Amateur Radio: Relevance in Modern Radio Communications Engineering Careers – Part 1

I wrote the following article on Linked-In in February 2021 in response to challenges I saw to the Amateur Service, as well as challenges in my work place where I am looking for opportunities to give new graduates the chance to experience radio outside of a computer model at their desks. It deserves wider exposure, so I am presenting it here too.

Telecommunications Engineering – how do graduates receive hands on training today?

I have been a radio systems and cellular networks engineer here in Australia for nearly 27 years, starting out in what was then Telecom Australia. As a young graduate in 1994, I was given many hands on opportunities to design, then measure and field test radio systems right across the radio spectrum. I was lucky enough though the first 15 years of my career to work on systems from 150 MHz to 18 GHz including point to point/multi-point, fixed link, cellular and Ku band satellite networks. I was also lucky enough during those years to be able to merge the knowledge I gained at work, with my own radio communications experiments conducted within the amateur radio service, something I had started in high school. (I actually started my amateur radio journey transmitting TV pictures across my home city on the UHF bands back in 1987).

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Desktop Computer coverage modelling

Fast forward to today, I find many of the VHF/UHF point to point technologies have disappeared from telecommunications. More importantly, however, has been the loss of opportunities to gain field based professional experience across the radio spectrum.

Given the changing technology landscape, as well as the unfortunate dominance of accountants over engineers in many of today’s major telecommunications businesses, where do today’s and tomorrows graduate engineers go to learn their radio trade craft? How do they gain hands on insights into how radio waves get from A to B?

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Telecom DRCS network terminal circa 1980s/90s

Radio Engineering in the 90s and 2000s

Looking back at the 1990s and early 2000s, the value of radio engineering was inherently recognized within telecommunications businesses. It also was a skill that was not just learned in the office. We were encouraged to get out in the field to learn and refine our craft. I know in my early years I gained a wealth of knowledge about radio systems design from the practical work I was allowed to undertaken as part of rolling out radio-telephony services across regional and remote Australia.

Of course, it is expensive to have engineers roaming the countryside measuring radio paths. However as computer modelling was still in its relative infancy, and mapping details in remote Australia had not entered the satellite age, it was mandatory to gain practical knowledge of the radio paths we were going to use to deliver reliable telephony services. The practical data we gathered enabled us to in fact refine the computer models we had, so that we could guarantee service reliability in some of the remotest parts of Australia.

That practical field experience, setting up transmitters, receivers and working with different types of antennas, also was invaluable in gaining an appreciation of the systems design challenges at hand, operating radio equipment in the harsh interior of Australia. Ultimately, that experience helped train me to be a better RF engineer!

What do telecoms graduates experience today?

The disappearance of the VHF/UHF fixed links from telecommunications systems following the rise of satellite systems, and the improvements in available mapping data have combined to drive more and more design work to be done from a desk rather than in the field. In the cellular engineering world today, the push to limit hands on drive testing by the network design engineers due to perceived costs, removes the real time feedback mechanism that also teaches those engineers how radio waves really propagate, as well as when to believe the computers and when to investigate further.

Today’s new graduates no longer are given the opportunity to even gain practical skills at connecting up, configuring and operating transmitters, receivers and antennas. Understanding UHF spectrum’s characteristics however is fundamental to cellular systems. From these perspective, it is now much harder for a new graduate to learn the art that is radio-communications engineering, compared to the opportunities I was given back in the 1990s.

The professional opportunities I had,
simply are no longer available.
So, where to from here?

What I see today is that most graduates are ultimately discouraged from leaving the office. Practical learning environments have all but disappeared. So, what can they do to develop that all important practical experience of what radio waves can and cant really do? How do we teach them to view the computer simulations with the right amount of skepticism?

The Role of “Amateur Radio” in Professional Development

The engineers of tomorrow need to have a very sophisticated understanding of the radio spectrum and what you can do with it. In today’s wireless connected world, understanding antennas, propagation characteristics and even basic power and mechanical issues of how to place network equipment out in the environment is paramount. Post graduate (including in house on the job) programs however teach very little of this, mostly due to a lack of opportunity in the workplace. So, where can you go to really gain a deeper understanding of what all of the theory represents in the real world?

In my opinion, if you want to experiment with radio techniques and learn how the radio spectrum behaves, one of the last bastions available today is in fact the Amateur Radio Service!

ITU-RR Article 1.56: A radiocommunication service for the purpose of
self-training, intercommunication and technical investigations
carried out by amateurs, that is, by duly authorized persons
interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim
and without pecuniary interest.

Amateur Radio experimenters have access to slices of the radio frequency spectrum from 137 kHz right through to 248 GHz in which to carry out investigations and gain improved understanding of the radio communications art-form. Within that spectrum, all manner of experiments can be attempted, using narrow-band and wide-band analogue and digital modes from fixed and mobile stations that can facilitate terrestrial, stratospheric and satellite communications. Whats more, in each niche area, there is a pool of individuals who have often traveled the path before who are willing to mentor and share their experiences.

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Photo: VHF/UHF portable station seeking out long distance terrestrial communications on the 50 / 144 / 432 & 1296 MHz frequency bands

How can this not be considered a great professional development environment?

Why is this not promoted?

Holding an Amateur Operator’s Certificate of Proficiency, in days gone by, used to be looked upon by senior engineering managers as being a valuable additional qualification for a radio engineer. Today it seems it is not even known or recognized, or has been all but forgotten. Indeed it is sad to say many professionals who hold their Amateur Radio Service qualifications refuse to disclose them.

Why? Is it because people hold less than flattering perceptions of what Amateur Radio is? I do wonder just how much is understood by professional people today of what is possible within the amateur radio service? I believe that many engineering managers today, who have never been radio amateurs themselves, overlook the amateur service’s self training and technical experimentation capabilities. I sense that many actually believe that the Amateur Radio service is nothing more than people talking on radios and tinkering in their back shed. The prestige that once went with holding an Amateur Certificate of Proficiency has been lost, along with the recognition of what that certificate enables an individual with an inquisitive mind to do.

Mention Amateur Radio and it seems people think we still just use Morse Code even (we do of course, but we also use advanced signal processing modes that can resolve signals many dB weaker than a Morse transmission). The corresponding conclusion seems to be that such pursuits dont have much to do with engineering. In my mind, they couldn’t be further from the mark. However, it does show that Amateur Radio has a serious image problem. This is likely why many professionals today will not reveal that they are also amateur radio enthusiasts. That is a real shame, as I believe that amateur radio is as relevant today to engineering professional development as it ever was.

The Challenge for Amateur Radio today

The challenge seems to be, how to restore the status holding an Amateur Licence once held within the professional engineering community. Further, pathways need to be re-established to again introduce an amateur licence as something worthy of encouraging graduates and junior engineers to obtain. Otherwise, we will continue to see many new entrants in telecommunications engineering who have never personally operated a transmitter or panned an antenna, who indeed have no actual practical experience of radio to draw upon at all.

In Part 2…

In the next part of this series, I will explore some of the facets of the Amateur Radio Service and their relevance to engineering skill development. I hope to show how they can form part of an self-educational journey that can drastically enhance a new graduate’s understanding of antennas, radio propagation and spectrum management, thus making them on the whole, a more effective RF engineer.

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