When people mention shortwave radio, we tend to think of something relic of the early days of broadcasting. Or of radio hams – as users are known – in their ‘shack’ searching for broadcasts. We could not be more wrong! Shortwave is an important broadcasting medium even today as it is the best way of transmitting radio signals long distances and to remote locations.
Of course, sitting in your office or home in New York, London, Tokyo, or any major city or town in the developed world, you have the clearer sound of DAB or FM and wouldn’t even consider SW. But what if you live in remote third-world locations such as parts of Africa and Asia? That’s where shortwave radio still plays a large part.
In the following article, we look at what distinguishes shortwave from other radio broadcasting frequencies, who uses it, and what the future holds for this curious and interesting broadcast medium.
What is Shortwave Radio?
You can find more about SW radio online as there is plenty of credible information than we have space here to cover, but we’ll do our best to give you the information you need in this short article. Radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum (EM spectrum). This also includes the likes of gamma rays, microwaves, and even visible light. All of these travel in waves but at different frequencies (the number of times a wave passes a point in a given time) and lengths (the actual size of the wave itself).
As the name suggests, shortwave radio is that with the shortest waves of all the radio frequencies. In the 1920s, radio was already established. Still, it was discovered that shorter waves – those of between 10 to 80 meters – in the frequency range 29.7 to 3.5mHz were reflected of the ionosphere, a layer of the atmosphere. This allowed for the transmission of radio broadcasts to far greater distances than had previously been possible. By the 1930s, shortwave had become the broadcasting medium of choice for distant locations.
So, we know what it is and why it is important, but who uses it?
Who Uses Shortwave Radio?
There are millions of amateur shortwave radio users worldwide who enjoy trawling the airwaves for unusual broadcasts. But the main short wave radio users are commercial broadcasters who need to get transmissions to remote locations.
For example, when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) cut its shortwave transmissions to the USA a few decades back, it kept the medium for reaching audiences in China, in large areas of Africa, and other parts of the world not within the developed regions. It still broadcasts on these frequencies today and is among the largest users of shortwave.
But it’s not just radio hams and these major broadcasters who rely on shortwaves, as we are about to explain. Other international broadcasters using shortwave include China Radio International, Voice of America, All India Radio, Radio Japan, KBS Korea, Voice of Turkey, etc. They broadcast to parts of the world where there may be no FM reception, for example, and the Internet is scarce. In doing so, people in remote areas can keep up with the latest world news and be in touch no matter how remote their location may be.
Is There a Future for Shortwave Radio?
As we have seen, shortwave radio is widely used commercially to reach audiences in far-flung places. Other groups also use it as a communication medium. Many international law enforcement agencies and police forces use shortwaves to communicate. It is used in the maritime industries necessarily to keep in touch with ships covering very long distances.
As with ships, so shortwave is also used by the aviation industry, emergency services, and many military organizations. There is a worldwide collaboration to ensure that shortwave remains available as many millions of people, businesses, and organizations rely on it to remain in touch with the world at large.
While many forecast the demise of the shortwave with the advent of the Internet and broadband, it is showing no signs of fading away just yet, and for a good reason. Let’s sum up by looking at why there is a future for shortwaves and why there may always be so.
By bouncing radio waves off the ionosphere, we can broadcast shortwave signals to the other side of the world. Of course, we can communicate with those thousands of miles away by broadband, but not everyone will be available, and some places are yet to see the Internet. People in remote and undeveloped locations will always need a means of broadcasting and reception that is guaranteed to reach them. The only one that can be relied on to be successful is shortwave, so its future is assured for the foreseeable.