Millennials are Reinventing Ham Radio

The latest blog post by Sterling Coffey (N0SSC), Millennials Are Killing Ham Radio, dives into a topic we’ve brought up continually here at FaradayRF. That topic is the future of amateur radio. We’ve known Sterling for a long time and this post comes as no surprise to us. He’s an ardent supporter of FaradayRF and even gave an impromptu lightning talk about our project at the 2017 TAPR/DCC.

Being a millennial myself, I barely remember not having a computer in the house and when we did have a computer there was at least dial-up Internet to go with it. By the time I was in high school most of us had cell phones and in 2007 when I graduated high school the iPhone changed the world. To put it bluntly, mainstream ham radio has always been behind the curve of mainstream technology for as long as I can remember. Rather than being deterred, people such as Sterling, my brother Brent, and myself have taken on the optimistic view that we can reinvent amateur radio.

Here’s how…

Millennial's State Farm and Harris Poll conducted a State of Neighbors survey

Millennial ham radio operators (These may or may not be licensed radio amateurs)

Millennials are Savvy

Growing up with computers and the Internet makes us a bit naive about technology. If we think it can be done then we can probably figure out how do it. This is a great trait because no one can tell us it’s not possible. Just because it wasn’t possible before doesn’t meant I can’t do it now. We didn’t grow up designing computers from scratch. We grew up piecing graphics cards, hard drives, and motherboards together while figuring out how to boot Linux (all before Ubuntu!). That’s made us savvy with technology. Some of us can design computers, but a heck of a lot more can cobble them together and apply them to something interesting. That’s progress.

Millennials are Efficient

Building upon our savviness, I’d argue that millennials are efficient too. In fact, today’s fast-paced world means few have interest in becoming licensed to slow down and ragchew over HF. Love it or hate it that’s a strong trait I’ve observed. It’s trivial to contact almost anyone anywhere in the world if there is an Internet connection. It’s a hard sell to put ham radio in any other context beyond emergencies, contesting, and being something like sailing.

Using the resources available to us we can iterate quickly without reinventing the wheel. Building projects starts at proof of concept which involves wiring premade circuit boards together and applying some software glue. We know that building upon others work is faster. We grew up with open source and that’s changed our perception of what a project is. It’s efficient to take what works now and build something better. Some will enjoy building 40 meter CW transmitters but many more will find value in much more relevant technology applied to amateur radio. There are likely more millennials interested in working at the application layer than at the transistor layer of a radio.

Millennials are a Step Ahead

Readers of our blog as well as the massively popular Hackaday blog will note that open source electronic design software such as KiCad and manufacturers such as Oshpark give millennials a leg up versus prior generations. For less than $20 and two weeks of time one can order a four-layer circuit board that has good performance through 1GHz. This is insane compared to just 20 years ago!

The tools available to millennials allows them to experiment and iterate at speeds unseen before in amateur radio. This allowed projects such as FaradayRF and HackRF to quickly iterate hardware with minimal investment. Additionally, SMT components are the standard for most hobbyists these days. While 0402 components may be annoying, some of us are hand soldering 0201 components (dust) and 0603 or larger are a breeze. Hardware is getting much cheaper. Hardware is practical.

Millennials are not Patient

A blessing and curse of growing up as a millennial is that we’re not very patient. We went from dial-up Internet to broadband cable in a decade as kids. We went from no-frill cell-phones to having a smartphone that provided high speed Internet in our pockets in half a decade. Finally, we’ve seen smartphones nearly replace the need for desktop/laptop computers in another half a decade after that. Technology moves fast, and we expect that. Ham radio isn’t an exception to these forces. I’d call this progress and we need to keep up.

It’s our Time

The attitudes, savviness, and naive view of what couldn’t be done in the past can provide the driving force in ham radio. It could also drive its disappearance into irrelevance. Millennials are now in their 20’s and 30’s. Among us are the Steve and Woz’s of our generation building Apple or the Bill Gates starting Microsoft. Among us are the people ready to take what we’ve learned growing up and see the opportunity to build a better version of tomorrow. Millennials are poised to define a new paradigm for the hobby. I say we should welcome it.

What do you think about millennials driving the future of ham radio? We’d love to keep this discussion moving forward. It’s an exciting time to be a radio amateur. We’re on the cusp of becoming forever a retro activity or catapulting into an era of fast-paced advancement. Let us know what your thoughts are in the comments section below!

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Author: Bryce Salmi

Licensed radio amateur KB1LQC and Co-Founder of FaradayRF. Professional Electrical Engineer designing and building avionics for rockets and spacecraft during the day and developing the future of digital amateur radio experimentation by night. All opinions are my own.

https://keybase.io/brycesalmi

16 thoughts on “Millennials are Reinventing Ham Radio

  • This left a smile on my face. Thanks for building this upon my article. Yours is definitely a lot more coherent for sure!

    Reminds me how much I love soldering SMD things. That’s not sarcasm. It’s something everyone thinks is insanely difficult, but like anything, with practice it’s second nature.

  • Great article.

    I am a Boomer who entered the lobby in 1966. We changed ham radio. You’ll get your chance to do the same.

    We had to overcome the AM/SSB wars (they were brutal and nasty). We had to make the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors, and then from transistors to integrated circuits. Those of us who still have the energy, or at least the interest (me!), are trying to make the transition to microprocessors and programming.

    However, all those things are about hardware and technology. What you millenials seem to be doing, along with your processors and programming, is finding new uses for the RF spectrum that we have the privilege of using.

    I think that’s great. One caution: we have a whole lot of spectrum, and it is not all in the GHz region. Your challenge will be to fill up and use that spectrum to its maximum benefit. It will take a lot of digital signals filling the HF bands to justify their continued allocation to ham radio.

    But, good luck to you. Have fun with it and be creative. I’m not gonna sit on the sidelines and throw rocks at you. You’re doing fine. Our generation has left you with an economic/cultural landscape that is not very pleasant at times. Our parents left us was much better. For that, I apologize.

    73 de WA5PSA

  • Brad,

    Thank you for this thoughtful response! Sounds like you are enjoying the hobby to its fullest. Yes, you are correct that some of us Millennials are figuring out completely new uses for the RF spectrum we have. Simply, we are looking at the hobby different thanks to our perspective on the world and technology that drives it. It’s great that you’re joining in on the fun of microprocessors and software. I think you’ll enjoy the next several blog posts we have coming shortly.

    73’s de KB1LQC

  • I started out with a pair of cb walkie talkies around 1965…2 channel jobs. I was 12. A friend had his own set down the block. I was hooked. 500milliwatts could take me about a mile away with mild static and no strings or tin cans attached. I think those sets were actually made in the good ‘ol US!. I graduated to 5 watt, 5 channel, crystal controlled Johnson tube units and finally after several years came 23 channels and transistors. Also had to be licensed then. No computers and cell phones to distract…simple by today’s standards, radio communication was magical.

    Anyway, l was ham licensed first in the early 70’s with a Drake TR4, but then went off to college and let it all expire. I was an active short wave listener for a number of years then decided to go for it again and then licensed in 1990. I stayed a novice for over 20 years, active on 220mhz and 1.2ghz, and 10 meter bands and then decided to go Tech several years ago.

    So, in- keeping with the subject, amateur radio has plenty of avenues to go down. I have chosen but a few, but thankfully you have opened up even more. At my rapidly advancing age, we’ll see if this old dog can learn new tricks. I’am curious about IRLP, Echolink and others especially living in Hawaii where HF activity can be quiet.

    Thanks for your post!
    Merry Christmas!
    John, K5AMO

  • Very nice John! I think the best way to look at it is that the hobby is full of activities one can choose to partake in. There will always be those that love CW, SSB, contesting, etc. However, as I wanted to point out we should see a shift in the way of thinking about the use of ham radio since my generation grew up with communications being relatively easy. It will be an interesting endeavor! Looking forward to seeing where this journey brings us and happy to have you along!

    Bryce

  • I agree with you on millennials being savvy,efficient,step ahead, not patient. One trait I observed is they are insecure and have an ambivalent feeling about their creations coming back and biting them. Shelling out hard earned money from jobs and skills that disappear rapidly to enforce the upgrade to a widget with an ever increasing monthly bill tagged on it that, that might possibly maybe give them the next skill set that who knows will get them the next widget for the next big thing.

    Ham radio does not do that, Their grandpas Heathkit still works and can be modified for WSPR etc. and the FCC does not hand them a monthly bill and tell them they must upgrade to the next version of modulation mode with an intellectual property fee owned by a monopoly.

    You can pick and choose and innovate at your own pace at ham radio.

  • Another boomer geezer here: Millennials and younger and older, have at it. Of course you’re changing amateur radio and that’s exactly how it should be. Get on the air and let us talk with you once in a while, but otherwise–use amateur radio and its licensing structure for the things you feel are best and most fun and most satisfying. Keep us posted, perhaps with an occasional QST or QEX article! We all look forward to knowing of your accomplishments.

    73 de AD8Y
    faculty advisor, Case Amateur Radio Club of Case Western Reserve University, W8EDU
    w8edu.wordpress.com

  • Thanks AD8Y, 2018 is looking great and we’ll do our best to keep you all updated. Good luck over at W8EDU. Used to have a few friends over there from my K2GXT days!

  • You give millennial’s too much credit! Insecure, impatient, not willing to take the time to become proficient in any field involving mass communications where they have to actually talk to a live person. They require a shield to protect them from others with opposing beliefs Talking is not one of the average millennials strong suits.
    You may be referring to the 10% of millennials who are ready to conquer the world, but from what I see and have experienced working around and talking to them, they are not up to snuff. You will have some pioneers ready to lead the masses of millennials to the next Twitter or Facebook, but it will not be through a medium which cannot display images of themselves and where they have to communicate directly with live people. They like the anonymity of Twitter or to talk to their camera which does not counter what they say or believe. They need the validation of unseen masses who know no more than they do. This is the vast majority of millennials.

  • I read your article with interest but was really disappointed with your comment “To put it bluntly, mainstream ham radio has always been behind the curve of mainstream technology for as long as I can remember. Rather than being deterred, people such as Sterling, my brother Brent, and myself have taken on the optimistic view that we can reinvent amateur radio.”

    Either you have not taken the time to really dig into the history of communications or you are not willing to give credit to the ham community for all they have done to advance modern communications. Perhaps you might read the masters thesis located at http://highgate.comm.sfu.ca/thesis/mcquiggin.pdf. He discusses a lot about the innovation that has come from amateur radio operators. Unless you learn to understand and appreciate what this hobby of ours has accomplished you will set the bar way to low for yourselves. I do not want to say anything negative about millennials. I had some very intelligent young engineers working for me on the project I led prior to retiring. I am confident that just like my generation, yours can accomplish anything you set your minds to. Just don’t aim too low.

    73,
    Mike, AE8U

  • Mike,

    Thanks for reading and commenting! I politely disagree with your comprehension of the point we were making. “To put it bluntly, mainstream ham radio has always been behind the curve of mainstream technology for as long as I can remember” doesn’t neglect ham radio’s past at all! I was born in 1989 and well, that would be a hard limit on my memory 🙂 and not a ton of the innovation you’re referring to is even noted in the Thesis you provided as pre-1989 items. For example, back in the 1990’s one could argue that a 56K modem was a monumental achievement of technology but by today’s standards is antiquated and cute. Nothing wrong with that, we’ve moved on. Same thing for ham radio. If you always try to defend it with dated achievements it will eventually become irrelevant to the common person. Ham radio isn’t insulated from this effect at all.

    As for the comment about setting the bar too low, that was actually slightly derogatory and I suggest you not look down upon all Millenials based on some trope you hear on news outlets trying to get you wrangled up about some young generation baby boomers don’t understand. Readers of FaradayRF and other Millenials in the Amateur Radio/technology world are currently innovating with bars set higher than you could likely imagine. For one, when I apparently set the bar low by commenting about Amateur Radio’s lack of innovation you might want to realize how high my bar can be before assuming I’m a lazy/misinformed Millenial.

  • Bryce,

    First of all the paper I suggested you review was dated 2001. So unfortunately it will not contain any innovation newer than that. But that certainly does not mean it does not exist. One such innovation that comes to mind is that Hams were using HMSS-Mesh networks as early as 2010 (https://www.amateurradio.com/ham-radio-and-mesh-networks/) to increase their wireless range. And now today one of the big things in home networking is a Wifi mesh network. But just like the 56K Modem, this too will eventually be antiquated and cute. And so will cell phones – have you read the short story entitled “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov? It is not too hard to imagine a world where one can simply speak into the air and talk to someone else without needing a device pressed against one’s ear. Alexa almost has us there right now.

    The difficulty with trying to attribute innovation to Ham Radio is that the vast majority of Hams simply never take credit for their innovations. They do not file for patents, choosing instead to share their ideas with fellow hams and subsequently with industry. I can remember being able to speak to my wife on the phone at home from 50 miles away in 1978 using my 2 meter Transceiver that was connecting to the landline network via a phone patch. And I remember a friend of mine who worked for a major phone company telling me how they were developing this system where you would be able to call a “cell phone tower” with a “portable phone” and talk to someone else without needing to be on a hard wired phone. I chuckled and told him I could already do that. Who’s to say that cell phone technology did not evolve from Ham Radio innovation?

    Relative to Millennials, I very specifically stated I did not want to say anything negative about your generation. And I further stated your generation could accomplish anything it set its mind to. My comment about setting the bar too low was based on your article which to me was trivializing Ham Radio and implying that your generation was going to save it with a few $20 circuit boards and some Ubuntu code.

    Your generation does have things available that my generation wished for. We had to spend much longer on a design to insure its success before going for prototypes because of the time and cost to get to that stage. We often did not get second chances for another round of prototypes. I was a hero at my company for leading a program that cut the development cycle from 7 years to 22 months. And on another program I spent months writing a sophisticated computer program to calculate the flame front speed when a spark ignited a volume filled with propane gas so that I could parametrically change model characteristics to see if I made it better or worse. In today’s world with modern prototyping methods this seems very antiquated.

    But to say I don’t understand baby boomers I think may be incorrect. I don’t think there is as much difference between your generation and mine as you may think. In fact I truly believe if you and I could sit down face to face and have a conversation, you might agree. Each generation makes advances and improvements over the previous one. I would love to see what you do with communications advancements in the next 40 years.

    And some day when you have reached retirement age and have a twenty something talking about how little your generation accomplished I hope you will think back on this conversation.

    73,
    Mike, AE8U

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