Amateur radio, also known as ham radio, is a hobby and service that involves the use of radio equipment to communicate with other radio amateurs for public service, recreation, or self-training. Amateur radio operators, or hams, have access to specific frequency bands allocated by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and regulated by national authorities. In the UK, the Radio Society of Great Britain (RSGB) is the national association for amateur radio enthusiasts and represents their interests to the government and the public.
Amateur radio has a long and rich history in the UK, dating back to the early days of radio experimentation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of the pioneers of radio technology, such as Guglielmo Marconi, James Clerk Maxwell, and Oliver Lodge, were British or worked in Britain. The first amateur radio licences were issued in the UK in 1905, and the RSGB was founded in 1913. Since then, amateur radio has played an important role in scientific discovery, innovation, education, emergency communication, and social interaction.
However, amateur radio also faces many challenges and uncertainties in the 21st century. The rapid development of digital technologies, such as software-defined radio (SDR), internet-linked repeaters, and digital voice and data modes, has opened up new possibilities and opportunities for amateur radio, but also raised questions about its identity, purpose, and relevance. The increasing demand for spectrum from commercial and public users has put pressure on the allocation and protection of amateur bands. The ageing and declining population of hams has raised concerns about the future of the hobby and its ability to attract and retain younger generations.
In this text, I will explore some of these issues and discuss how amateur radio can adapt and thrive in the changing world.
One of the main issues facing amateur radio is the impact of digital technologies on its practice and culture. Digital technologies have enabled new ways of communicating and experimenting with radio that were not possible or practical before. For example, SDR allows users to manipulate radio signals using software rather than hardware, making it easier and cheaper to access and explore different bands and modes. Internet-linked repeaters allow users to communicate with other hams around the world without relying on propagation conditions or expensive equipment. Digital voice and data modes offer improved audio quality, error correction, encryption, and multimedia capabilities.
However, digital technologies also pose some challenges and dilemmas for amateur radio. Some hams argue that digital modes are not real radio because they rely on computer networks rather than direct radio waves. Some hams worry that digital modes are eroding the skills and knowledge required for traditional radio operation, such as Morse code proficiency, antenna design, and propagation prediction. Some hams fear that digital modes are reducing the social aspect and camaraderie of amateur radio by enabling anonymous and impersonal communication.
These arguments reflect different views and values among hams about what constitutes amateur radio and what makes it enjoyable and worthwhile. Some hams embrace digital technologies as a way of enhancing and expanding their hobby, while others resist them as a threat to their hobby’s identity and integrity. There is no clear consensus or resolution to these debates, but they illustrate the diversity and dynamism of amateur radio as a hobby that can accommodate different interests, preferences, and styles.
Another issue facing amateur radio is the competition for spectrum from other users. Spectrum is a finite and valuable resource that is essential for various applications and services, such as mobile phones, television, radio broadcasting, satellite communication, navigation systems, military operations, and scientific research. As the demand for spectrum increases, so does the pressure on regulators to allocate and manage it efficiently and fairly.
Amateur radio has a privileged status in spectrum allocation as a non-commercial service that is recognized by the ITU as having scientific, educational, and cultural value. However, this status is not guaranteed and may be challenged by other users who claim greater social or economic benefits from using the spectrum. Therefore, amateur radio needs to justify its spectrum use by demonstrating its contribution to society and innovation, as well as its efficient and responsible use of the resource.
In the UK, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) is the regulator responsible for managing and licensing the spectrum. Ofcom publishes the UK Frequency Allocation Table (UKFAT), which shows how the spectrum is divided among different services and users1. According to the latest UKFAT, amateur radio has access to various bands ranging from 135.7 kHz to 250 GHz, some of which are shared with other services such as broadcasting, aeronautical, maritime, military, and scientific. Ofcom also sets the terms and conditions for amateur radio licences, such as power limits, emission modes, station identification, and interference avoidance.
Ofcom has been supportive of amateur radio and has recognised its value and potential for innovation. For example, in 2013, Ofcom granted access to a new band at 5 MHz (60 metres) for amateur radio on a secondary basis, following a successful trial that showed no harmful interference to other users2. In 2019, Ofcom announced plans to make more spectrum available for innovation in the 100-200 GHz range, which could benefit amateur radio experimentation3. Ofcom also works with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to facilitate frequency sharing arrangements between civil and military services, which enable amateur radio use of certain bands that are primarily used by the MoD4.
However, Ofcom also faces pressure from other spectrum users who may have different or conflicting interests and demands. For example, in 2018, Ofcom proposed to revoke 143 MHz of spectrum from amateur radio and assign it to mobile services, following a request from the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) to harmonise the band across Europe5. This proposal was met with strong opposition from the amateur radio community, who argued that it would cause significant loss of opportunities for experimentation and communication, especially for satellite and moonbounce enthusiasts. The RSGB also questioned the evidence and rationale for the proposal, and urged Ofcom to reconsider it. The outcome of this proposal is still pending.
Another example of spectrum pressure is the growing demand for wireless broadband services, which require large amounts of spectrum in lower frequency bands that offer good coverage and capacity. These bands are also attractive for amateur radio, as they allow long-distance communication with relatively low power and simple equipment. However, these bands are becoming increasingly congested and contested by various users, such as mobile operators, broadcasters, utilities, public safety agencies, and others. As a result,
amateur radio may face more interference and less availability of spectrum in the future.
Therefore, amateur radio needs to cooperate and coordinate with other spectrum users and regulators to ensure its continued access and protection of spectrum. This may involve participating in consultations, negotiations, and advocacy activities at national and international levels. For example, the RSGB represents the interests of UK amateurs at Ofcom and at the ITU through its membership in the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU), which is the global voice of amateur radio. The RSGB also works with other national societies and regional organisations to promote and defend amateur radio spectrum rights.
Another way of ensuring spectrum access and protection is to use it efficiently and responsibly. This means following the licence conditions, avoiding unnecessary interference, adopting good operating practices, and reporting any problems or violations. It also means exploring and exploiting new bands and modes that may offer more spectrum opportunities and challenges for amateur radio. For example, the higher frequency bands above 30 MHz, such as VHF, UHF, and microwave, are less crowded and more suitable for local and regional communication, as well as for satellite and space communication. The lower frequency bands below 500 kHz, such as LF and MF, are more challenging and experimental, requiring special equipment and techniques.
A final issue facing amateur radio is the demographic change of its population. Amateur radio has been traditionally dominated by white males in their 60s and 70s, who grew up with radio as a hobby and a passion. However, this generation is ageing and declining, and there are not enough younger people to replace them. According to a report by Ofcom in 2019, the number of amateur radio licences in the UK has decreased by 8% since 2015, from 87,884 to 81,006. The report also noted that the average age of licence holders was 64 years old, and that only 15% of licence holders were under 45 years old.
This trend poses a serious threat to the future of amateur radio, as it may lead to a loss of skills, knowledge, diversity, and innovation in the hobby. Therefore, amateur radio needs to attract and retain more young people, as well as more women and people from different backgrounds and cultures. This may require changing the image and perception of amateur radio as a hobby that is outdated, difficult, or exclusive, and promoting it as a hobby that is fun, easy, and inclusive.
One way of doing this is to provide more education and training opportunities for potential and existing amateurs. This may involve offering courses, workshops, seminars, webinars, podcasts, videos, and online platforms that can teach and inspire people about amateur radio. This may involve collaborating with schools, universities, clubs, societies, and other organisations that can provide resources, facilities, and mentors for amateur radio education and training.
For example, the RSGB offers various educational and training opportunities for amateurs of all levels, such as the RadCom Basics magazine, the Tonight @ 8 webinars, the RSGB Convention lectures, the Syllabus resources, and the Beyond Exams programme. The RSGB also supports the School Zone initiative, which aims to introduce amateur radio to young people in schools and encourage them to pursue STEM subjects and careers. The RSGB also works with other groups and projects that promote amateur radio education and training, such as the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) programme, which allows students to communicate with astronauts via amateur radio.
Another way of attracting and retaining more young people and diverse groups is to provide more activities and events that can showcase and celebrate amateur radio as a fun and rewarding hobby. This may involve organising contests, challenges, awards, expeditions, demonstrations, exhibitions, festivals, and other special events that can appeal to different interests and tastes. It may also involve participating in existing events and activities that can raise awareness and visibility of amateur radio among the public and the media.
For example, the RSGB organises various activities and events for amateurs throughout the year, such as the National Club of the Year competition, the Construction Competition, the IOTA Contest, the HF DXpeditions programme, the Radio Marathons programme, and the Get on the Air to Care campaign. The RSGB also participates in other events and activities that promote amateur radio to a wider audience, such as British Science Week, World Amateur Radio Day, Jamboree on the Air (JOTA), Youngsters on the Air (YOTA), and GB100RSGB.
In conclusion, amateur radio is a hobby and service that has a lot to offer in terms of communication, experimentation, education, and social interaction. However, amateur radio also faces some challenges and uncertainties in the 21st century, such as the impact of digital technologies, the competition for spectrum, and the demographic change of its population. These issues require amateur radio to adapt and thrive in the changing world by demonstrating its value and potential for innovation, cooperating and coordinating with other spectrum users and regulators, providing more education and training opportunities, and providing more activities and events that can attract and retain more young people and diverse groups. By doing so, amateur radio can ensure its continued relevance and sustainability as a hobby and service that benefits society and humanity.
: Ofcom (2020). UK Frequency Allocation Table 2020. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/103295/fat-civil-military-sharing-arrangements.pdf
: RSGB (2013). 5MHz – Radio Society of Great Britain – Main Site. https://rsgb.org/main/operating/band-plans/hf/5mhz/