Mar 052011

This is a question raised on an earlier post of mine.

It’s an interesting comparison between radios and mobile phones.  And some are of the belief that all you do with a radio, is talk on it, or that mobile phones can completely replace radios.  Rather than respond there, I’ve decided there’s enough content there for a completely separate post.  I have highlighted my main arguments here for those who just want to quickly skim through.

Indeed, mobile phones do exist, and they are very handy things.  They do generally come with some sort of hands-free capability.  This is true of my Nokia 3310 … the connectors are available from JayCar, and the headset schematic is trivial.  This is not true of all mobile phones unfortunately.  Much the same is true of my radios, the FT-897D takes a standard RJ45 connector for the microphone, the FT-290R II takes a more obscure 8-pin “Foster” connector, but even they can be sourced if you look around.

RFI is a worse problem for mobile phones however, GSM seems to have a happy knack of being able to inject itself into almost anything unless you’re careful with your circuit design.

It’s worth considering what the primary point of the exercise is however, and how radio and mobile phones differ.

Mobile phones are great if you want to call someone specific. They are highly optimised for one-to-one conversations.  In fact, it’s highly expensive to do anything else.  Conference calls are a rare thing and you pay through the nose for the privilege.  Mobile phone charges are high enough already — I would not like to be paying for the cost of a one hour conference call twice daily on my way from/to work.

To contrast the fees, it costs me $20/month for a mobile phone service through Telstra (excluding calls).  I rarely see a phone bill above $30, but I’d probably see that climb to triple digits if I used it in the manner I use my radio.  The radio license costs me $65/year, regardless of whether I leave my station packed-up and inoperable, or whether I’m using it all 31557600 seconds of the year.

When I was riding frequently however, I regularly participated in discussions on my commutes.  It does make the ride more enjoyable when you can have a friendly chat on the way in.  The beauty of radio though is that you don’t all have to be in close enough proximity to hear each other baseband.

Radios are well suited to group discussions, since radio is an inherently shared medium. At most a repeater site which can relay the traffic between stations is all that is necessary.  I’ve also had quite successful simplex contacts on the 2m band over 50km, and overseas on the 40m band.  Mobile phones only achieve coverage over a few kilometres line-of-sight, coverage is extended by cellular towers which perform a similar function to repeaters.

If you’re in a discussion on the radio, good operating practice states that you leave a gap between transmissions so that other stations may break in if needed.  The breaking station may be someone wanting to get in touch with one of the other operators on frequency, may be an interested party, or could even be a person in distress.

It’s relatively simple for someone to jump in on a conversation.  Mobile phones however, prohibit this unless, once again, you pay severely for the privilege.  How often have you been in a situation where you’ve been trying to chase a caller off the phone so that the line is free for that important call you’ve been waiting for?  Not such a problem with radio.

Mobile phones give you a certain degree of privacy in communications.  Encryption standards vary between mobile phone standards, but all of them (except AMPS, which is now extinct) provide some means of privacy.  Radios generally don’t unless you pay through the nose for a set and a suitable license.  Encryption is also forbidden on amateur bands.

Both allow a certain amount of experimentation.  If you have a mobile phone that provides an antenna socket, it is theoretically possible to construct your own antennas.  You are not however able to alter the transmission mode or frequency of operation, nor are you able to construct your own mobile phone (homebrewing) without significant expense, as the device you construct must be tested and approved by local authorities before you may connect it to a network.  (In Australia, the body responsible is the ACMA, and the approval you need comes in the form of a “regulatory compliance mark”, formerly “A-tick”.)

You can however readily experiment with software running on top of modern smartphones, if you phone is that new.  (Mine isn’t)  Or, if you have a >= 3G capable phone (again, mine isn’t), you can hook a small computer up and use standard VoIP software.

Radios on the other hand, if your license permits it (mine does), can be completely constructed from scratch.  You choose the frequency and mode, there are boundaries where you cannot go, but there’s still a hell of a lot of freedom that mobile phones do not provide.  All amateur transceivers have socketed antennas, allowing experimentation with other antenna types.  Multi-band sets permit experimentation with different frequency bands, all of which differ in their properties.  Transmission modes include pretty much all analogue modes, and in most license classes, many forms of digital communication.

Mobile phones typically are fairly easy to use (there are people however that never seem to get it however), while radios almost always require a certain level of training.  Amateur radio requires you to sit two or three separate exams (usually two written exams for theory and regulations, and a practical test).

Some might ask why I use such an old mobile phone?  Well, you’ll notice the FT-290R II isn’t a spring chicken either.  I use stuff because they do the job.  The old Nokia 3310 has been solid and reliable.  There’s minimal “fluff” to cause problems.  Someone dials my number, it rings.  I dial a number, it calls that person.  Text messages, easy.  My needs don’t require anything more sophisticated.  Don’t unnecessarily complicate, I say.  When I’m out and about, this means I’m contactable two ways … primarily by radio, but if the phone rings, I can pull over and plug the phone in instead to take the call.

In my situation on a bicycle, it is also paramount that I do not have my hands tied up manipulating radio/phone controls. My solution was to wire up a small keypad which provides push-to-talk and four directional buttons.  On the mobile phone, the PTT becomes my answer button, and I can dial a person by momentarily pressing the button, waiting for the prompt, and announcing the “voice tag” of the person in the phone book.  The phone then rings that person automatically.

On the radio, I mainly use memory channels, so I’m moving up and down the memory channels.  Usually I just switch to a given frequency, and stay there.  When I want to talk, I press the button down — or, more recently I added a switch which is equivalent to “holding the button”.  So I just flick the switch to go to transmit, and flick it back again.  In the meantime, I’m able to use my hands for operating the bicycle.

Contrast this with trying to juggle a netbook computer running a VoIP package such as Skype.  It’d be a nightmare, those user interfaces are not designed for mobile operation. They’re simply not appropriate.  SIP-based VoIP is better in some ways as you can code your own application, but even then, you’re at the mercy of the mobile phone carrier’s network.  VoIP is very sensitive to NAT and dynamic IP addresses, and I think operating mobile in this manner would be a bit much to expect.  Skype also cannot handle a group as large as radio can.  (SIP can handle over 200 participants in a conference, limited by server bandwidth.  On the radio, I’ve regularly participated in nets with more than 10 people on air at a time.  Skype is limited to 5 IIRC, or maybe you pay for more.)

Amateur radio is largely infrastructure independent. On the bicycle I can get around obstacles that would be impassable in a car.  With high capacity batteries, and a reasonable power set on a high mountain top, I can achieve significant simplex range, thus allowing me to relay traffic over great distances, without any requirement for intermediate infrastructure.

“Ohh, I’ll just use the phone for that” you say.  Yeah, right.  Try that in the Lockyer Valley just now.  Many of the mobile phone towers went for a swim, as did the exchanges.  Areas around Grantham are without any forms of mobile or land-line based telephony.  And of course, no Internet.  The same situation was the case for people caught up in the Black Saturday bushfires down in Victoria.  I’d imagine communications are under very heavy strain in Christchurch at the moment.

Mark Pesce made a very valid point in his LCA2011 keynote, communications can also be disrupted for political reasons, such as what has happened in Egypt and Lybia.  What do you do then?  Radio’s not perfect, but it sure beats being left without a means to let people know you’re okay.  With mobile phones, you are dependent on others to bring online infrastructure, before you can make a call from your phone to the other.  (Unless you experiment with something like the Serval Batphone, which has its limitations.)

So one does not completely replace the other.  They are complementary. The theory requirement keeps a lot of people away from amateur radio, however I’m happy to report I’ve never received a telemarketing call on the radio. 🙂  More to the point, there is more to amateur radio than just talking to people, just like there’s more to the police force than just arresting people.

As for me, radio has fascinated me for a long time.  I first became interested in radio from a very young age, but I particularly got into it after studying how it worked at university.  This is what lead me on to amateur radio.  So for me, it’s as much technical as it is social.  I enjoy meeting up and talking with people, but I also enjoy the experimental aspect of it.

At the moment, a large amount of my energy is going into bicycle mobile operation, particularly with regards to HF communications.  This does necessitate big antennas.  Antenna installations are always a trade-off between physical size, efficiency and band-width, and it can be a real challenge to get things working, but it’s rewarding when it pays off.

Some would argue: “Why bother? Just use a mobile phone.”  That’s like asking a car enthusiast, “why muck around under the bonnet when you can take your car to the garage down the road?”  Or to the avid gardener, “Why bother growing your own veges, there’s a greengrocer in the shopping centre?”.  Yes, they do exist.

I also would like to point out that the commercial world has gained lots from home experimenters.  You use a NAT router for your home Internet connection?  What’s the OS it runs?  Many run Linux.  Did we get Linux from a big commercial organisation originally?  No, it came from an avid homebrewer of operating system kernels, and was never intended to be “big and professional like gnu”.  Did we get Single Sideband from the commercial world?  No, it was an Amateur Radio inspired invention.  Likewise with a lot of high frequency design techniques that are in mobile phones today.  Heck, in the future we’ll probably be adding Codec2 to that list.

The world needs amateurs of all persuasions.  For this reason, declaring something “obsolete” just because you can do the subset of things you do with another more contemporary technology, is a short-sighted way of viewing things.  The amateur world benefits from the professional world, and vice versa.  It’s often the case that someone who works in a particular industry for a living, goes home then hacks on various projects related to that industry for fun in his/her spare time.

So, “why not just use a mobile phone”?  Because I find radio fun, I enjoy it, and I hope that some day, what I learn can be shared and applied in a professional setting to improve technology as a whole.  After all, isn’t having fun what the world is all about?