Ham Radio in the Age of the Internet

by Steven Melendez ; Updated June 16, 2017

Amateur radio has been around for more than a century, but nowadays it’s often compared to much newer inventions, like online chat rooms and web forums.

But to fans of ham radio, as it’s nearly universally nicknamed, the medium that allows licensed operators to speak to people across the world isn’t the old-fashioned version of anything. About 750,000 people currently hold ham licenses from the Federal Communication Commission, a larger number than ever before, says Sean Kutzko, media and public relations manager for the American Radio Relay League (ARRL).

They’re using those licenses to help their communities stay connected after natural disasters, hone their electronics and broadcasting skills, and simply make small talk with fellow hams, he says.

Disaster Recovery

“We provide communication assistance in the first 72 hours after a disaster,” Kutzko said. “That’s one of the things that we do exceptionally well.”

When a hurricane, earthquake or other disaster strikes, phone lines and cellphone towers can be torn down, and even operating cellphone networks can be overwhelmed by traffic, he says. But amateur radio operators can often stay connected, using battery, solar or generator power to relay information to each other and to authorities about what’s going on in their neighborhoods.

The National Hurricane Center hosts its own volunteer-run ham radio station that’s activated whenever a hurricane is near land, collecting eyewitness reports from affected areas and transmitting weather advisories to places cut off from other forms of communication by the storm. Some ham radio operators also participate in Skywarn, a National Weather Service network of volunteers who monitor severe thunderstorms and tornadoes in their areas.

“That provides the National Weather Service a different kind of information that they can use in addition to Doppler radar,” Kutzko said.

Experimenting with Electronics

While Kutzko says the hobby’s “main demographic” is probably in their 50s, a growing number of younger people are approaching ham radio through an interest in electronics. Many come from the so-called maker movement, integrating ham radio with do-it-yourself digital tools like the programmable Raspberry PI and Arduino lines of miniature computers.

“Some people enjoy tinkering and enjoy learning about electronics,” Kutzko said. “Some people enjoy experimenting with different types of antennas.”

Hams have also found ways to integrate their radio broadcasts with the internet – letting them send audio signals to fellow operators around the world, who can relay their signals onto the radio in their areas and help them reach a broader audience than they could using radio transmitters alone.

And for those looking to maximize what they can do with traditional airwaves, the ARRL offers prizes for hams who can successfully hit certain communication milestones, like communicating with every US state, every county or even every country in the world. Others enjoy taking low-powered transmitting equipment with them on hikes or camping trips, seeing who they can reach, says Kutzko.

“Part of the fun is being able to take your gear with you and transmit from this remote location,” he said.

Making Conversation

Perhaps most importantly, the hobby provides a way for people to make friends from around the world and connect with old ones.

“Some people enjoy meeting people new on the radio – there’s a very social aspect of it," Kutzko said.

And that social side isn't limited to over-the-air communications: There are thousands of ham radio clubs around the world who get together to swap tips on equipment and bring new broadcasters into the fold, Kutzko said.

“There’s an entire group of people who will help you learn and teach you things," he said.

About the Author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist with a background in technology. He has written for a variety of publications and was awarded the Knight Foundation scholarship to Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.