Why are the Repeaters so Quiet?

This is a common question asked by hams, new and experienced alike: where is everybody. When you turn on the local 2 meter repeater, more often than not it’s nothing but crickets. I’m sure you can relay the stories about how the repeaters would be active 24/7- there would always be someone on and willing to talk. But now a days it seems like just the opposite. Why is this? I’m going to explore this topic a bit and give my opinion to why we don’t hear the activity we used to.

Of course one easy response to this question is that the Internet and smart phones killed the repeater. Why should I carry a radio when I can just use my phone to text my spouse, significant other, kids, or friends. It’s so much more convenient and I don’t have to worry about the peanut gallery chiming in. But I think that’s only part of the story. Yes, I will admit that I probably message my ham buddies more than I talk to them over the air, and that may not be a good thing overall as it dilutes the efficacy of the amateur radio service.

Maybe it’s because everyone is upgrading and spending more of their time on HF and less on the VHF and UHF bands. It would be great if that were the case and there is certainly evidence of increased HF activity. But I don’t think anyone is talking local on HF, at least I know I’m not talking to my local ham buddies on 80 meters.

I’m going to contend that the reason we don’t hear more hams on the local repeaters is the increased fragmentation of the airwaves. There’s a geo-political term can Balkanization that describes this.

Balkanize

To break up (a region, group, etc) into smaller and often hostile units

or

Divide, or compartmentalize. such as: now pop culture has been balkanized, it is full of niches, with different groups watching and playing their own things.

The 2nd definition aptly describes what is going on here. But for a little bit of context, the word Balkanize comes from the Balkan Peninsula and mountain range which stretches through Bulgaria and Serbia, to the Black sea. This region which included Albania, Greece, Romania, and part of Turkey fractured during a series of revolts towards the end of the Ottoman Empire. This unstable coexistence led to the breakout of World War I. Since that time, the word Balkanize has come to refer to the kind of divisive action that can weaken countries, groups, and other things.

So we often heard the word Balkanize thrown in to the discussion of wedge issues that divide us apart. But how does that apply to ham radio?

I think it manifests itself in the 2 meter landscape of FM repeaters. When repeaters were a new item, we may have had one or two in a community and they were constantly busy. As time went by the systems were built out and people became entrenched on one particular system. That was still ok, because everything was analog and we put our radios in scan and listened to whatever was active at the moment. But then along came digital, and we started to see the silos erected. First it was the analog people couldn’t talk to the digital people, and now with several digital modes competing, nobody can really talk to anybody. Icom’s not compatible with Yaesu, nor DMR compatible with P25. We’ve walled ourselves in.

I floated the concept in the DMR presentation I did last month, and I had a commenter feel that what is happening is more like tribalism than balkanism. I can see an argument for that, but I believe there is a key difference as tribes have a strong loyalty to their group, much to the detriment of another group. I think best way to describe the difference is that Tribalism grows from the ground up: tribes are formed and rally around their tribe. Balkanization is a top-down fragmentation: unified groups are splintered into smaller niches. Of course this can lead to tribes forming out of the splinters, and I know there are factions in the digital realm that believe their mode is the best and all others should be eliminated. That top down fragmentation better explains how we got to where are today.

Now, I’m not saying that digital is a bad thing, I enjoy the digital modes and own several different digital radios. But we’ve come to a point where the sum of the parts is not greater than the whole.

So what do we do to fix it? I don’t think there is one easy answer to solve the problems with VHF/UHF repeaters, but I have a few ideas:

Embrace the dominant mode

This is probably the toughest as it requires making choices. But look at all the available resources in your community and select the one that is the most active. Is the DSTAR repeater the most active? Then go with DSTAR. DMR popular in your community, then get a DMR radio. I hate picking winners and losers, but that might be what it takes to grow a community on a repeater.

Build Bridges

Digital hotspots are great as they open up vast communities to users through their various talk groups and reflectors. The newer ones can even go cross mode and hams have created bridged talk groups so users of disparate digital modes can communicate. But this voice over IP solution doesn’t make our repeaters busier or draw in over the air listeners. But none the less, I’d like to see more bridges and cross links that help encourage communication.

Foster community

This is an interesting strategy that seems to be working in our location. Our System Fusion repeater saw little to no use so one ham decided that it would be a perfect spot build a community. He formed a breakfast group that would meet on that repeater and encourage activity. Monthly breakfast meetings were part social and part educational and it helped other hams get on the air with digital. Best part was that it wasn’t limited to system Fusion users, as everyone was invited and anyone could take part in the activities.

Spend more time on analog

Like I said, digital is great, but sometimes you need to default to the lowest common denominator, and that would be analog. Listen to the analog channels, throw our your callsign, and be prepared to strike up a conversation over the air. Which brings me to my last point

Just plain be more active on the air

Be it analog or digital; system fusion, DSTAR, or DMR, get on the air and make some noise. The amateur radio service is a vast hobby with so many opportunities- but let’s no forget our local ham radio community. Get on the air and talk to your friends. Lets blow the cobwebs out of those repeaters and put them to work. There is a common saying in ham radio that you need to use it or you may lose it. There is a near constant threat of bandwidth being taken away, be it the FCC or the owner of a tower site. It is easier to justify the existence of a repeater if it is part of an active community and provides a demonstrable service.

What are your ideas to creating a more open and inclusive communities on the Vhf and UHF bands? I’d love to hear them. Please leave it in the comments below, I’ll pick out the best for my next Your questions answered video.