The Big Question – is ham radio dead??

If you read and believe some of the doom and gloom posts on some of the forums – yes!! especially if you are are drawn in by the clickbait, but to look at the real answer, you need to look at several aspects, including what is being done by the various groups and bodies to improve the situation (and it appears to be working).

If you look at ham radio 40 years ago (or less) and look at it today, there are several reasonable changes / impacts / issues which makes Amateur Radio not exactly the same hobby as it was 40 years ago which are (but not limited to) :-

  • It is quicker to buy your gear…less and less homebrewing is occurring (although it is still there). There was a difference in building your own equipment and really understanding the impact of the controls. This is missed by a lot by new hams coming into the hobby.
  • QRM is increasing, particularly in city areas, making it harder to get those hard to pull in signals Whilst the newer gear has some nice features, such as various filters, built in Antenna Tuners, noise blankers, many do not want to put the time in an learn these features.
  • We are firmly in the grasp of an “instant-on” society (or instant gratification). There are many that expect to place down a large amount of money on a transceiver, another large amount on an Antenna, plug it all in and its going to get them all the contacts from around the world. They seriously get disheartened when the contacts don’t come through.
  • For last 11 years we have been in the “lull” of the solar cycle, so the “excitement” of DXing on the 10m and 15m band has not been there. In fact you could say that this lull for a lot longer as solar cycle 24 was nothing to write home about. In fact a lot of my earlier radio work was done on the solar cycle that peaked 1987 (somewhere around there) where you could not turn the dial on 10m without hitting a DX signal.
  • The rise of the HOA and Local Government rules and much smaller building blocks has had an impact on the size of Antenna’s that you can put up, resulting in a compromised Antenna setup, which then impacts on what you can receive and transmit. This impacts even more if that operator never (or possibly couldn’t) get into the POTA / SOTA side of things.
  • The Amateur Radio Fraternity has become a clique that appears to resist anyone who wants to enter or does enter with a cold shoulder, and its not just a age thing, its anyone new, especially if you got a licence easier than when they did it. Unless you have a very accommodating and understanding club, there is no encouragement to learn for yourself, trying things for yourself, they want to tell you what is the correct method and the only method you should be using.
  • We have become a throw away society, opting to throw out equipment not working properly instead of looking to repair it. However to be fair, that has also occurred with some of the parts not being serviceable (no discrete components), and this has had an impact on new people getting interested in Electronics and/or Radio.
  • We have lost that sense of adventure and awe.…we look at a mobile phone, and get excited on getting it to do a slow-mo video and how quickly we can post it on Facebook. You only have to look at an unboxing video on Youtube where place all the parts on the bench, and the author thinks that they have pulled off the discovery of the decade….seriously!!

I could go on for hours, but the purpose is not to demean every person on the planet, and be aware I am being very general as there are some people who go that extra mile and show the complex assembly helping many others.

What I am trying to demonstrate is that some of these Amateur Radio doom and gloom post authors, could easily fit into any of those statements that I have made.

Now lets look at the changes. Just remember, things do no happen over night, in many cases it occurs over years.

  • From about 2008 onwards, a focus on STEM (Science. Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) started. This sparked a renewed interest in Electronics and or its branches which includes robotics, computing, radio etc. As part of this, companies like Raspberry Pi Foundation, Arduino (amongst others) started designing Single Board Computers or Controllers to support the STEM programs in schools and also sparked consumer interest. Well, as you know, they took off like wildfire, and continues to do so, and from that was a renewed interest in IOT, and modular boards and components that interconnect. It’s unique, in that it still provides for the “instant on” society, people are still within a few minutes work able get some instant gratification, but it begs the owner/buyer to step inside a little further, learn a little bit more, and possibly end up it able to do more than you could imagine. The introduction and the effects of STEM cannot be underestimated. I am personally aware of many operators in Ham radio today who started or recommenced their Electronics interest again with the Pi or Arduino.
  • Major changes in Licencing introduced in 2004 (dropping of the morse requirement from Amateur Licencing exams), and in 2006, the the Introduction of the Foundation licence have also been major turning points. In its simplest form, its is a low level general knowledge exam with some safety questions (e.g. don’t put your hand on the antenna whilst transmitting). However it has allowed a lot more people to get involved in Amateur radio at a “foundation” level where they can learn “on the job” so that they can go for their Standard and Advanced licences. In 2019 this was changed further which included allowing digital modes, automatic CW keyers, HomeBrewing for Foundation Licensees.
  • Partly related to the STEM point raised above, but there has been a resurgance of interest in building your own equipment which has become cheaper such as equipment from QCX Labs and Minikits (and there are a lot more, but these come to mind easily). People are taking an interest in how it works, and getting that satisfaction that they have built it and understand it.
  • SDR receivers and Transceivers have greatly lowered the entry cost into the hobby, where you can start receiving signals right across the HF and VHF/UHF spectrum with a device costing no more than $AU50. This honestly brings it into the realm of a teenager with a part time job. They can build a dipole for another $20 or an End Fed Half Wave, play with band pass filters, even building their own. The point I am making is that they can seriously immerse themselves in the hobby, we just need to encourage them.
  • The Internet has had a dramatic change on several levels
    • Being able to talk to fellow operators, particular with special interests has never been easier. Whether the interest is the model of radio, or digital modes, or moon bounce, it is relatively easy to make contact with people of similar interest.
    • Digital Voice modes are popular because Repeaters, Reflectors, C4FM nodes, hotspots now utilise the Internet to extend their capabilities, accessing talk groups.
    • The Internet now allows us to receive reception reports using Digital modes, tools like WSPR, PSK Reporter providing almost immediate feedback on your signal, where it’s being received, the strength of your signal….these facilities allow you to make changes to your equipment, your antennas, your time of day, to see the effect that they have.
    • The amount of websites covering this hobby is massive, with many specialist sites.
    • The rise of Internet based instant chat and conference facilities have now made it very easy to “get together” on a more regular basis. Whilst the clubs have served this role, on the whole it can be slow going, as it was usually only meeting once a month, whereas it might only be a few days before your online meeting, and your idea or project is still fresh.
    • Following on from the point above, studying for your next licence level can be done in groups, even if the club is not offering further education. Even if you enjoy studying by yourself, coming together online for a couple of weekends before your exam, will help work out any missing gaps.
    • And continuing to follow up on the last few points, accelerated learning takes place in these groups, in many cases by knowledge by assimilation. Whilst some stuff will go above your head, taking a few notes for follow up, steers you in the right direction and increases your knowledge.
  • People are interested in Amateur Radio that were not interested before. This has become even more evident after 2019/2020 bushfire season in Australia, particular farmers and land owners, who quickly found that Mobile (Cellular) communications cannot be relied on (either damage from fires or massive overload) in the event of a disaster. For many, it was never considered. Many managed to communicate with or pass messages to family due to the generosity of the a nearby ham radio operator who had a HF Radio powered by battery with a temporary antenna strung up. These farmers are now the ones now looking to obtain their licence (The foundation licence in most cases is enough).

A look at the current Amateur Numbers in Australia

The change mentioned previously are just a few of the changes that have now affected the Amateur Radio numbers for the better and this can be backed up by Australian Amateur Licence figures. As you can see the following graph shows a decline in licences up until 2004-2006 which as you will recall was the removal of the Morse exam and the introduction of the Foundation licence.

Graph obtained from showing licences numbers from 1996 to 2014

In January 2022, I reviewed the figures for Amateur licences using the same categories as and counting the total licences, just to bring his 2017 updated graph up to date.

Graph originally obtained from with total licences numbers from 2006 to 2017 and updated with 2022 figures with 2022 total licences numbering 15286

As you can see, it has levelled out an remained pretty stable. Just to provide you with a break down of the numbers for January 2022

Amateur Advanced9602
Amateur Standard2097
Amateur Foundation3042
Amateur Beacon39
Amateur Repeater506

As you can see, to refer back to the title of this article, is Ham Radio dead? No not really. There is always some cyclical nature of any hobby, which will be impacted by society changes, changes to licence conditions, changes to product availability and one other thing that needs to be considered is that a large majority of those involved in Amateur radio are 50+, and that we are likely to lose numbers as they become silent keys or at the very least suffer health issues or have to move to retirement villages which stop their involvement with Ham Radio.

Lets take a look at the U.S. as a guide to where things are heading. Their numbers have continued to grow by 1% each year and have continued to grow since 2006. Not a huge amount, granted, but it has continued to grow and not decline and for licence where you need to complete a test, it’s not bad. There are currently over 750,000 amateur radio licence holders the in the states, but one of the big differences in the states is that there are is an industry promoting ham radio, promoting the exams, many retailers making a big deal out of each technician licensee, helping them, supporting them, and the industry itself improving the speed in which you can obtain your licence after the test, in some cases next day. With 2015-2021 U.S. Technician class licensees increasing by 10%, we should be seeing similar figures.

However, it is great that the measures taken (Foundation Licence, STEM, etc), have stemmed (no PUN intended) the disappearing numbers, but in Australia we really need to look how we can improve the numbers, particularly looking at the foundation licensees and how the Clubs and the WIA can implement programs or tracks to retain these foundation members that are coming through – have a look at the article The Foundation Cliff for more information.


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