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My, how things change in communications

K9EV talks about how communications infrastructure has been enhanced and hardened over the years in When Failure is Not an Option. Amateur Radio is no longer the option when failures in communications are remote.

There are stories about how Amateur Radio operators were first to hear the news of the Haiti earthquake but there is also the reality that one of the biggest disasters there is the failure of communications that even Amateur Radio could not fill. When all else failed, Amateur Radio wasn’t there, either. In the US, many cities or counties have extensive emergency preparedness plans that include communications capabilities. Amateur Radio no longer needs provide equipment or operating facilities as these local governments have specially prepared vans or trailers with equipment and supplies ready to go for emergency communications.

Then there’s the commercial communication infrastructure K9EV describes. Not only are cell phone towers being hardened for better security and capabilities to operate for up to a week in disaster scenarios plus redundancies to survive contingencies. That is supported by back-haul links to central exchanges and network redundancy that is also hardened. And the cell network is not the only ‘last mile’ link between consumers and the network as cable and other alternatives to the traditional battery operated hard wired telephone have become more reliable as well.

One big deal was in 1982 or thereabouts when the telephone company was required to allow connections of alien equipment to their POTS network. That had been a big problem for the autopatches hams used to facilitate connection between their radios and the commercial network. It was also an issue in the modem equipment used to connect computers for remote data access.

Behind the scenes was the telcos moving from traditional hard linked connections with embedded control signaling towards digital circuit systems with segregated controls systems. The old system was why ‘phreakers’ with ‘blue boxes’ could use tones to hack the system and get free long distance. The new system, the SS7 system, helped block this misuse and provided the opportunity for the telco to provide many new features.

Then there was the telecommunications act of 1996 that allowed ‘competitive’ local exchange carriers (CLEC) to access the switching facilities of the incumbent carriers (ILEC) that provided the wire link to the consumers. That paved the way to alternatives to the traditional telephone system and the integration of the SS7 backbone to the IP based I’net. That, in turn, made VOIP feasible.

The problem of cell phones in schools also demonstrates a part of this. School children are no longer amazed by simple crystal set radios and can-on-a-string intercoms. They have cell phones with cameras and music players and I’net access that their parents can used to keep track of them and that they can use to constantly communicate with their circle of friends using voice, text, or even video.

Obviously amateur radio will continue to stand in the gap providing emergency communication services wherever and whenever it is requested, … But we seem to have entered a phase where … our radio gear and communication know-how doesn’t add as much value as it did when our kind of wireless was the only wireless available.

I think we’re in need of some re-branding if we want to remain relevant.

The first commonly available public and popular wireless facility was citizens band radio (CB) that took off in the seventies. Since then, the Heathkit era faded as fabrication of electronic and electrical appliances became modular, integrated, and inexpensive and software took over many hardware functions. Many communications methods have become popular, useful, and reliable. Even the picture phone hypothesized as future tech in the 60’s has become reality with a miniature camera mounted at the top of a flat screen computer monitor that has enough picture quality to be embarrassing.

Since the rise of the CB era, the ‘Amateur Radio’ brand has needed a focus and direction that has not occurred. A unique and inexpensive way to chat over distance? gone. A resource for ‘when all else fails?’ handled. A build-it-yourself for cheap high grade equipment? can’t compete with COTS (commercial off the shelf). Leading edge communications technology development? you just try to build a GHz capable microchip that is software driven in your garage.

There is something left for a focus. That is people: operator training and public educations. Unfortunately, that aspect has also been diluted by government policy and tactical thinking.

The questions “who am I?” and “where, now?” are well overdue for the amateur radio community and the societies that allow them use of radio spectrum and other considerations.

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