Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Amateur Microwave Bands - Elitism Extreme?

This month, there's an interesting article in RadCom about receiving signals from research spacecraft exploring the Solar System.

Whilst I make no comment at all about the authors and contributors of the specific article in question, the fact remains that the GHz bands are extraordinarily specialised - and many seem more than happy to keep it that way.

The odd construction article does appear from time to time in the GHz section of RadCom.  But I doubt more than a tiny handful have ever benefited from those.  The trouble is, GHz band use requires a lot of technical know-how, and even more technical homebrewing. 

That kind of knowledge and expertise would have been reasonably common a few years ago.  But not now.  One of the most technically-adept operators I know locally says that, even with his ability to homebrew specialist kit, there is then the infinite problem of having no-one else to 'talk' to. 

This is a very sad state of affairs.  All the societies desperately try to make out amateur radio has a relevant, real-world use in the modern day.  If this is so, then microwave operation surely should be at the very top of their agenda, given the utter dominance of those frequencies in modern communications systems - and the threat they ceaselssly pose to the amateur GHz bands.  Yet, it languishes at the bottom of the well, the preserve of the wealthy, time-rich Baby Boomers, few of whom seem to have any inclination to introduce newcomers to the 'upper' bands.

Because new 'record distances' regularly feature in the GHz section reports, and that the hobby is, in general, prone to too much machoistic 'contesting', one comes to suspect that a primary motivation for keeping the upper bands free of the wider ham community is to ensure a small elite corner the market in achievement. 

I've seen the exact-same thing in top-end astrophotography in the hobby of amateur astronomy.  Groups existed - and still exist - that actively deny membership to anyone who hasn't got a long publishing record in the best magazines - which inevitably means denying membership to those who don't have the cash to invest in £15,000 set-ups.  No room there, then, for those who can innovate and produce great results with 'lesser' systems.  Unlike ham radio, though, amateur imaging is always advancing, and commercial computerisation of equipment makes it increasingly difficult for elites to maintain their position.  You'd be hard-pressed to find any plug-'n'-play GHz equipment - and even fewer that don't need a loan to buy - within the normal ham radio press.

The saddest thing of all is that I'm sure those who truly understand the technicalities and have an inclination to help others, would be able to get newcomers going in the GHz bands quite quickly.  Sadly, those kinds of people seem to be rare and, due to their age, are becoming rarer.

One group that seems to try and help the newcomer is the UK Microwave Group.  I was quite enthusiastic about their GHz equipment loan scheme - until I read that one had to arrange collection of quite bulky equipment from Glasgow.  I suppose it's useful for those in the area, but a bit of a nightmare for those who are not.  Once again, I find myself seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, only to realise it's an oncoming train...


  1. Having lost money and hair trying to produce and sell a plug'n play transverter for the 10GHz band, I really can't agree that there's no interest amongst the microwaving community in encouraging newcomers. However, major problems are the fictions that 'microwaves don't go very far' or are 'line-of-sight' , that 'it's horendously expensive', and that 'you need a brain the size of a planet' to participate, don't help.

    Let me counter those arguments. My personal best DX on 10GHz is to California, and DXCC has been made on 1.3GHz. The range of a reasonably sited 10W 3cm station using a cheap TV dish as an antenna is probably about the same as a 10W 2m station using a yagi. Amateur transponders in our 10GHz and 2.4GHz bands will be carried on geostationary satellites which are due to be launched in the near future.

    The cost factor is not huge. For the price of a headset from one of the big emporia you can buy a transverter to get get you on one of the lower microwave bands. That can be driven by a transceiver such as an FT817 to give useful power on one of the lower microwave bands. An antenna can be made quite cheaply. My first antenna for 1.3GHz was a dish, home made from expanded metal. The whole caboodle cost about a quid, but that was a long while ago. If you want to buy a good long yagi for 1.3GHz can be brought for around £150.

    While it's certainly true that there are some very bright people doing things on the microwave bands, there are an awful lot more 'ordinary radio amateurs' who are active on these bands - and getting good results.

    If you'd read through the UK Microwave Group website carefully, instead of jumping to conclusions, you'd have discovered that the group has a network of technical support volunteers offering help and advice to 'newbies' and more experienced microwavers alike. I know, I'm one of them!

    The UKuG loan scheme is there to help Members try new things. Yes, we do ask for people to arrange and pay for safe transport, but it's a limited resource, and AFAIK unique amongst UK amateur radio special interest groups.

    Perhaps you should have walked further along the tunnel and found out more before blogging!


    Chris, GW4DGU.
    (a former Chair, and current Committee Member of the UK Microwave Group, speaking for himself)

    1. Chris, I'm very pleased to receive the 'mythbusting' information.

      What does need adressing, perhaps you may agree, is why those myths exist? Why do I think along those lines? Do articles in RadCom really allow a total novice to follow, say, a series of introductory sessions? When I tried to enquire, I only got a condescending reply along the lines that RadCom wasn't the place for such introductions.

      In fairness, I didn't suggest that all microwavers were not interested in passing on their interest and skills. It would be nice, though, given than RadCom is always looking for fresh new authors, if aseries aimed squarely at total newcomers could be written. I once did precisely that for a whole year in another hobby arena, which proved remarkably popular. I fail to see why the same would not be true in radio.