Pick of the Week: Radio Activity

In March, as the coronavirus pandemic prompted the cancellation of nearly every activity besides sitting at home, one local hobby group I belong to was undeterred. Having prided ourselves for years on the reliability of our regular meetings, we continued to get together weekly, and even enjoyed a major increase in attendance.

No, we’re not a bunch of covidiots flaunting public health recommendations. Our weekly discussion sessions just aren’t affected by something like a pandemic – or, for that matter, a power outage, hurricane, wildfire, tornado, earthquake, or zombie apocalypse. That’s because we meet over a robust wireless communication system that predates the internet. We’re amateur radio operators. No matter what else fails, we can still talk to each other on the radio, around town or around the world.

I’ve been an amateur, or “ham” radio operator for 30 years (current callsign AB1XW), and while my own gray hair fits in well with ham demographics, we’ve recently seen an influx of younger folks. Wired had a good article recently explaining the modern appeal of this seemingly antiquated activity.

Ham radio is the original peer-to-peer electronic networking system, requiring no infrastructure whatsoever between participants. In an era when we’re turning a skeptical eye to the corporate dominance of the internet, while also facing frequent major disasters that disrupt commercial communication systems, a decentralized, intermediary-free, highly resilient wireless network seems like just what we need. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor ransomware hackers can stop us.

Robustness is great, but what about relevance? Most people’s image of ham radio involves some old nerdy guy sitting in his basement, tapping out Morse code signals and observing the glow of vacuum tubes as he exchanges pleasantries with a similarly equipped fellow thousands of miles away. But while some of us do indeed play with vintage equipment, there’s a lot more to the hobby than that.

Every year, my local radio club has a “show and tell” meeting, where members describe the projects they’ve been working on. Raspberry Pi single-board computers, Arduino microcontrollers, and software-defined radios always figure prominently in the discussion. Our big summer operating events might showcase broadband wireless intranet systems, offer opportunities to contact the International Space Station, or feature soldering classes for all ages. Of course, we’re also on the air during emergencies, providing a last-resort communication system when everything else has crapped out. There’s even a whole competitive scene, in which hams strive to make more contacts than anyone else in a defined time period, or to find a hidden transmitter as quickly as possible, or to operate from the most bizarre or challenging environments. Most often, though, we just get on the air to chat, experiment, and generally geek out about everything related to radios and electronics.

Participating in this diverse, useful, global hobby requires a license, but it’s not as hard to earn as it used to be. There’s no longer a requirement to learn Morse code, and getting the entry-level certification in most developed countries just requires passing a short multiple-choice test about radio theory and regulations. You can probably find a club near you that offers classes. There are also study guides available if you prefer to learn from a book. The American Radio Relay League site outlines the process for the US FCC license. Other nations have similar organizations and licensing processes; because radio waves don’t recognize borders, various international treaties harmonize the regulations.

Like most hobbies, ham radio can absorb arbitrary quantities of money if one gets enthusiastic enough about it, but a newly licensed Technician-level ham should start small, with a handheld or mobile radio for short-range VHF frequencies. Most local contacts, on-air meetings, and emergency mobilizations occur there.

Don’t worry about getting the latest thing, either. Many used radios from 20 years ago still work fine, and because hams don’t retire old technologies, there’s little risk of them becoming obsolete anytime soon. My favorite radio right now was built in the early ’80s and still outperforms many brand-new ones. If you take an exam prep class with a local radio club, ask around for equipment recommendations, and don’t be surprised if someone offers you a good used rig for little or no money to get started. We may have lots of different interests in the radio arts, but there’s one thing we all agree on: there should be more of us. I look forward to hearing you on the air.

3 replies on “Pick of the Week: Radio Activity”

Hi Alan,
I am wondering if it is possible to get reception for ham radio where I live because I am in a rural area with lots of surrounding hills. How much of an obstacle(!) is this? Ham radio would be useful as we lose cell phone and internet connection during our frequent fires.

It’s absolutely possible to receive ham radio signals even in deep valleys. Many areas have ham radio repeaters atop mountains to improve reception of the VHF and UHF signals for local communication, but even if your local hams haven’t done that, you can still receive the lower frequency HF signals. Once you start studying for your exam you’ll learn about the different propagation modes that make this possible, but the short version is that ham radio coverage is much more reliable and widespread than cell phone coverage.

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