Disclaimer: Long post ahead, lots of babbling but hopefully a few good points now and again. You have been warned.
One big reason for the "decline of scanning" for the most part is the onset of digital protocols like APCO P25 (which will have another change soon when systems bump over to Phase 2 from the tried and true Phase 1 that's been around for many years now), DMR and MOTOTRBO, as well as NXDN and several others. The issue is that since they're digital that means a totally different basis for the scanning because it requires a bit more circuitry to be able to decode them - not to mention an increase in price (sometimes a considerable one over the "pure analog" version of the same hardware) because the chips or firmware necessary to decode some of those formats come with hefty licensing fees.
I stepped into a Radio Shack last week looking for an antenna and when asked where they were in the store (since Radio Shack has remodeled their corporate stores several times over the past decade and I don't frequent them nearly as much anymore) and the young man working there flat out said "We don't sell antennas anymore."
I promptly walked out and I don't have any realistic (no pun intended) intentions of going back unless it's for something I simply can't find anyplace else locally - I've got a Fry's Electronics here in Las Vegas so they'll just have to cover all my bases from now on I suppose.
Arguably the single most popular thing that people want to monitor has to be straight up police and law enforcement broadcasts, followed closely by fire and EMS type traffic (ambulances, etc), then perhaps with local businesses of various kinds (cab/taxi services, etc). Because most - and I'm saying most meaning the majority, I'm not saying every single one, just a very large portion - police and law enforcement agencies are moving towards digital-based communications systems as mentioned above (P25, DMR/MOTOTRBO, NXDN, and a few other systems) that means two basic things overall:
1) While it may
still be possible to monitor said systems, the cost of doing so for the average Joe Consumer that wants to buy a scanner pretty much doubled over what they may have paid years past for a purely analog scanner. Years ago when I got my first Uniden BC-246T I loved it to death, paid the full retail (at the time) of $249.95 for it plus a few antennas, and I had no problems with it at all because the area I'm from (southeastern Virginia, originally) had absolutely no digital traffic whatsoever at the time - and also because the "sister scanner," the BC-396T, was $500+ and I simply couldn't afford that even in spite of wanting it pretty badly but knowing that I'd be paying a premium markup for it even in spite of not being able to utilize the very reason the scanner was more expensive: the digital decoding capability.
The BC-246T and the BC-396T aren't all that different hardware wise, they have different form factors but internally - aside from the extra components/circuitry/firmware to decode the digital comms (think it was just P25) - they're very similar. The 396T had more memory to hold more channels, but overall they were almost the same in most respect, both having the Uniden DMA (love it, always have, always will, so much better than the ancient bank/channel setup and the biggest plus to scanning since trunk tracking, in my opinion), and a lot of other things in common too.
But that massive pretty-much-doubling of the price just to add digital decoding was entirely too much for me to cover.
Same issue today: even with P25 being as established as it is, the company charging the licensing fees probably has never realized they could drop them or lessen them to some extent; I'm sure it's the same now as it was 8 years ago when I got my 246T and may never really change.
Now we've got the new Uniden models coming, with improvements all around, covering basically the same protocols and modes (P25 Phase 1 + X2-TDMA, an offshoot of Phase 1 as I understand it, and now Phase 2 support as well) with practically the same price tags: $500 to buy-in, to borrow a poker term.
$500+ for a scanner is a serious chunk of change and not something your average Joe Consumer scanner buyer is going to even consider, unfortunately.
And then there's...
2) The possibility that - even if your average Joe Consumer scanner buyer decides to splurge an entire paycheck or two (depending) on getting one of those newfangled $500+ scanners that can monitor most anything including digital comms (to one degree or another) - after getting said $500+ scanner and getting it set up to monitor the stuff that person wants to monitor that the agency responsible for the communications decides "Hey, let's enable encryption on our system..." and voila, it's like having a virtual door slammed in your face, quite literally. For all that scanner is capable of monitoring, if the source of the stuff you primarily bought it for and were intending to use it for monitoring decides to encrypt their comms, you're totally SOL in a heartbeat, and so is anyone else.
There's another aspect as well...
2a) The possibility that the system you bought that newfangled scanner for and are able to monitor now even with them using digital modes of communication decided they weren't going to encrypt their comms, no, they went and took a huge leap completely over the mountain range itself and THEN off the cliff into the area of converting their entire communications system to something that cannot be monitored at all either by scanners, receivers, software defined radios, or anything else except their own hardware
That's exactly what the Las Vegas Metro Police Department here in Clark County (basically Las Vegas, of course) did a few years ago: they had been using a traditional analog communications system (your standard rock solid Motorola hardware) and then for some stupid dumbass reason they decided to get a new system entirely and they chose the total failure known as Harris OpenSky and it's been nothing but that - a complete dismal failure - since day one.
The side effect? Two-fold:
- millions of taxpayer dollars wasted, as easily as if they'd walked into a casino, laid $30 million on the line, and crapped out on the first roll
- anyone that listened in like scanner enthusiasts or dear old Grandma and her 20+ year old 100 channel programmable analog scanner now got nothing but dead air and some static where all those comms used to be
(Disclaimer: because of the failure of the OpenSky system, at least Metro PD is now broadcasting a simulcast of their current activity on one or two of the old analog VHF-Hi frequencies - it's not the whole content they used to have, but it's something I suppose). The department is now finalizing their new contracted system which I think is a Motorola built one using 700 MHz Phase 2 P25 amongst other features, expected to come online in 2014.
This isn't the only place this has happened, either.
See where this is leading?
It basically means (at least in my area here in Las Vegas) that monitoring the most popular thing of all - cops catching bad guys doing bad things, and so on - can't even be monitored either a) at all or b) with considerable expense.
Hell, when Metro PD switched on their OpenSky system a little under 2 years ago, sales of scanners at local Radio Shacks here in my area basically fell off that cliff I mentioned earlier - people came in, bought what they had available - with clerks that didn't know you couldn't even monitor Metro PD any more, even with the digital capable scanners they were selling for that premium price - got them home and then got nothing but silence so they returned them thinking they were defective.
I talked with one store manager here in town (a Radio Shack corporate store manager) and he said he basically told company HQ to stop sending him scanners because he hadn't sold a single unit in 7+ months and could use the shelf space for something else. Seems unbelievable but he wasn't the first person to tell me that, and it was all because people couldn't hear those cops anymore doing their thing.
Now, here in Clark County it's still entirely possible to monitor - with an analog trunking scanner - our S.N.A.C.C. system (Southern Nevada Area Communications Council, gotta love that name) which is a relatively huge Motorola SmartNET Type II trunked system comprising well over a dozen agencies including the Clark County, Henderson, and Boulder City Fire Department systems as well as many others.
Metro PD should have just joined into that already well established and perfectly functional system and been able to maintain positive agency interoperability without breaking a sweat, but no, they went all stupid and blew $30 million plus bucks on nothing at all and wasted every second in the process, pretty much.
Anyway, the basic gist of things is that the move to digital has been a very negative thing with respect to the few scanner makers we've already got. Even though I find the new Uniden models fantastic overall, their lack of DMR/MOTOTRBO or NXDN support tells me a) they're not capable of doing it yet (note I say "yet" there because support could be just a firmware update thing, I don't know for sure) or b) they may never acquire such decoding modes at all.
I appreciate everything Uniden has done for our hobby, I really do (and GRE too even though I never owned a GRE-branded product directly, had some Radio Shack stuff GRE had manufactured however), but the fact that I now own 2 "cheap USB TV tuner sticks" and I'm using free software (SDR# + DSD + DSDPlus + DMRDecode + Unitrunker) to monitor stuff I never thought I would but also doing it better in some respects than a physical handheld or base/mobile scanner can or does it for $500+.
My cost so far? $22.70 ($11.35 per stick, shipped to my door).
Would I absolute LOVE to have one of the new Unidens, or perhaps one of the new Whistler models whenever they hit the market? Of course, I'm not stupid. Crazy, maybe, but stupid, no.
Can I afford such premium hardware? Nope.
And therein lies the rub... not just for me but for many many other people as well: the expense.
Now, I'm not saying that I won't buy one of the new Uniden or Whistler models because - at the moment as far as anyone outside Uniden or Whistler knows - those new units won't decode some of the other digital modes that are gaining traction very quickly (DMR/MOTOTRBO and NXDN right up front), what I'm saying is that while I love the hobby, and I've been listening in since the early 1970s, I simply cannot afford such things right now or even in the future I suppose.
Would be nice, it really would, but considering what I'm now capable of with a ~$23 investment (considering I already had the laptop necessary, that was $75, craigslist fixer-upper that has been rock solid since I got it) I think I'll be fine for the time being.