When money talks, 5 and 9

For some months now, I have been a part of this new communications adventure we call network radio. I have witnessed a dramatic growth in the user base and enjoyed talking to amateurs around the world on a reliable, easy-to-use system.

However, recently that enjoyment has been increasingly tempered by a feeling of unease. Allow me to explain why…

Although we talk about network radios as if it were an entity in itself, what we are generally referring to is in fact Network Radios (note the caps), a small number of channels on the Zello VOIP (voice over IP) application.

This is by no means the first time radio amateurs have employed VOIP, of course. D-Star, DMR, System Fusion and AllStar are established examples. Zello, running as self-contained application, has perhaps gained more traction, and more quickly, because it is relatively simple to implement and operate compared with other VOIP systems.

But there is an important difference. Although parts of the established systems are in different hands across the world, from the likes of JARL (creator of D-Star) to the humblest low power gateway keeper, they are run by the amateur community, for the benefit of the amateur community.

Zello, by contrast, is a commercial platform, running on commercial servers owned by a publicly-listed company. For the first time, the destiny of an amateur radio network (in the widest sense of the word, at least) is not in the hands of the amateur community itself.

So while have I enjoyed the Network Radios experience, there has been, as I say, an unease that one day we would appear on Zello’s radar as a potential revenue source.

A recent announcement from Duarte CT1EIZ – that the CEO of Zello had called him out of the blue – made me think that day might just have arrived.

Call me an old cynic but the way I see it, if you’re the CEO of Zello, you don’t generally waste your valuable time making phone calls unless you believe there is a potential commercial advantage to be gained.

Zello’s network costs must be considerable, whichever way you slice it, and although the company has many commercial users, you have to wonder how long it can resist the temptation to monetise the ‘free’ area of operations – for better or worse, it makes total sense, from a business point of view.

“No problem,” I hear some of you say, “I’m willing to give Zello a tenner a year in exchange for a robust system we have some say in.”

There are a couple of problems with this, in my opinion.

Firstly, it’s the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. If it’s made clear that we, as amateurs, are prepared to pay piecemeal for access to various parts of the hobby, where does that end? Could you then blame those who oversee the DMR and D-Star networks if they then also put their hands out?

We could potentially see amateur radio effectively becoming like modern day television, where the extent of your access is dependent on your ability to pay. Do we really want a hobby like that?

People have already criticised network radio for being a substantial move away from the amateur spirit – if we were to reach the state of affairs I just described, there’s no doubt in my mind that those people would very much have a point.

The other problem is, how much is enough? I believe Network Radios currently has around 1,200 users, at the time of writing. So let’s do the maths – £10 annual subscription x 1200 = £12,000 a year. In corporate terms, that’s a bit of loose change.

Sure, Zello has impressive figures in the total number of free users but you can bet on an extremely high ‘attrition rate’ if they suddenly started charging.

The other option open to them – and far more likely to be implemented, in my opinion – is some sort of advertising model, maybe along the lines of YouTube. So perhaps you’d have to listen to an advert before you could log into the channel of your choice. But again, what next? This CQ is brought to you in association with Bet 365?

Even if none of the above comes to pass, there is another implicit threat to the network radios community. What if Zello simply went bust? Better, bigger companies have done so before, remember.

And although I’ve singled out Network Radios and Zello here, bear in mind that other VOIP platforms such as the International Radio Network (IRN) – built on Teamspeak, another commercial program – suffer from exactly the same vulnerabilities.

So what can be done to protect this burgeoning side of the hobby? Perhaps the answer is for the amateur community to build its own, open source alternative.

Such an undertaking wouldn’t be easy. We’re not only talking about bringing together the necessary programming talent, but a considerable, ongoing burden of development and infrastructure.

And it would cost money, of course. These things always have – after all, who pays your local repeater keeper’s electricity bill?

But at least we would be throwing our money into the hat in the knowledge that it will be used for the greater benefit of the hobby, rather than end up in the back pocket of the shareholders.

Don’t get me wrong, I love network radio as a medium. But let’s not lose sight of that all-important word…amateur.