Why Ham Radio has an important role to play in modern communications
It’s a good time to be technical. Maker communities are thriving around the world, tools and materials to create and adapt are cheaper and more powerful now than ever, and open source hardware, software, and information mean that if you can think it, you can learn how to do it and then make it happen.
For one group of technological explorers, this is more than just a golden age of opportunity: it’s providing the means to save one of the oldest traditions in electronic invention and self-education, one that helped shape the modern world: amateur radio.
The ironic thing about the modern world though is if the power goes off for any extended time, or a government decides to shut down the Internet (which has happened in a few instances), then all those modern conveniences cease to work (hopefully we still have FM receiver radios at home to receive news bulletins but how many people do have?) - a mobile phone or a home computer will no longer connect to the cellphone network or the Internet. If a ham operator has backup power (or a portable radio) they can continue to connect with the outside world either through working repeaters or directly through long-range HF radio. This is why ham radio/amateur radio operators are so important during disasters all around the world. They can send and receive news and requests for assistance directly from anywhere in the world (even to and from the international space station). There is a long history of these humanitarian roles played by ham radio operators.
If the Internet is down in an area, ham operators have designed an alternative network that can communicate data via IP addresses using ham radios. It is called Broadband-Hamnet and more details are at http://www.broadband-hamnet.org/just-starting-read-this.html.
Amateur radio operators are often also involved with testing and experimenting with technology and where they often collaborate with scientists. A lot of time is actually spent discussing the technology used by different operators and much experimentation happens especially around antennas and how the weather and atmospherics affect transmissions. There is some really interesting science behind how the different radio frequencies are affected over longer distances by atmospherics, the ionosphere, antennae design and polarity, radio power, etc.
Amateur radio operators have access to vast amounts of radio spectrum and can transmit with power ranging from 5W through 100W to 1,500W. In many cases they are bouncing these signals via satellites and even off the moon itself. Obviously, this could interfere with TV, emergency services, etc across country borders so all radio spectrum is strictly managed through international treaties and strong local law enforcement within each country - hence the need for each amateur radio operator to have passed an exam and be granted a license to operate. There are extremely heavy penalties for operating (transmitting) such radios illegally within most countries.
But licensing has another great advantage (vs the general Internet) on the social side of amateur radio when it comes to socialising... having operators that have all done basic training and are registered means there is far greater accountability and management of what is going on. Generally also discussions around politics, sex and religion are avoided.. which all means much more orderly and better quality discussions that take place. Compare that to any anonymous user posting comments all over Facebook or Twitter and you can see the attraction for many people that amateur radio has with regards to just "chewing the rag" with others on the other side of the world.
Whilst many operators like tinkering technically (and even build their own rigs and tune antennas) many are not technically inclined and socialise or assist at events and functions. There many radio clubs that can be found across most countries where they are happy to assist new operators to obtain their licenses or to advise around equipment. These various clubs also have their own meetings and social events and are often found helping out at community events or disasters. There are also no age limits but all operators do need to pass their exam to obtain a license to operate.
There is also a competitive side to amateur radio where some competitions are held to see how many "contacts" can be made in a period, where the furthest contact is located, making contact with really remote stations, etc but all in the spirit of cooperation.
If you are interested in this side of communications, an easy way to start out is to do some of the following:
1. WebSDR (web-based software defined radio) - these are websites you can log into and literally tune in to a ham radio using a webpage. You can tune it and change the various parameters. In this way you could "use" a radio based in any country. All you can't do is transmit yourself but this costs nothing. See http://websdr.org/.
2. SDR - with the purchase of a cheap USB dongle (often a Realtek RTL2832U) you can install software on your own computer and listen in to local ham radio chatter, aircraft flying past, etc. All you will need is the dongle, a suitable antenna (even a TV antennae can work) and free software. Examples of software can be found at https://www.rtl-sdr.com/big-list-rtl-sdr-supported-software/. There is even software that will receive signals from local aeroplanes and plot it on a map for you.
3. Multiband receiver - this is often a more expensive option but these receivers will often scan a very wide range of bands and frequencies. The more serious you are the better the antennae you will want to use.
4. Services such as Zello and TeamSpeak 3 using the International Radio Netwrk (IRN) - these install on a mobile phone and/or a desktop computer and have various channels that can be added to allow you to interact and talk to amateur radio operators. An example of instructions how to get going with TeamSpeak 3 is at https://hamradiostar.com/how-to-use-international-radio-network-irn/.
The Internet today though is a really useful resource to find more information about amateur radio and also a means to even try it out using just the Internet and a computer before you decide to buy any radio hardware.
|When everything else fails, amateur radio will still be there—and thriving
Ham is now a full-fat fabric that can provide Internet access. Why aren't you using it?