Earlier this week I wrote about the two-way radio show I attended. Handling the high-end radios designed for commercial and public safety use reminded me of how twenty years ago my friends and I in used to use these radios as ham radios.
Motorola was the undisputed best in ruggedness. Stories abounded about their continuing to work normally after having been dropped from high towers on to concrete, briefly submerged in water, or hit by a car.
I reached out to some of the amateur radio operators (hams) who introduced me to the benefits of commercial-grade equipment over twenty years ago. It turns out commercial-grade equipment is more common among hams today than it was in the 90s.
Analog FM is spectrally inefficient, but there is no standard digital communication mode for amateur radio. The most common one is D-STAR. Many hams are dissatisfied with its audio quality and audio artifacts it produces during signal fades. Some are beginning to use NXDN (sometimes known by Kenwood's name for it, NEXTEDGE), DRM, and P25-- the standards used by commercial two-way vendors.
The reps at last week's show mentioned DRM's ability to have two time slots on the same frequency several times. Commercial users with one frequency pair would most like have already acquired another pair if they needed two channels, so this is a feature looking for a problem. For hams, though, the feature solves a real problem. In the past decade it has become common for local amateur radio repeaters to be connected to the Internet, allowing users to connect the repeater to local repeaters in distant cities. Repeaters are on local bands and are traditionally used for local communication. In DRM repeaters, one time slot can be allocated to the Internet link leaving the other channel free for local-only traffic.
Separate from the issue of which digital standard to use is the issue of the quality of the equipment. Commercial radio equipment is usually superior to equipment marketed to hobbyists. The reps at General Communications promoted Harris as the new high-end vendor, but my network of hams says they're very good, but Motorola still reigns as the best.
The days of hams inventing new radio techniques that are later adopted for commercial use are long gone. But it still seems hams are putting to full use technologies that commercial and public safety users are being sold on but are not using.
In the 80s and 90s hams used their radios to place local phone calls while away from home and to talk to friends and relatives in distant cities. A ham who used the amateur bands only for those purposes risked being branded a “lid”. I suspect hams are adopting commercial equipment more because the Internet and mobile phones have taken away those casual users, leaving mostly diehards who appreciate the technology for its own sake.