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Issue #39: Forecasting the Future of Ham Radio

By Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

What a great time I had writing Issue #39! The topic, as you'll see by numerous responses included below, is the future of amateur radio. Keep in mind, forecasting the future is not an easy business. To do it right, you've got to examine the changes that we see beginning today, and then put gut feelings to work on the prognostication. When I wrote these contacts, I asked only for those gut feelings and not for an "official" statement from their organization. These are hams speaking to other hams, and it's seriously fun reading. Please put your own thoughts and forecasts on the subject into the forum discussion at the close of this month's article.

 

The question asked of each person was the same:

"What will amateur radio look like ten years from now?"

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chip Cohen (W1YW, well-known amateur radio innovator and Master Inventor):

 

"In 2027 the FCC sent a representative to Hamvention to present the formulation of the “Spectral Efficiency Initiative’  (SEI) and  discuss the Future of Part 97. The thrust of the presentation was for the FCC to invite Part 97 licensees to ‘re-set’  ( a 2024 emphasis urged by ARRL CEO NA2AA in May 2024 to describe how we look at ourselves) ham radio , in the FCC view,  based on the declining population of Part 97, modern technologies, and spectral needs of other existing and emerging services.

In 2030, the FCC proposed a plan—with ITU blessing--for  80% reduction of allocated spectrum for Part 97, particularly at the MF/HF allocations. It also cited an emphasis on digital modes  and health concerns (real or imaginary)as being a motivation to lowering power limits to a maximum of 200 watts.

In 2033 the SEI invoked the first tranche of reductions, and limited  legacy analog  modes to about 10% of the spectrum allotment of 2024. The number of Part 97 licensees has crashed to about 300,000, based on attrition by the elderly demographic. Licensing was reduced to two license classes: “wireless experimenter” and “Extra”, with grandfathering of prior license classes. Part 97 licensees have a new requirement of ‘evidence for performance’ (EP) showing  at least 30 hours of Part 97 use per calendar year, in order to qualify for license renewal, which is now limited to 5 years."

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Roy Hook (W8REH, Vice Director, Great Lakes Division, ARRL): "My hope is that we find a way to preserve the ARS as a playground for talented scientific minds attempting to better the world. To become a reality, much balance and cooperation -- so missing in general society -- will be required. I remain optimistic because our ham community is extraordinary with an abundance of talent and intelligence not found in the general population. By balance, I mean that we must embrace the resources and brilliant minds our hobby attracts and not allow any specialty to drown out new and vibrant passions just because they are unfamiliar to our engrained hobby traditions. Some redefinition of the hobby will emerge; in 10 years we may be defined by yet undiscovered technologies. However, traditional Radio Sport, community service, contesting, DX, and CW will all remain important, demonstrating value to the highly sought-after spectrum we occupy. Still, high value scientific endeavors will need to get new and significant recognition if we are to hold on to our amateur radio services and those important parts of the spectrum we are privileged with."

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Michelle Thompson (W5NYV, CEO, Open Research Institute):

“The fact is that this is the very best time for amateur radio in our entire history. It's never been cheaper, faster, or better. Open Source software allows a modestly priced SDR to do literally almost anything. With a couple of clicks one can get an ADS-B receiver or a spectrum analyzer or a DVB-S2 transmitter, all for free.

So . . . we should be seeing a huge uptake of interest and activity in amateur radio, like we do with software development and “coding”. The decline of interest in hardware vs. software is a big topic right now at universities as they are seeing far fewer people studying digital/hardware design. The decline is largely explained by big increases in those studying how to “write apps” and who “want to be a software developer."

This is understandable because software design has been lucrative as a career and being a developer is generally admired. But the way I see it, decreasing numbers of people studying electronics and hardware design will only worsen the existing shortage of FPGA, chips, and board-level designers in ten years. I believe this underlying trend may have something to do with the stagnant growth in hardware-related hobbies like ours. 

We have seen a ~20% decline in the percentage of women licensees in the US over the past 10 years, from 15% to 11%. There has been no rebound after Covid. So, that 10-year timeline you ask about will very likely be a future with fewer and fewer women in the amateur radio services. Overall growth has been stagnant, so this isn't a case where the decline matches an overall trend. Hams are aging, becoming more male, and much more likely to be white than the general population.”

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Sean Lynch (KK6BEB, Developer of Ham.live and Founder CEO of Metacloud, acquired by Cisco):

 

"Looking ahead, I’m really excited about how AI is set to revolutionize amateur radio, especially in the realm of operator ergonomics. With advancements in AI, particularly in signal separation and natural language processing, we're going to see a major shift in how we handle communications. As GPUs become more commoditized (affordable), I anticipate transceivers from the "big 3" will soon come equipped with real-time, onboard AI-centric computational power. Take dynamic noise reduction . . . today's AI-enhanced tools like 'RM Noise' work wonders in cutting through static, despite some drawbacks like latency and needing internet access. Imagine soon having this tech seamlessly integrated right into our rigs, operating in real time without any external dependencies! And then there’s natural language processing. If we're already processing the local audio streams; why not push that further to visually display and automatically log the callsigns we’re communicating with (maybe a 'list' of everyone heard over x minutes--for a net)? It's not too far-fetched to think that soon, our regular SSB operations could offer the clarity and features of digital modes, without needing any fundamental changes to the protocols (or external hardware/software). The bottom line? AI is not just a buzzword—it’s the next frontier in ham radio, making our favorite hobby more accessible, efficient, and frankly, a lot more fun. Not to mention the aforementioned will be a massive differentiator for whichever vendor ships first..."

 

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Steve Hicks (N5AC, CTO, FlexRadio)

"Predicting the future is a difficult business. One of the stories that we hear time and time again from amateur radio operators is that they first became interested in amateur radio in their teenage years only to spend much of their middle years of life raising a family and working on a career. Later in life, they return to find a hobby that is both different in many ways and yet the same. Oftentimes, those individuals fondly remember a piece of equipment or a capability that they could ill-afford in those prior years. Purchasing that equipment or trying out that mode or capability becomes a passion. For this reason, I expect that a fair amount of ham radio will look as it does today: the embrace of nostalgic modes, capabilities and equipment for the enjoyment of the operator.

We can't predict the future with as much clarity as you might, for example, with cell phones. When you think about cellular phones, the market is broad and there are multiple companies working to bring everything you can imagine that is technologically possible to the palm of your hand as quickly as possible. But in amateur radio, we rely on you (and innovators like Joe Taylor) for these breakthroughs. When you ask about the future, you want to know where the bleeding edge of the technology will be. What capability, equipment, antenna, etc. will you bring to the hobby that will spur a new revolution? Without experimenters and innovators, the ham radio of ten years hence will look a lot like it does today. 

We always have more ideas about what can be done than can actually be implemented. The reality is that companies like ours have more ideas than they can ever bring to market. The hard part is not the idea . . . it is the implementation. Since we're working on new technologies today that will be released to ham radio in the near future, we have a pretty good idea about some of the innovations you'll see in a decade. It's going to sound like a cop-out, but to discuss our vision of the future would reveal these innovative projects and that could compromise our ability to pay for innovations in the future. It's safe to say, though, that amateur radio will continue to be fun and exciting throughout the next ten years!"

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Jason Johnston (KC5HWB, You Tube Channel, Ham Radio 2.0):

"My general feeling is that Ham Radio will continue to be at the forefront of technology in 10 years, and that will include further development of YouTube and social media as a part of our training and education infrastructure. I would also forecast that we’ll see new ways of providing off-grid communication with different computer systems where our computers communicate with one another over the air, rather than over the internet. This will continue to bring new interest to the field from those who are concerned about personal safety and communications stability in SHTF scenarios.

I also believe that we are going to see many of the old curmudgeons who belly-ache about the younger generation (who at the same time claim they want to get youth involved in Ham Radio) leave the hobby and make way for broader thinking and newer ideas in the hobby.  That doesn't mean I want anyone to die, it is just the circle of life completing itself. Once this attitude of "my way or the highway" diminishes to a greater degree, we will have room for younger thinking and newer technologies to flourish in the hobby."

 

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Phil Karn (KA9Q, Past President, Amateur Radio Digital Communications ARDC):

 

"In 2034, a fresh influx of young, technically oriented hams who grew up with cell phones and the Internet is revitalizing a "communications" service into primarily an educational/experimental service with a significant scientific element. Amateur radio's role in emergency communications, already largely displaced by increasingly sophisticated public safety technologies, was dealt a final blow by Starlink. But many technicians and engineers entering technical fields like commercial communications continue to "cut their teeth" in ham radio, demonstrating its continuing educational utility. Although ham radio remains mainly a self-learning tool in 2034, teachers and professors who are hams have found ways to integrate it into formal high school and college curricula on physics, electronics, engineering management and other fields.

 

Although traditional analog modes (CW, SSB, FM) are still seen on the ham bands, the action has clearly moved to a variety of digital modes, each optimized for a specific purpose. Besides FT8 for contesting and DXing, other digital modes exist for ragchewing, propagation sounding, and bulk file transfers, with versions of each for HF and VHF/UHF. IP-based networking protocols are common, especially on the microwave bands (both terrestrially and via satellite). But since the "real" Internet is already easy to use and ubiquitous (with no restrictions on, e.g., encryption) the ham "internet" primarily supports hands-on teaching and experimentation with Internet protocols. Some technologies originally developed by hams simply for fun continue to find their way into the world before commercial companies even know there's money to be made on them -- just like today's Internet.

Some hams continue to perform and publish serious scientific research in ionospheric physics, radio astronomy and SETI, enabled by the availability of inexpensive GPS timing receivers and powerful signal processing computers. This research is aided by the number and widespread geographical distribution of global amateur radio operators."

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Kenny Martinez (KM3KM, Founder and CEO, KM3KM Electronics, and the Mercury line of ham gear):

"Envisioning the future of Amateur Radio in ten years is like trying to tune into a distant signal on a homemade crystal set; it's a bit fuzzy, but the excitement is real! Imagine a world where your radio isn't just a box with dials but a sleek, voice-activated assistant that can filter through static to find that one elusive QSO from halfway across the globe. Hams could also be swapping out their Morse keys for virtual reality headsets, where dots and dashes are sent in a digital space and where antenna farms are as common as emojis in a teenager's text message.

 

We could see a renaissance of the airwaves, with hams leading the charge in emergency communications, their signals bouncing off drones that have built in amplifiers hovering in the stratosphere. The old guard's vacuum tubes and resistors might give way to quantum transceivers connecting to all-band amplifiers that fit in the palm of your hand, making the term 'portable operation' take on a whole new meaning. Field Day would be a spectacle of innovation, with a plethora of new antenna designs and rigs that auto-tune faster than you can say 'CQ'.

 

But fear not, traditionalists! There will always be a place for the warm glow of analog equipment, the tactile satisfaction of tuning a dial, and the camaraderie of a good old-fashioned eyeball QSO. The future of Amateur Radio may be high-tech, but at its core, it is driven by a passion for connection and innovation. So, whether you're a seasoned 'Elmer' or a freshly minted 'YL', the next decade promises to be an exciting frequency to tune into."

 

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Phil McBride (VA3QRPresident - Radio Amateurs of Canada):

 

"The only constant of this collective passion of ours is technological advancement. I was licensed in the mid-90's as a teenager. During the 30 years that I've been a Radio Amateur, I've seen technologies that were considered cutting edge back then fall to the wayside, and I've seen technologies emerge that I couldn't have imagined when I was first licensed. I can see a future 10 years from now where most of our operations are digital - digital voice, digital text, possibly even low-bitrate video over a 4KHz HF channel. I also see a future in which we see a consolidation of all of the various digital modes that are emerging. That said, while I can't tell you exactly what Amateur Radio will look like in 10 years, I can tell you that it will require all of us to help recruit and foster the next generation of Radio Amateurs to ensure that this wonderful hobby of ours continues to grow and evolve."

 

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Marty Buehring (KB4MG, President Cherokee Amateur Radio Society):

 

"Technology never sleeps! The next generation of hams will have a digital perspective of virtually everything they use in their shack. It’s hard to find a piece of ham gear today that does not have some level of intelligence built in. The capabilities of small computers have given birth to the long-theorized idea of a software-defined radio (SDR); we have now seen many amateur radios built upon these concepts. Today’s buzz is artificial intelligence (AI) and whether it will play a role in amateur radio. I can think of applications, particularly when it comes to contesting, where AI will play a significant role. Coupled with the capabilities of SDR, hams will have a way of looking at the entire spectrum and selecting their next contact based on contest multipliers and more – all selected by the radio’s AI tools. I take issue with pundits who claim amatteur radio is dying; we hold such an important place in our communities, especially through our radio clubs. Concerns about personal safety and our infrastructure will not change over the next decade. Amateur radio, and our ham radio clubs, will be there to provide independence from communications infrastructure. As others have said before me, radio clubs are the backbone of the amateur radio community."

 

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Marius Lubbe (ZS1ML, Chairman, Boland Amateur Radio Club):

 

"As the South African Radio League (SARL) approaches its centennial celebration in 2025, we are proud to have maintained financial and membership stability despite global economic uncertainties. However, our recent Radio Amateurs Exam (RAE) report reflects a concerning decline in numbers, which poses a significant challenge to our vision of expanding and enhancing amateur radio in South Africa. This trend, perhaps a global occurrence, calls for the need to adapt and innovate more than ever before.

 

The technological landscape of amateur radio is evolving rapidly, along with a noticeable shift toward digital modes that have seen a significant uptake globally. I expect to see new digital modes being developed across the spectrum that will stress our current systems unless we enhance our technological infrastructure and educational initiatives to ensure amateurs are well-equipped and informed.

 

We must find a way to attract new enthusiasts in order to nurture a vibrant, evolving amateur radio culture. Here in South Africa, the pursuit of personal interests within radio not only keeps the hobby exciting but also encourages individual growth as amateur operators. It is essential for every South African ham to find their passion, engage in topics of interest, and rise to the challenge of supporting and assisting fellow radio amateurs. This spirit of camaraderie and lifelong learning is what makes being a radio amateur not just a hobby, but a way of life and a crucial part of our identity."

 

And finally, my own comments on the same topic -- ham radio in ten years? Please place YOURS into the forum discussion which links below:

 

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Dave Jensen (W7DGJ, QRZ.com Columnist):

 

"In 2034, ham radio manufacturering now involves the original big three plus two more boutique radio manufacturing companies (joining Flex and Elecraft) that have sprung from entrepreneurial activity that began after the disintegration of MFJ Enterprises in 2024. The ham radio equipment marketplace has moved from retail stores and distributors to what is a primarily Internet Storefront approach, which each radio manufacturer has established on its Internet presence. The profit margins required by distributors to stock and sell amateur radios pushed them out of the market, leaving only one alive and well due to their transition into a full-fledged manufacturer of ham products. In 2034, it's very tough to find a local brick and mortar source of Ham Radio gear.

 

A resurgence of kits has made one of those newer radio manufacturers into the “new Heathkit.” Kits have become increasingly popular because the ham marketplace is full of those who got into the hobby as builders and experimenters. An effort from the ARRL to rebrand the Amateur Radio Services (negotiated with the FCC) has revived the description of amateur radio as a scientific endeavor for experimentation (as opposed to a "fun hobby.") This has attracted more young operators with a STEM background to radio, many who come from engineering or scientific training. 

 

A renewed interest in QRP operations came out of the digital phenomenon which occurred in the mid-to-late 2020’s. Solid-state amplifier manufacturers shifted their focus to not only amplify the tiny signals by these new radios to the 500W max power limit imposed by the FCC in their rule changes of 2032, but to also integrate other needed components into the amplifier design. The field of “linear amps” has become more of a "central hub" market, with products integrating new technologies, antenna match-boxes and switching stations as well as AI-assisted add-ons for better, cleaner signals."

 

 

Have a comment? See what others are saying now in our Forum discussion! CLICK HERE and JUMP INTO THE CONVERSATION

 

 

 

 


Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica.  He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.


Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

This page was last updated May 21, 2024 18:30