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Is it radio when it uses VoIP? Not exactly…

Digital Modes, Equipment, General, Operating, Technology, Voice Modes

Much of this post comes from something I wrote years ago that sank with the old blog, but since the question has come up again, I thought it was time to revisit the old post (yay and bring things up to date.

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 some of them are certainly not amateur radio, and others are really just radio-based by convenience depending on how they are used. It’s trivial to explain which is which: It’s not amateur radio if an amateur radio transceiver isn’t involved.  Period.  An even better line might be that it’s not amateur radio if an amateur radio transceiver isn’t required.  The key is in the communications medium itself.

Using that defninition, it is a simple matter to determine what is and isn’t radio. Certainly with IRLP, Echolink and “DX” uses of D-Star, radio can be involved. That’s where people get confused… “It uses a radio, therefore it is amateur radio” and that’s absolutely wrong.

It is also situational.  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. When used in this manner they are absolutely not amateur radio. 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 for computer to computer communications, 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 as long as (in the case of Echolink) he never causes a signal to come out on an amateur radio frequency.

Now let’s look at it a bit deeper.  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 that this makes it 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.

So after all that, when this topic is discussed, someone always says this: PSK and other digital modes use a computer too.  I can use a computer to send CW. 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.

Just so it is absolutely clear: the way you tell if something is or isn’t amateur radio is by looking at the primary communication path, not the specific hardware.  With PSK, CW etc., even when done with a computer, that medium is radio. With Echolink etc. the primary medium 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. In the traditional sense, they’re not, and they won’t ever be a replacement for basic radio communications.  That doesn’t mean they’re not useful or fun technologies. I really enjoy using Echolink to get into repeaters back home when I’m travelling the world.  I just don’t think of the Echolink as amateur radio, but rather as a generic assisting technology like a VOX or an antenna rotor.

What about the things the technology brings to amateur radio?

I feel very strongly that amateur radio is about more than just the ability to self-learn (although that is the essence of amateur radio).  You don’t need amateur radio if ALL it is about is learning.  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 amateur radio doesn’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:

  • Digital voice over radio – Yes, D-Star is a cool area of endeavour not because it links repeaters over the internet but because the limited bandwidth requirements of a digital voice signal mean more conversations can fit on the standard bandwidth of an FM repeater.  More conversations is more efficient use of the available spectrum.  This technology also has direct commercial application with cellular phones and general commercial radio.  Advancing this sort of technology advances radio communication generally and harkens back to the original goals of amateur radio: to further communication technology over radio.  Amateur radio is grossly behind the times in this area when compared with cellular phone technology.  We should be on the leading edge of this stuff, not decades behind.
  • High speed data transfer over radio – Again, D-Star is making the advances here, but amateur radio still lags far behind the rest of the communications world in this area.  The ability to send high-speed data by radio would be a huge boon when using amateur radio in the event of an emergency.  Oddly enough, one of the types of traffic such a radio data network could carry would be digitized voice (such as voice over IP), or video.  The key here, however, is to gain the ability to do this over radio links when there is no internet, nor phone lines.  Again, amateur radio is decades behind on this when we should be leading it.  Just to drive this point home… if a bunch of amateurs set up even a 128 kbps radio network running IP over radio, they could run the free software Ventrilo and chat, computer to computer. Ventrilo is a commercially supported package that is well tested and works extremely well.  Increase that network bandwidth and you could carry a lot of VoIP conversations very effectively.  My point: instead of working out ham radio simulators, let’s solve the high speed data over radio issues.
  • Both of the above over satellite – to get message and data traffic out of a disaster area, satellites are likely the way of the future.  Efforts that enable the ability to use existing and future satellites for the previous two purposes will greatly advance amateur radio in terms of the intended purpose of amateur radio and in the eyes of the public.
  • Improved HF modes – faster and error corrected methods of transferring information globally over HF radio.
  • Space communication – faster, smaller, easier methods of sending messages over inter-planetary distances.  It’s maybe a bit early, but radio amateurs can lead this field with work on things like EME and Earth-Venus-Earth or Earth-Mars-Earth work.

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.

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