DIY boom helps boost ham numbers
Conventional wisdom says that amateur radio is aging out of existence. Young people these days — and even the not-so-young — are texting, tweeting, posting on Facebook and using Skype to chat with people half a world away. So, who needs the amateur-radio bands?
You'd be surprised. In the U.S. alone, some 710,000 people hold ham radio licenses — the largest number in the hobby's almost-100-year history, said David Sumner, chief executive officer (CEO) of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) in Newington, Conn.
"Last year there were 13% more new licensees than there were the year before. We went from around 24,000 new licensees in 2011 up to about 27,000 in 2012."
In part, Sumner said, this growth has to do with the "Maker Movement." That term refers to a community of enthusiasts who use three-dimensional printers, open-source hardware and other tools to design and manufacture everything from robots to furniture to fashion accessories.
Amateur-radio operators are well-positioned to form part of the Maker Movement, because they have an innate desire to know how things work, Sumner said.
In the early days, many amateur-radio enthusiasts built their own equipment, either from scratch or from kits, he added. Today, most electronic devices come with warnings indicating that they contain no serviceable parts.
"We can't get our fingers inside and play with them," Sumner said. "But there is a lot that you can do with construction — taking individual components and wiring them together."
People also are doing a great deal with software, according to Sumner. Meanwhile, some hams are building their own equipment — if not from scratch, then at least from small components.
"You can build a radio transmitter and receiver that will make contact over distances of hundreds of miles from components that will sit in an Altoids box," Sumner said. "There's quite a healthy group within amateur radio who tend to focus on that side of things. Instead of seeing how complicated we can make something, they'll see how simple you can make something that still does the job."
- Read the main story, "Ready and willing," to learn how when a disaster hits that knocks out traditional communications, amateur-radio operators repeatedly step up to fill the void.