sounded off about in an open letter to the amateur radio community entitled “Ham Radio Needs To Embrace The Hacker Community Now More Than Ever“.

In it he laments that the influx in particular of those for whom disaster preparedness is the reason for getting a licence is to blame for amateur radio losing its spark, and he proposes that the hobby should respond by broadening its appeal in the direction of the hacker community. The emphasis should move from emergency communications, he says, and instead topics such as software defined radio and digital modes should be brought to the fore. Finally he talks about setting up hacker specific amateur radio discussion channels, to provide a space in which the talk is tailored to our community.

Given our experience of the amateur radio community we’d be bound to agree with him. The hobby offers unrivalled opportunity for analogue, mixed-signal, digital, and software tinkering in the finest tradition of the path set by the early radio amateurs around a hundred years ago, yet it sometimes seems to have lost its way for people like us. It’s something put into words a few years ago by our colleague Dan Maloney, and if you’re following [KJ7NZL]’s path you could do worse than read Dan’s long-running $50 ham series from the start.

Via Hacker News.

Header image: Unknown author, Public domain.

236 thoughts on “Ham Radio Needs To Embrace The Hacker Community Now More Than Ever

  1. As technology changes, so does amateur radio. It is not helpful to claim that YOUR focus in ham radio is the One True Way. I like building small low power gear and antennas, chasing DX and operating “backpack portable” hf while camping. There are dozens of cool “rabbit holes” one can chase down on amateru radio – and you can’t possibly do them all.
    I remember as a kid with a novice license in the ’60’s when many of the old timers complained that novice licensing and SSB was “ruining” ham radio. Those same folks probably heard the same from older ops when they were kids complaining about the move from spark gap (you can find some of this phenomena in this thread). Also, there are some new digital technologies that are totally changing the nature of emergency communications – and providing a practical means of moving large amounts of information via digital tools like FLDIGI and HamWAN; this “old fart” has a dish on my roof that can access a server sending me a 10mbps internet connection from ridgetop top 40 miles away (using the 5 Ghz ham band). Much of this digital tech is being spread and supported by younger computer-geek hams who recently entered the hobby.

  2. Jenny’s post here, and KJ7NZL’s open letter, are a starting points, but neither, prose how the hacker community at largege, can save amateur radio. I have to disagree with, dismissing out of hand any current amateur radio activity, communities die, when conditions, that not needed are created, send people packing. Nothing is really lost if new is introduce. How ever it will take fortitude, to giguratively, to tell the conservatives to piss off, if your operations aren’t violating regulations, or aren’t malicious interference. I have paricipated in some hackchats, they, and comments to hack aday posts are horrible ways to flesh out ideas and issues. Hackaday should conider bring back the forums.
    73 all
    de N0LKK

  3. I received a ham license and have been underwhelmed by the experience. Disaster comms was a primary interest of mine, and now that I’ve learned how to do what I need to do with the equipment that I have I’m content with leaving it in storage for future use. Talking to someone in another city, another state, even another country has never held any appeal for me. I can do that on the phone, by instant message, on a discussion board, or in a chat room. The lack of manualized instruction and the base nature of licensing makes the entire thing seem largely ridiculous to me. I have the license, but three years later couldn’t tell you anything that I “learned” to pass the exam.

  4. You know I love what some of you said but the truth of it is and I have tried if you not in the click no one will help you now tell me I’m wrong and I’ll tell you your fool I was a ham and because I was trying to learn more and every time I asked for help I got told like a little kid go away I don’t have time for this how many people are willing to spend time to help not many and if they ask you say well he’s not willing to learn so enough of the crying and you can get members you should have used the thinking cap first

  5. I think you are on the right track of the hobby being more inclusive, but I think you approach is counterproductive. 3 months ago I was unlicensed and I had seen a video with Hoshnasi and Scout survival. That was a hard core Ham dude and a Hard core apocalypse dude collaborating on a video which convinced me to get my license, largely for preparedness.

    Fast forward to now and I have my amateur extra, built about a dozen antenna’s, have 2 MMDVM hotspots, 13 radios, nanovna’s, 3 SDR’s, 10 arduino’s, 7 raspberry pi’s etc etc. I have learned more this past 3 months than I ever did in college, and it’s just the beginning.

    Prepping opened the door for me and then my tinkering mindset catapulted me into the point of no return. So don’t view the preppers as a threat. Let preppers prep, and then use that as a linchpin to recruit Hackers. Or better yet, create a video convincing preppers that they may need to use and RTL-SDR dongle to gain access to vehicles, and such, during the apocalypse. If there are 10 hackers in the 100 preppers who came into the hobby from an influential video, then you are up by 10, and preppers are up by 100. It’s not a zero sum game.

    Both your article and the one you referenced sound like hardcore Metallica fans who got butthurt over the Black Album. It’s the wrong stance to take. They should have been happy that more people were exposed to their favorite band, not upset that their band “sold out” or whatever.



  6. I have been a ham since I was 19. I’m over 60 now. I have never found Emergency Communications to be the point of my operations in that time. I have certainly participated in emergencies when it was reasonable for me to do so. I think spending one’s entire hobby time preparing and practicing for limited scenarios to be off-putting. People get into hobbies to have fun, to be creative, to show something for their creativity, to make friends and to feel useful. Doing the same thing over and over again doesn’t work. One has to push the limits.

    My particular aspect of the hobby for about a third of my last 40+ years has been to build groups of people to work on a technical challenge. I’ve worked on repeater linking, and packet radio linking projects. Not just building my own station, but creating recipes for building stations, and helping others built onto a network. My current project is to build a ham radio chat network to discuss ham radio and to advance the software and hardware art used for chat networks over ham radio. We have a 60+ mile wide chat network with 32 network switches in 6 counties across central North Carolina. With the software talent already invested in our network and on-line on the chat every day, we’re pushing the state of the art, gaining capabilities and reducing the cost and complexity of building the network.

    Are we working on emergency operations? No. Are we practicing emergency operations? Not really. Are we developing a resource useful for a real emergency? Absolutely, for some scenarios at least. Are we learning? Socializing? Building something to show for our creativity? Absolutely!

    I think those who come off of getting their Tech license and who find our project, are very happy that they got their ham license.

    I think every ham, new and old, should work with groups of hams to do large group projects. This is certainly one of the places where the fun is.

    Check us out on the various Internet media if you like “NCPACKET” and “TARPN”. You won’t find a connection to our network from the Internet. You have to do it on ham radio. If we connected it to the Internet, it would quickly become a last-mile support for Internet. Internet doesn’t need our support. We’re building our own network, and if you want, so can you. Our recipe is on TARPN dot net. Terrestrial Amateur Radio Packet Network.

    73 de Tadd, KA2DEW

  7. Lots to say. I have been licensed for 50 years. This is not a new debate, and the demise of amateur radio has been predicted periodically during that time. The truth is that the system bends, but has not and will not break.

    My current interests, and where they have always been is in the conversations and relationships. I have never been a big hacker in the way you use the term. Despite this orientation I am still happy that I learned code as part of a ritual of joining the club. A right of passage so to speak. In general the utility and value of “rights of passage” have been devalued over time. Similarly it is good that I had to learn the schematic for a Colpitts oscillator, etc. I might have never used it but I knew it once and could access the knowledge and/or discuss it intelligently with another ham. Again, this was all about “earning” your ticket and commonality of experience as a bonding experience and rite of initiation. I doubt that many of you travelled to an FCC field office, trembling, to send and receive CW at 20 WPM and seeing your exam manually corrected. Again a blast from the past but experiences I enjoyed and valued.

    The commonly held belief was that the FCC supported and ran the amateur service BECAUSE of our potential for emergency communications. No matter how the hobby evolves that is still a bedrock of the value we provide as a giveback for the privilege of being a ham.

    Lastly, I just came back to the hobby after a 20-30 year absence. I am now able to share it with my son. He is the hacker, I am the user. We are both fine and there is a place for both of us here. Always will be.

    Lastly, look kindly at the OM’s in your acquaintance. The intersection of the radio and the computer is a fundamental change, and for some of us intimidating, but we need to adapt, learn and move forward. My personal opinion is that I am not interested in those aspects of the hobby which utilize the Internet rather than wave propagation. To me, this seems more like a group computer call than radio. That is exactly my point. Pull up a chair and take what you like from the buffet of the hobby. Over time you may give up your comfort zone and try other aspects of the hobby. At our heart though we are all public servants.

    73’s and happy holidays.


  8. Somewhat agree with Jenny though don’t underrate the emergency/disaster folks: when the cell towers go down it is nothing but pandamonia without communications. Not saying that the movie “Independence Day” captures it but ya get the idea.

    I had a Novice ticket as a kid and am now working on a General. I do data science for a living.

    Amateur Radio is SOOO so big – a knowledge domain that touches everywhere. The majority of the engineers that brought us cell phones were hams who first had built out ham packet relay communications. Why do hackers and hams get bogged down in the politics of ARRL and others? WHO CARES. Use the spectrums, or the (rapidly changing) fed govt will indeed take it away. Use it, or lose it. Here are some edgy boundaries of ham radio and RF:
    * SDR: this is crazy awesome technology at any spending level you desire starting at $25, with digital integrations. Or hack a wifi router cause that’s what it uses (quadrature math)
    * Radio Astronomy – Gee, how to use amateur radio moon-bounce and sattelite methods, technologies and avail. spectrums with synchronizing sat clock signals to assemble data from largely spanned geo-locations to apply DS algorithms? Where is this community? Like LOFAR
    * IOT: the world is analog. Get used to that hard reality. The planet is not created within the platonic abstract framework of our man-made digital language constructs. Ears, eyes, skin touch, RF transmitters/ receivers, laser, LED, heat, whatever – all are perceived as or via sensors (receiver) or transmitters. Have you ever hacked a (neighbor’s) wifi IOT device? real fun
    * Anonymous communications! – radio communications, (think omni direction RF broadcast or beam) can be RECEIVED anonymously. Think about that. Think some more. The internet infra is logged and auditable. RF DX or local is anonymous reception (and maybe transmission too if you are clever and mobile). This of course would be handy if you were part of say a ‘resistance’ to a totalitarian regime that has just taken over your country. [ I’m only ‘speculating’ an example, not like that could ever happen in the good ‘ol USA. (cough)

    1. Hi-I didn’t understand most of your references, but that is on me, not you. It illustrates the point though that we all have more to learn, and to try.

      Please tell me what “IOT” is though.

  9. The kids always were and always will be our future. What do we do as a HAM community to bring kids into the hobby? HAM radio is not only disaster communication and contesting, but also romantics of the unexpected, the sound of ever changing natural forces, learning and discovery. We need to organize children radio clubs teaching electronics, radio, antennas, you name it.

  10. People aren’t going to join a dying hobby with the intent of saving it. They have to have an interest in it, and generally that’s going to come from being able to do something fun with it.

    I think the problem with ham radio is that there’s not a whole lot that you can do that can’t be done better and more easily in other ways.

    I have my basic operator Cert (Canada. Not sure how it compares elsewhere), but have never used a radio.
    At the time I got my license, I was mostly interested in trying out some packet radio stuff, mostly to chat or play games with friends, and have an “always on” connection with multiple people without tying up the phone line, etc.
    That was something cool that I could do that didn’t have a great alternative at the time.
    Since then, those things have been replaced with always-on internet where I can idle in an IRC channel with my friends, and new friends all over the world, and gab and/or talk tech about whatever projects we’re working on, etc.

    Using amateur radio to talk to strangers seems kind of obsolete. I can spend a few hundred (or much more) on equipment, and be able to talk to some old guys that I don’t have much in common with, or I can hop on the internet on the computer that I already have, and have access to _many_ more people who aren’t almost all just the same old farts.

    I’m still interested in radio from a purely technical standpoint, and it would be cool to understand, and build radios from scratch, just to see them work, and learn from it, but it seems to me that there’s not a lot of people into that kind of thing anymore. Most modern day “hacking” seems to be people buying a module that does what they want to do, and hooking it up to an arduino/pi.

    So I don’t know how much I’ll ever get around to doing. Building some very basic cheap radios just to learn would be fun, but I do need to get my advanced license to make that legal, and need to fit it around my other projects, which admittedly probably all have more of a payoff, in that they do something fun/useful in addition to the learning along the way.

  11. Ham radio is a hard sell.

    You basically have to study a book for each license which is equivalent to a 2 or 3 credit college course for a radio that I won’t build because I favor commercial products.
    I saw an EMP device to protect radios from lightning. No way in the world would I want to build my own and fail which could have negative consequences. Make manufacturers responsible for some of the laws to make it easier for people to get licensed without having to learn 3 college courses.

    What am I going to do with ham radio? I get Fm radio and Noaa weather radio stations.

    I listen to my local radio station and while it was exciting to see my radio come alive, no one else is talking on the bands except radio clubs.

    I am not a trophy in their belt where there are contests to make another contest. I desire real conversation for people who really are interested in talking.

    Legislation is basically restricting this hobby to a premature death.

    1. I don’t believe it has anything to do with regulation. The biggest barrier to licensing, learning code, was eliminated. The biggest barrier is the same as has affected all of the other hobbies of old…..coins, stamps, model building, etc. There are just too many things, many considered more “exciting” competing for peoples’ time. The computer in my view has been a detriment to the hobby making it less possible to understand how the radios work, and the complexity of modern electronics has made it more difficult to DIY, both building and fixing. Much of digital radio seems like making a cell phone call. At the risk of sounding absolutely ancient, I miss turning a dial a millimeter in each direction to hear that faint signal.

      Personally, I just got back to the hobby after decades away. I would love to be on HF however difficult to put up a suitable antenna or run coax in a suburban home. The repeaters are mostly devoid of people or if not those talking seem to know each other well and it is tough to “break in” as a newbie. I am waiting for the local club(s) to start meeting again and hopefully feel more comfortable on the repeaters.

      1. Rich is Spot-On. Ham Radio is both a beneficiary and a casualty of a new era (The way it always has been.) The key is not to be “reactive”. Keep the hobby, eliminate Fees and encourage youth, e.g. by requiring a Ham license in H.S. and college physics courses. 73. Ned W4NED (ex-n3sgd.)

    2. And you miss the point. The testing is because it’s a technical hobby, it’s the least restrictive radio service. Entry has been dumbed down, precisely because “I just want to talk on the radio” has taken over.

      This is a seemingly technical site, so it makes sense that there might be people interested in radio as technology. An end in itself, not a means of doing something. Yet the comments are “radio is hard”, “I don’t want to build”, whatever.

  12. The issue I here is that the Hacker community needs to make more effort to embrace the Amateur radio community. Do the research. Amateur radio operators were the original Hackers along with the folks that created the means for radio to exist in the first place.

  13. this is my take on the subject… and your mileage may vary.
    ham radio has taken the route of hotrodding, wherein those that are in the “group” generally buy everything they need to participate, and rarely build anything.

    gone are the days where one sat down with a set of plans and ordered the parts, or scrounged them from where ever he/she could, and what parts he/she couldn’t find, they sat down and figured out how to either work around, or build the part needed.

    when was the last time you went to a car show only to find 90% or them are trailer queens! every part ordered and assembled by someone else. the engine was build by “joe’s speed shop”, the trans order from “speedy shift”, wiring from some specialty shop, interior and paint from others, all assembled by some other contractor shop. oh yes, lest we forget we need an enclosed car hauler, we sure don’t want our baby getting dusty or damp!

    on the are occasion you see an actual owner built machine, from the ground up, using all sorts of scrounged up parts, maybe even a rustoleum paint job, mexican blanket upholstery, and sat back and say “wow” what have we here?

    to me that is the problem with ham radio, it is no different from other hobbies, 90% of those folks simply go out and buy whatever has the most advertising dollars spent, “oh shiny” it must be good.

    we have lost a lot starting maybe 40-50 years ago, when folks started to have more expendable income, when we stopped having to think, and learn, and just reach for the plastic card and go home with our new toy thinking “look at me”.

    if ham, hotrodding or any other of the countless hobbies are to have a resurgence, it will come with spurring the curiosity of the younger kids, and help them find the resources to do for themselves, and learn the satisfaction of having done it themselves, rather than simply spending money.

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