If you build it, they will come is how the saying goes, right? When it comes to digital voice modes today in amateur radio, the best way to chart the growth of the most popular modes is by looking at repeater deployments.
No individual, club or group of people will invest the time, money and annoyances to deploy a repeater on common amateur VHF and UHF spectrum unless they know there are people who will use it. And, for people to use a repeater they need the appropriate radio which uses the appropriate mode or modes of communication. This means that people need to coordinate and that is not always easy.
Going into our 13th edition of the global amateur radio repeater round up over the last seven years, no one can argue where the direction of digital voice is headed, but where are the actual users today?
Please review any of the past linked articles for expanded commentary on mode specific drivers such as new radios or features related to different modes because this update will take a different direction.
As we can see in above chart, DMR continues to grow but there are so many splintered networks such as Brandmeister, TGIF and FreeDMR which make it frustratingly interesting for new joiners to figure out how to find people given that each network is separate and each uses its own talk groups/destinations unless they are content with using a hotspot.
A hotspot is under 100% control of the user compared to a repeater, so allowing your hotspot to go to different networks (on DMR) or other modes as well as any of the destinations (talk groups, bridges, reflectors, etc) is possible. Repeaters do not permit that, but that is not the intent anyway.
DMR Networks: Lessons in diplomacy
While Brandmeister is still the most popular, not every DMR repeater will support talk groups the same way which forces some users to use a hotspot. This make programming radios a challenge for some people as well as those that are experienced in keeping radio programming up to date as it relates to repeaters.
For new users who look for local repeaters that have DMR, the same talk group (Example: 31368) will not reach the same people if they are on a different network, unless someone created a bridge but that sort of defeats the purpose for different networks anyway. This frustrates people since DMR is not just DMR, its DMR that is implemented at the network level differently.
This network flexibility has proven to be a benefit and a curse at the same time for DMR, but that is ok because its still the most popular and lowest cost entry to digital voice. DMR has also proven to be the driver behind many innovations on network capability which the others did not focus on.
Any Pi-Star or the WPSD/W0CHP variant running on an inexpensive hotspot is just like having your own repeater though and you can set it up however you wish.
It is estimated by HVDN that there is 70:1 ratio of hotspots sold compared to digital voice repeaters currently online. At any given moment according to Brandmeister, there are well over 15,000 hotspots connected at any time. Currently, there are only a little over 11,000 digital voice repeaters, so that means that its possible there have been over 700,000 hot spots sold.
There are many amateurs, including myself that have had multiple hotspots over the years and those I no longer used, were sold/given to others in the hobby. Its easy to think that many interested in digital voice likely have or have had in excess of three or more hotspots so that 700,000 number is actually pretty modest and is probably too low.
Digital voice repeaters do not all need the internet
DMR also as a reminder does not need the internet and there are repeaters that provide only local coverage and users do not need to be registered via a central user database, even though it helps to have an ID linked to your callsign from https://www.radioid.net/
Yaesu Fusion and Icom's D-Star have a more tightly controlled network to connect repeaters to for those wishing to communicate via the aid of the internet, but also can be configured for local only coverage, but there are likely far less repeaters using these modes which operate that way. Registering on the Icom D-Star network can be annoying and Fusion while easier, still requires registration for internet access.
The commercial modes like P25 and NXDN can be deployed any way the repeater owner wants, but these will never reach the same scale as DMR or dedicated vendor modes because handheld or mobile equipment is not designed with the radio amateur in mind as its main buyer.
Here is the actual data for repeaters globally by mode and surveyed twice a year along with matching compound annual growth for period by period and total growth.