The Original Social Media?
February 2014

Eric Swartz can trace his interest in engineering partly to his teenage years. He had friends all over the globe. Even one from Japan, who taught him a bit of the language. But this wasn’t from world traveling - it was simply from a ham radio.

Today, Swartz, who worked as an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley, is co-owner of the ham radio company Elecraft, Aptos, CA.

“The joke is that this was the original social media,” he says. “You could turn on the radio and you never knew who you were going to talk to. I didn’t have a lot of money so I tinkered with my radio on my own. It really opened my mind to things.”

Swartz explains a few of the highlights of ham radio’s evolution. “At one point you had Morse code over the airwaves, but not for super long distances,” he says. “Then it was longer as we discovered what frequencies worked better. We got to voice communication, amplitude modulation, and then sideband, which was more efficient. Now we’ve gotten to the time of digital-encoded voice and even involving amateur satellites.”

In terms of what can be created in the field, Swartz says the limits are few. “From a technical standpoint there aren’t really restrictions on the different types of communication technology we can use,” he says. “We have everything from straight analog audio communications to fully digitized voice, and more. With the products we work with, the majority of them have a microprocessor in them, frequently more with a digital signal processor. This is processing signals both on receive and transmit. It also includes lots of analog coming through, amplifying the signals and getting them to higher power levels.”

Swartz says radios at Elecraft are almost 100% software-defined when it comes to main radio function in terms of high-speed processors. “We then put in these outside analog components to amplify the signals going in and out,” he says.

As far as where he envisions ham radios going forward? “We’re seeing interesting stuff going on in digital communication over amateur radio,” he says. “It’s effective in ways to communicate with very low signal-to-noise ratios; in other words, very weak signals. Also, digital modes that can communicate below the signal noise floor—obviously, the data rates are slower when you do that. We’re also seeing more effective radio design that’s digital software-defined.” In addition, he says listening fatigue is being affected through noise reduction and different modulation schemes.

According to Swartz, there are roughly 750,000 licensed ham radio operators in the U.S. and three million worldwide. It's also one of the few means of communication in remote parts of the world. “[Musician] Joe Walsh is very into ham radio,". he notes. "I believe even Marlon Brando was very into it. It’s a diverse hobby in terms of what people can do. For some, it’s casual and social, for others, they can get involved in the technical side. You can make it what you want it to be.”