I’ve been referring to the VHF FM as the utility mode for quite a while now. I picked this up from Gary Pearce/KN4AQ when I inherited the FM column from CQ VHF magazine (no longer being published). Gary recently filled me in on the origin of this term, which he captured in his first FM column for CQ VHF.
Gary describes how he got hooked on VHF operating, especially 2m FM:
I’ve been a ham since 1965 (age 15). Today, I have an Extra class license, and I operate some HF (mostly SSB and digital, with cw limited to occasional bouts at Field Day). But since my first days as a Novice with a Heathkit Twoer, I’ve been a VHFer. I went through the 2 and 6 meter AM days with a Heath Seneca and Utica 650, and then SSB with a Gonset Sidewinder and Hallicrafter HA-2 transverter. But what really flipped my switch as an early ham was an old, single-channel Motorola 80D on 146.94 simplex, installed in the car of a teenage friend’s father. For you newer hams, this is an exercise in nostalgia that I don’t have space here to explain – I wish I could. I will note that the Motorola 80D was an FM radio that began life in a police car or taxi cab somewhere. It was a huge, heavy, all-tube radio that sat in the trunk and improved traction on the ice. Below the dash was a control head with volume, squelch, and the microphone and speaker.
It wasn’t long before I learned about repeaters, which enhanced the FM experience immeasurably (all four of them in the Chicago area at the time). My interest in VHF SSB waned…Getting involved in a local repeater group felt comfortable – this was someplace where I could really participate.
But then things shifted as time passed. Gary wrote:
While I wasn’t looking, FM became just another mode. At least that’s the consensus I got from some of the guys who have been doing Amateur Radio publishing a lot longer than I have…
Some columns devoted to sub-sets of Amateur Radio have lasted for decades. VHF-UHF is one. That’s the weak-signal side of VHF, not the FM side. Digital modes go through enough reincarnations to keep interest up. DX, contesting, QRP, holding their own.
But not FM/Repeaters? QST editor Steve Ford, WB8IMY, suggested why, and gave me the idea for this column’s “Utility Mode” tag line. He said, “Our research has shown that while FM users comprise a very large portion of the amateur community, the majority tend to perceive their FM activity more as a ‘utility’ function rather than a hobby.”
VHF FM is arguably the most common mode used in amateur radio. (Can I back that up with reliable data? Not sure, but I’m pretty sure it’s true.) I do see where it fits into the concept of a utility function or utility mode. Think about the electrical system in your house (a utility). For the most part, you just plug things in and use it but you probably don’t consider yourself a 120 VAC hobbyist. Well, a few of you might but that’s another issue. VHF FM is a lot like that…most hams have it and they just use it without too much consideration. Push the button and it works.
But that definition is a little bit derogatory…VHF FM is just there and no one appreciates it. The Eeyore of ham radio modes.
Another definition of utility (as an adjective) is:
This fits my perception of VHF FM: very useful for many things. Whether you are providing communications for a bike race, handling talk-in for a local hamfest, working the ISS, chatting across town while mobile, the first choice is likely to be 2m (or 70 cm) FM.
And that’s why I’ve always been a VHF FM enthusiast: there are so many things you can do with it. Just use your imagination.
73, Bob K0NR
To see what Gary KN4AQ has been up to lately, visit HamRadioNow.
Related article: VHF FM Operating Guide