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Is the “HT Trap” Slowing our Hobby’s Growth?
By Don Keith N4KC
Copyright 2018 by Don Keith
Get two or more Hams together and the topic of our hobby’s growth—or lack thereof—will eventually come up. Some among our ranks are convinced we are doomed. Kids nowadays prefer Pinterest, YouTube and iPhones to DX, DSP and D-Star. Scan a hamfest crowd and it looks like a Grecian Formula test gone berserk. Others prefer that we not grow our ranks or just do not care one way or the other. Keeps the bands less congested. Or so what if nobody new joins the hobby? Don’t affect me none. I can still jump in with that same bunch of guys that have been meeting every night on 75 meters since Eisenhower was president.
The truth is, much of that stuff in the previous paragraph is wrong. Our numbers are growing. Kids are finding us. So are middle-aged people and even older types who see what a great retirement avocation Amateur Radio is. All should be welcomed with open arms and a helpful spirit.
That being said, I do believe there is one thing that is costing us many enthusiastic newcomers before they have had a good chance to experience most of what our hobby has to offer. I have seen this phenomenon over and over and it saddens me. See if you have observed it, too. Or maybe you are living it right now.
Someone gets excited about Ham Radio, studies hard, passes the exam, and gets a license and call sign. Immediately he or she is faced with the challenge of how to get on the air. What radio to buy? How is it possible to put up an antenna? What would the newcomer even say to all those experienced operators out there if he or she did manage to get a working station on the air?
Most likely if you are a new Ham you start with the Technician-class license—as most people do—and thus have very limited HF operating privileges (“HF” means “high frequencies,” the shortwave frequencies assigned to Amateurs as opposed to the bands on VHF and UHF, where you typically find your local repeater stations). Why should you even think about a new (or used) radio that covers all those frequencies you cannot yet use and still have to worry about an ugly outside antenna? Shouldn’t you even avoid purchasing a 50-watt, $300 VHF/UHF FM radio until you see if this hobby is really all it is cracked up to be? You just need a radio that will allow you to talk through the “repeater” stations around town. That would let you get your feet wet and get you on the air…NOW! Now and with minimum hassle.
Besides, you reason, the catalogs and radio store web sites are packed with those little walkie-talkie things for sale. There are guys at hamfests with tables full of the cute little gizmos. And some of those are priced at less than fifty bucks! That’s less than a family night out at Appleby’s and, with one of those tiny hand-held radios, you would be ON THE AIR, using your license, testing the waters in your newly-adopted hobby. They are a real Amateur Radio station right there in the palm of your hand.
So okay, you decide, that’s it. Easy decision. You want to get on the air quickly and inexpensively and with minimum aggravation. The little HT comes complete with antenna, five watts of FM power, and a built-in battery and drop-in charger. Nothing else to buy. With one of those, you are on the air with no muss and fuss. No surreptitious antenna-raising when the neighbors are not watching. No major ding to the credit card for a big old multi-band/multi-mode transceiver. No steep learning curve while trying to figure out all those meters, buttons and knobs on a big, expensive—and very complicated—shortwave radio.
I understand the reasoning. The day your new call sign pops up in the FCC database, you can turn on that little handheld device and start yakking on the local repeaters. Ham Radio is yours and you can jump right in, enjoying it without fear or stress.
Those little HTs are great and with the entry into the market of the Chinese manufacturers, they are available at so-what-if-I-lose-it prices. Everyone should have at least one walkie-talkie for local repeater use and to assist in public service events, storm spotting, and emergency situations. They are handy for monitoring repeaters, too, no matter where you might be, especially early on in your Ham career as you learn protocol and who is who.
But they are a trap, I tell you. A trap! And here is why.
You finally see your call sign in the FCC database, get excited, pull out the little $50 radio you have already been listening to, and you summon up the courage to make a call. You check to be sure nobody else is using the repeater. You carefully pronounce that convoluted set of letters and numbers the FCC assigned you and ask if anybody is around, just as you have heard others do on the repeater. When you let up on the button you hear the squelch tail of the repeater for a few seconds, and maybe the voice or Morse code identification.
The radio works! You have emitted radio-frequency energy into the atmosphere! The repeater apparently actually heard you!
But nobody responds. You try several more times over the next few days. Nobody answers. Where are all those friendly voices you have been hearing chatting about anything and everything? And even offering friendly welcomes to other newcomers just like you.
Finally, afraid you have gotten a busted radio, you decide to break into an ongoing conversation you hear, just to see if they can pick you up. You gather your courage and wait for a lull, then say your call sign, just as you have heard others do.
“Joe, sounds like somebody trying to get into the repeater. Try it again, Old Man.”
(No insult intended there, by the way. Hams call each other “Old Man” all the time if they don’t know the other guy’s name, and whether you are young, old or somewhere in between. Don’t ask why. Just accept it. Unless you are female. Then you have every reason to get mad about it.)
So, pulse racing, you push the PTT (“push-to-talk”) button once again and give your new call sign, your name, your location, and ask them for a signal report. They heard you! You are about to make your first actual Amateur Radio “QSO.”
“Sorry, friend, you just are not making it into the repeater,” comes the soul-crushing response. “Maybe try again later when you are in a better location.”
And that happens to you a couple more times. Better location? You are hearing the repeater’s signal just fine. And this radio is supposed to put out five watts. Maybe it is broken after all.
There is likely nothing wrong with your radio. That is just the nature of VHF and UHF communications. They are termed “line of sight” frequencies. You literally have to be able to see the repeater antenna—or come very close—for the repeater to hear your signal well enough for it to repeat it back by re-transmitting it.
Plus you are most likely using the stock antenna that came with your radio, what Hams call a “rubber duckie.” It is a flexible but stubby aerial, made for convenience and toughness, not efficiency or effectiveness. Very few of your five watts are actually being radiated. Instead, they are being used up as heat in that compromise antenna screwed to the top of your HT.
If you plan to use the HT much and are not in a prime position to reach the repeater, you should actually invest in a quarter-wavelength antenna and attach it to your little handheld. Or a simple ground plane or j-pole and mount it outside your house with coax feed run inside to hook to your HT’s antenna output. If you intend to use the HT in the car, buy an outside “mag-mount” antenna which can be stuck on the roof or trunk deck, run the coax feedline inside, and attach it to the radio. It will make all the difference in the world.
Of course, you can also get one of those more powerful FM transceivers, put a more permanent antenna on the car, or put up an outside antenna at home. Note that for a home setup, you will need a twelve-volt power supply of some kind, too.
But the fact is that those negative experiences with the cheap HT have dampened your enthusiasm for Amateur Radio more than somewhat. Heck, that cell phone of yours operates somewhere up there in the UHF portion of the spectrum and it runs far less than five watts of power, yet it works. Most of the time anyway. Shoot, you can call China on the thing if you want to, but that doggone HT won’t even reach Mount Whozit twenty miles away!
If this Ham Radio stuff is this persnickety, you decide, you’ll just go back to talking to people on the phone and chatting on Facebook. The HT ends up back in its box or on Craig’s List. You tell friends you just don’t understand why folks are so gung-ho on this radio hobby. Heck, you can’t even talk reliably across town with the stuff.
That, in a nutshell, is the “HT trap.” And I am convinced it robs our avocation of many people who would enjoy it tremendously if they only got past that initial disappointment. That is why I urge people to go ahead and invest in a real station and get at least a marginal antenna up in addition to the cheap HT. There is so much more to the hobby than a handheld and a local repeater, even if you only hold a Technician license.
The good news? There was a time in our hobby’s history when you had to build or modify military or commercial surplus gear to get on the air. We are fortunate to live in a time when manufacturers offer surprisingly sophisticated gear at reasonable prices. Despite what some claim, ours is not an expensive pastime at all. Compare getting started in golf, fishing, or most any other hobby.
Priced a bass boat, trailer, trolling motor, tackle, lures and licenses lately? Do you have any idea what a bag of golf clubs, greens fees or club membership will run you? Believe me, Ham Radio can be much less expensive.
And you can sample most of the aspects of our hobby with a new HF radio (that can cost much less than a bag of golf clubs) and with a simple wire antenna.
Don’t let the cheap HT be your only experience with Amateur Radio. Go a few steps deeper, see what else the hobby has to offer, and you will learn why our numbers continue to grow even as we dive into our second century of existence.
And those numbers will grow even more if we can more folks past that enticing HT trap.
Don Keith N4KC has been a ham radio operator for more than fifty years. After a long career in broadcasting and advertising, he now writes full time and has published more than thirty books, fiction and non-fiction, on a wide range of subjects including amateur radio. See www.donkeith.com or www.n4kc.com for more info.