This topic comes up from time to time, and I’ve never seen anyone give a definitive argument as to why VoIP modes like Echolink, IRLP, some uses of D-Star (dongles and “dx”), CQ100 and so forth are absolutely not amateur radio. To me, it is obvious that they are not amateur radio, and it’s easy to explain why: none of them use radio, amateur radio specifically, but radio in general, as the primary method to transmit information.
That’s not to say that they don’t use radio. Certainly with IRLP, Echolink and “DX” uses of D-Star, radio is involved. That’s where people get confused… “It uses a radio, therefore it is amateur radio” and that’s absolutely wrong.
It’s wrong because if you took the radio away, all those modes still work. Echolink, all the DX part of D-Star, and CQ100 work over the internet, computer to computer. Any use of a radio is a secondary convenience. In the case of CQ100, it’s primary purpose is to be used computer to computer. Legally speaking, no person needs an amateur radio licence to use these applications, despite the best efforts of software authors to keep access restricted to the amateur radio community. If the guy down the street downloads Echolink or CQ100 and somehow manages to get an authorized registration, all the hooting and hollering in the world will not get your national communications regulator to come down on the guy.
On the other hand, if you take the internet away, Echolink, IRLP, CQ100, and most of D-Star die immediately. They absolutely cannot function without the internet, and it is because of this that I say it is clear that such modes are not amateur radio. In fact, they’re no different than Skype or Logitech’s video program, or MSN Messenger beyond having less features than those commercial VoIP programs.
D-Star is a special case because it can be used for direct, radio-to-radio communication. Thus, I have to afford that mode special dispensation: At the core, D-Star is amateur radio, but a lot of how it is used is not.
But PSK and other digital modes use a computer too. I guess they aren’t amateur radio.
Wrong. That is a canard oft trotted out in defence of the “amateur radio” status of Echolink et al. but it is a strawman that is incorrect at the most basic level. The issue isn’t the use of a computer. Machines have been communicating by radio for more than half a century. PSK, RTTY and other digital modes are just modern versions of that.
Take away the internet, and people’s digital modes software still works and they can still communicate by radio. Take away the radio, and all that digital modes software becomes useless. Therefore, it is amateur radio.
The computer is not the issue, the primary communication medium is the issue. With PSK etc. that medium is radio, with Echolink etc. it is the internet.
Why does this matter?
Largely, it does not except in message board fights. One place it does matter, however, is in the public-service angle of amateur radio… you know, that part where we’re supposed to be able to communicate in the event of some kind of emergency where the major communication systems are knocked out.
One property of disasters is that they can take out the internet locally. So if your amateur radio setup is based around internet modes, you are effectively useless when the internet drops out over a wide area… as happened in Haiti and Chile during their recent earthquake disasters, as happened in Louisiana with the hurricane, and as is the case over much of the world where internet just hasn’t made it yet.
These internet modes are fun to play around with, but don’t think of them as amateur radio. They’re not, and they won’t ever be a replacement for basic radio communications.
Some very good and interesting comments. I’ve decided to add a bit here to address them.
I feel very strongly that amateur radio is about more than just communication and the ability to self-learn. You don’t need amateur radio for that. If that is the only justification for the existence of amateur radio, then we’re already in deep, deep trouble. With pressure from commercial interests, and a general disinterest from the public, it won’t be long before amateur radio is killed off if the best we can do is work out glorified Skype or MSN clients that look like a radio on-screen. To me, the purposes of amateur radio are to allow people an experimental venue from which they can learn about radio communication, to further radio communication research, and to provide public service in the event of an emergency when the other infrastructure fails. That’s why we don’t need VoIP on the internet… let commercial interests do that (they already have). We shouldn’t be wasting time and effort reinventing an already well-perfected wheel.
There are aspects of this sort of technology that would be very useful in the amateur radio world. Here’s a few ideas where I think this area of interest should be going that would further amateur radio, rather than just being yet-another-VoIP-client on the internet (and thus useless when the internet doesn’t work). This is definitely not an exhaustive list:
That’s where I think we should be spending effort instead of wasting it on things like VoIP over the internet and pretending that it’s radio.