By Bill Pasternak, WA6ITF [ reprinted from WorldRadio Online]
I’ll start out by saying in my humble opinion neither D-Star,APCO-25 nor any other digital voice system is going to rebuild the level of repeater use to what it’s been in years past. The revitalization – or increased use of repeaters – is a human problem, not a technical one.
The human problem is a declining interest in VHF / UHF relay communications.
The overall interest in relay communications seems to be on the decline for reasons I’ll explain in this month’s column. Some people are swift to blame the decline on the latest round of restructuring of the service. They are quick to report – without any basis in fact – that all the folks who used to be on repeaters moved to the high frequency spectrum (HF) using so-called paper upgrades. But the spectral loading on HF belies this.
If all the folks now gone from repeaters across our nation were now on HF, the bands would be far more crowded than they have ever been. The manufacturers and dealers would be dancing with joy and issuing daily press releases quoting massive sales increases in HF transceivers and antenna systems. Neither has happened.
I suspect that many of those who became hams to use repeaters as an inexpensive, family-based utility communications service have moved to cellular telephones. This is because cell service is now affordable to almost every income level.
In many cases, multiple smart phones that can text, access the Internet, stream music and the like are given away free of charge by the service provider just to get entire families to sign up.
With smart cellphones providing at least the aura of privacy – if not the reality – I suspect a lot of former ham radio families are now there. Other repeater-only hams simply tired of the hobby in general and have moved on to other interests outside amateur radio.
In theory, a significant number of new licensees reported in the FCC database (as of this writing approaching an all-time high near 700,000) should be replacing those dropping off repeaters. And they should be showing up on the HF bands, as well. Again, neither seems the case. Tune the bands – HF or VHF. You just do not hear them.
Maybe those who want to operate on HF are awaiting better propagation? The upper HF bands – where DX tends to be and where antenna sizes are reasonable – are pretty dead. At this moment I’m monitoring 15 meters with an antique, but mint Kenwood TS-520S and ground-mounted MFJ 9-foot base-loaded vertical. This area tends to be electrically quiet and a decade ago, with the same radio and antenna, all of the bands were loaded with activity. Now, I can count the number of stations on two hands. (To be sure the TS-520 had not gone dead, I switched to the FT-847. It heard about the same number of stations, albeit more clearly than on the TS-520S.) Nonetheless, activity on HF is not what one would expect with all the supposed rollover of former repeater folks to HF. So, where are they? They are not on our repeaters or on HF. Likely, gone from the hobby.
In my opinion, digitalization of the hobby is not going to bring them back. D-Star, APCO 25 (or whatever other digital ciphering that may be introduced to amateur radio) will impact VHF and UHF emergency communications more than any other facet of the hobby. While these communications concepts might initially attract a small number of people who feel the need to be on the so-called cutting edge of technology, the rest of the rank and file will not jump on the digital bandwagon until there is enough of an established user and relay system base to make the switchover worthwhile. Likely, that base will come from those involved in emergency communications work and who see digital voice and data as a way to greatly improve their communications through-put.
Once they establish the digital user base and draw significant numbers away, will there be any real impact on those still on FM? In other words, when the only way for Joe Ham to talk with his old buddy who has gone digital is to go digital himself, will Joe make the leap? For most reading this column, it’s not likely to happen in our lifetime.
I think D-Star will prevail over APCO 25 or any other form of digital cipher in eventually replacing FM for VHF / UHF relay communications. This is mainly because ICOM has a very smart marketing division that is being very aggressive in putting as many D-Star radios and repeaters as possible into the hands of users before any competing radio system is brought to market.
It’s good business because the company is creating an exclusive market for a well-thought-out, hi-tech communications system. And with no competing product line, who is there to challenge them?
On the other hand, for APCO-25 proponents, there are no off-the-shelf, made exclusively for ham radio transceivers available in the U.S. marketplace and none on the horizon. Maybe it is a “better system” as its proponents claim, but without a radio that can be purchased brand new at a price comparable to or lower than that of D-Star and with all the “bells and whistles” features of D-Star – in amateur radio, P-25 is an also ran. The Betamax vs. VHS war of the mid-1970s to mid-1980s proves my point.
Unlike the early days of FM when we hams were a bit more technically inclined and converted Motorola 40Ds and GE Pre-Progs to two-meter FM, most of today’s radio amateurs are not going to buy a surplus radio and convert it to ham use – even if the conversion is simply a software change.
While there will always be experimenters using APCO 25 and other ciphers, the reality is that Joe Ham will buy the advertised product when the time comes to make the change. He wants to plug it in and have it work flawlessly, right out of the box.
Manufacturers are going in lots of different directions. ICOM’s D-Star is in the U.S. marketplace; the rumored Kenwood D-Star compliant radio may exist in Japan but it is not here as yet. Instead, Kenwood has integrated Echolink into a part of its product line.
Yaseu (Vertex – Standard) has its WIRES II system while Alinco has proprietary digital voice. At least for now, ICOM-supplied D-Star appears to be the digital front runner and by default may become the world-wide digital standard on VHF and UHF for combined voice and data utility and emergency communications. While D-Star will increase the utility of any repeater adopting it, whether or not it leads to an overall increase in the number of users is anyone’s guess. Only time will tell.