Amateur radio is thriving (and dying)

This is a focused, geeky, op-ed aimed at a particular audience. Feel free to skip if ham radio isn’t relevant.

I am an amateur radio guy, licensed as KC2TCK and there’s something bothering me. I’m hearing lots of good news about the number of folks with licenses in the US and those numbers are increasing. Is that true? It is, although I wouldn’t call the increase dramatic:

Total Amateur Radio Station Licenses

(by month by class)







ARS Total
































































New General Class Question Pool – July 1, 2015

From <>


Please note the Advanced and Novice class licenses were deemed redundant in 2000 and are no longer issued. However, anyone with those licenses can continue as-is and are not required to upgrade.

Of particular note is the Technician class license. It is the entry level license and has both the largest number of license holders (over 2x the General class) as well as most of the growth. When someone says they just got their ham radio license, you can bet it’s a Technician license.

The Technician license grants holders pretty much full access to the bands above 50 MHz along with limited privileges in the 10 meter (28-29 MHz) band. As a result, Technicians are heavy users of the VHF and UHF bands (146 MHz/440 MHz). Equipment to use these bands is reasonably priced and easy to use. Most Technicians have at least a handheld radio and many also have mobile radios installed in their motor vehicles. Most of these radios are programmed to use repeaters, which greatly extend their range but in any case VHF/UHF is mostly a local radio service. So with the surging number of new hams you’d expect that they’d all be on the air as soon as their licenses arrived, chatting away on their local repeaters. And you’d be wrong.

At first I thought it was me. Maybe I didn’t have the most popular repeaters programmed into my radios. The last time I counted there were almost 100 amateur repeaters in the Greater Rochester area. But the reality is maybe a half-dozen of those repeaters get much traffic, the rest get almost none (the ARES/RACES repeater doesn’t count as it’s dedicated to emergency service work). Of those half-dozen, two are often connected to a very busy IRLP (Internet Radio Linking Protocol) node and most of the activity is not local. That leaves about four that are truly active. That’s 4% of the available repeaters.

But is Rochester an outlier? Massive cutbacks in the major local employers (Kodak and Xerox) certainly have thinned the ranks of local amateurs. But a recent poll in the May edition of QST says it’s not a local phenomenon. The question was “How active are the FM repeaters in your area?” Of the respondents, 31% they were regularly or occasionally active while 60% said they were “Pretty dead”.

So my question is simple, “Where are all these new Technician license holders if they’re not on their local repeaters?” I posted this question to Twitter and got very few answers. The best one came from @KD0SFY: “many hams don’t use repeaters: preppers often don’t, DX/DXCC, contesters, many hams work during the day, etc.” That makes sense, as far as it goes, but new Technicians aren’t likely to be DXers or contesters since they lack HF privileges. And preppers, people who actively prepare for the apocalypse (or equivalent), can’t possibly represent a significant number of new licensees. So when you net it out, the increasing numbers of Technicians are people who get their license and then never get involved in the hobby. Worse, they’re being joined by increasing numbers of people who used to be active, but have stopped for some reason (I’m deliberately ignoring those who upgrade their license to General and get involved in HF).

This should bother every amateur, regardless of license class or time in the hobby. I attended the Rochester Ham Fest on the past Saturday and the crowd overwhelming white, male and middle-aged. There’s a reason I added “(and dying)” to this post’s title. What’s going to happen in the next decade as many of those older hams die off? Sure, we’re adding younger folks but it’s nowhere near the replacement rate. Amateur radio numbers are quite possibly approaching a cliff. Once they begin to fall I don’t think they’ll recover. Ever. That is, unless we do something about it.

I’ve been thinking about some things that might change that, but I’ll put them in another post once I’ve had more time to think about it. Feel free to comment if you’d like.

3 thoughts on “Amateur radio is thriving (and dying)

  1. New hams(and Older) are realizing that Hf is not the dream they thought it might be. They become licensed “just in case” they need the option to operate. There ya go.

  2. My issue with the “just in case” crowd is it’s difficult to use something you never practice with. An emergency is a bad time to figure out how your radio works.

    I realize there’s no good way to measure “active” hams but I feel like the ARRL is making the assumption that everyone with a license is active and that may be blinding them to the need to work more with new licensees to encourage them not to wait until something bad happens.

  3. Thank you for this article. I am the audience you are referring to (sort of). I am studying to get my tech and general and plan to get an Extra class after I gain some experience. This day and age, most people do not work in a normal logical progression unless it is a priority. Key word is Priority. People like to dabble rather than taking the measurable time mastering a skill set especially when there are more convenient alternatives for communication or information gathering. The internet via Iphones account for most of peoples information. For example, i can get the local PD comms over the internet, face time, weather, and do social networking on that medium. I will say though, all my work cohorts know nothing about HAM, scanners, or even the national news on FOX or CNN. Most people are caught up in their own life’s tunnel vision rather than looking outward.

    Personally I am working backwards to the normal logical route. By that I mean that I actually purchased my HF rig first, then two HT VHF/UHF units followed by multiple mobile units 2 FT2900 VHF and 2 FT-7900 VHF/UHF. All prior to studying for the Tech class. And yes, I have All of my units programmed with local repeaters and some additional surrounding state repeaters. I do listen to the local repeater and HF although I cannot participate yet. I also have an analog scanner and an SDR which I dabble with SDR# on my laptop. Two of my mobile units (FT-2900’s) will be set up as repeaters or Em Comm back pack kits with the HT’s and FRS/GMRS/CB. The FT-7900 will be in my truck w/ CB, and one in the HAM shack w/ CB. And of course FRS/GMRS units in the truck

    I know it doesn’t make sense does it? 😉 Well, I’ll tell you why. Most of the surge in HAM radio has been from the preparedness community. Which is exactly why my personal order of purchases has been completely backwards to the logical progression. From a preparedness standpoint, having simplex DX HF capability sooner rather than later was a priority over local comms which can be covered by cheap HT Beofang VHF/UHF units, CB, FRS/GMRS.

    Beofengs HT’s are cheap to purchase yet a real pain to program w/0 Chirp software. Which is also why there probably are not many new people on repeaters. Most are too lazy to learn it or find out how and give up because it is not a priority to them. The radio in hand makes them feel “comfortable” rather than having the real ability to communicate. It is a false sense of security.

    The vast majority of the Techs getting licensed are using HAM as an emergency alternative form of comms. Most will not be proficient when an emergency happens. I doubt most even have the units programmed and underestimate what it takes to become proficient. But the they “think” they will figure it out when the time comes by the help of their cohorts who are also not proficient. The govt and other comm providers are beefing up their capability so they think they will never really NEED it. They have it as emotional insurance. Just like some of the el cheapo survival kits out there. They give a false sense of preparedness.

    I’m in my 40’s and have hundreds of contacts and over 340 coworkers. Not one of them are into HAM and only a couple have any preparedness mindset or news awareness. There IS a bit of an age gap between active repeater users and the younger groups. That is the other reason why there isn’t much communication today from the newest licenses. Most don’t actually “talk”, they text. Learning to use a radio and getting a license takes effort and is less convenient and less private than what they have in their pocket.

    However, that is where the mistake is. The younger generation is technologically savvy with other means and forms of comms so they do not seek HAM. The younger generation is losing out on a great opportunity. They just don’t see HAM as being better from their perspective. However, there are a few of us out there trying to learn this HAM “art” which has some extraordinary capability and value the wisdom of the prior generations.

    The key is getting the word out in the other forms of media that the younger generation uses most often. The preparedness community sees its value, but isn’t going to exploit it specifically for the “hobby” aspect. They are like the younger generation… other forms of comms are a more convenient means and have more capability if they are up and working.

    As for me, I’m a scientist and I am just too curious with the inability to limit my learning playground activities. I have been reading about HAM for months now, and I’m just getting started in this new useful hobby. My wife hates white noise… but she will have to manage until I figure out how to use the squelch knob. 😉

    All the best! 73!

Leave a Reply