QRP, the saving grace of amateur radio?
While our numbers as HAMs continue to decline to ever smaller numbers, some see no way to revive interest. Now far from it for me to preach doom and gloom or otherwise preach to the choir but I do see the one and only salvation for renewed interest as being QRP, also known as low power operation using home built gear and antennas. The reason so many people became interested in Amateur radio long ago and into the late 1960s, was the opportunity to experiment with, and learn about, electronics. QRP is the only aspect of our hobby that really encourages that, as it's main focus. Let me give an example or two why the other facets of Amateur Radio don't add as much to our goal of attracting newcomers.
The wonderful bygone days of short-wave communications are behind us. They are passing us by not because of lack of people to talk to but more so because the thrill is becoming extinct. No longer do you have to build your own equipment to speak to others in far away places. There is no thrill involved like that feeling of using something that you built with your own two hands. Communicating with those around the world that share similar interests is now as simple as using Iphone, Webphone or Netmeeting on the Internet. My first exposure to voice over the internet was with Webphone, one of the first applications to do it, made by Creative Labs. My initial contact was with an electrical engineer in Holland who was walking to work. He was using a wireless handheld computer, and would regularly communicate with people around the world on his morning commute. At that point I saw the end of what would have been the attraction of short-wave for most people. If any child or adult can simply use one of these programs even over a 28800bps modem connection, then what would be the reason to obtain a license, purchase expensive equipment and erect antennas just to do the same thing they can already do for free with their personal computer? The answer is that there is no reason.
I had always seen articles about Packet, which is one aspect of digital communications over radio. One day I decided to try it, so I ordered a TNC (Device for linking your radio to a PC) and wired up a cable to hook my rig up to the TNC and computer. When it arrived I noticed the software program for the TNC was for DOS and that the manual was rather large. Now that in itself was ok but I as I turned it on and worked my way through primitive menu systems on the screen and began to see plain ASCII text stream across the screen I realized what little if any attraction this has to young people. It's very primitive compared to what you can do over the Internet. It is also very slow, and to receive even basic mail you must leave your equipment on 24 hours a day. That in itself is impractical for most. No matter what other services packet may offer, it is still through a primitive backward medium that doesn't present the same glamour and user friendliness of the Internet.
Slow scan or fast scan television which is the practice of sending black and white or full motion color images over radio is completely relegated to antiquity with the advent of the programs mentioned above which will do the same thing and better.
Repeater use on VHF, which was such a draw to those who wanted a Cell phone but didn't want the high cost, has now done two different things. First it has become a secondary cell phone market and second many that were on 2-meter repeaters, now have cell phones because the cost of the phones and service has dropped significantly.
The majority of HAM radio services have become nothing more than watching TV, or listening to the stereo, in that they are not uniquely different. And, what they do provide is less than adequate in entertainment value compared to modern day conveniences. Personally I am not concerned with attracting new members to the hobby as it stands, simply because I don't see a need to. If the hobby itself is interesting enough people will flock to it. In comes QRP, the only aspect that still teaches electronics, creativity, and antenna design and encourages steadfast determination to accomplish your goal. Whether it's building a rig from a kit or learning when your best time is to make your desired communication, it's much as it was 75 years ago. The main difference between then and now is simply that now we have solid-state parts instead of tubes, but the childlike fascination has been reborn in QRP.