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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Dits and Dahs ...

When we hear the phrase Morse Code, most people think of the famed ship Titanic signaling S.O.S. in the northern Atlantic after its fateful appointment with an iceberg during the early hours of April 14, 1912.

And others may think of the importance of Morse Code during World War II which provided solid communication between Allied Commanders and lieutenants on the battle field – particularly in places where normal radio communication via voice (or “phone”) was either limited or impossible.

But the code is still around and kicking today and in active use by Radio Amateurs, who are often referred to as “Hams”. It’s said that “ham” is derived from the “am” portion of the word amateur.

Up until February of this year, Morse Code, also referred to as Continuous Wave or “CW” was a standing requirement for an Amateur Radio license in order to work certain radio bands. Applicants were tested in both radio and electronic theory and code, and had to pass in order to receive a valid license. For a period of time, passing the 5 words per minute exam was a requirement to even become a ham at all. Voice communication was reserved for the next level license which only required additional theory and regulation testing.

As it was arranged, the more theory you learned and the greater your proficiency at code (exam license classes were: Novice: 5 wpm, General: 13 wpm, and Advanced and Advanced Extra 20 wpm) the more radio spectrum you were allowed to work. Ham Radio had its own merit system that rewarded knowledge and ability with additional frequencies to operate on.

The downside to this was that many people simply weren’t born as auditory thinkers, and couldn’t pass the 5 wpm. Sadly, many wonderful people who would have made fabulous hams – some who could run circles around many of us when it came to electronic theory – never had the opportunity to enjoy the hobby. And this is all because the dits and dahs didn’t register in their minds as letters and numbers.

There are hundred of postings addressing the pros and cons of the code requirement out on the internet. And it’s a argument that is as divisive as the War in Iraq is. So, I don’t really want to get into that here and instead I’d like to focus on some of the positive elements of Amateur Radio as a hobby with a slight bent on CW and Phone operation.

My history with Ham Radio / Modes of operation

When I was in junior high after learning about the hobby through my social studies teacher, I made my first bid at passing the Novice exam. I managed to get the 5 wpm, but struggled with theory. Back then the exams were a little tougher and the question and answer pool wasn’t as readily available as it is today.
I didn't do much with the hobby during high school, I think it was probably too "geeky" for me at the time - I was more of a jock who chased girls, etc. Ham Radio didn't have any allure for me at this stage.

Fast forward to college, for whatever reason - probably based on my international studies, I revisited the hobby, studied, and in two weeks managed to take the exam and passed it easily. A few weeks later, I took the Technician Class exam (now defunct) in order to get access to the 2 meter voice band (144 mhz – 148 mhz). The truth is that this mode of operation was probably about the cheapest way to get on the air – as two meter hand-held sets were about a hundred and fifty dollars, and could be used as a potable unit, mobile unit, or as a quasi-base unit. And it didn’t call for an elaborate antenna system which was out of the question at my house.

Two meters also has the advantage of the “repeater system”, where low wattage capability would provide you access to other amateurs in FM quality sound all around the state.

The element I most enjoyed was the use of 10 Meter Single Side Band operation (AM-SSB) where I made voice contact each day with hams in England, Germany, Netherlands, and other European countries. This was a great thrill for me because the notion of meeting people from around the world and getting their insight on many things (non-political) was extremely appealing.

Hams are great talkers and tend to be interested in other people, which lends itself to be a great community for making friends very easily and very quickly.

Today, amateur radio consists of so many types of operation including phone, computer interface, packet, digital, RTTY (television), CW and a variety of others that I’m not necessarily fluent in, but know exist.

By personality, I’m what they call a “rag-chewer” – picking up the microphone and saying "CQ, CQ" meeting new people and blabbing my way through a conversation to pass the time. 2 meters has never been a rag-chewing band, so most of that was done on 10 meters using a converted Citizens Band set - a Cobra 142 GTL. I wasn’t able to tie in a code key do to logistics of the set, so I stuck mostly with phone operation.

Are today’s chatrooms, yesterday’s hams?

To this I have to say a resounding NO. There is a huge difference between radio operators and internet chatters.

Very little of antics found in an internet chatroom would ever be permitted on ham bands, and would most likely result in the pulling of someone’s license – for things like profanity, playing music, and sick talk that goes on. This might resemble more of the CB crowd than anything else. But there is probably more discretion that takes place on the CB band than there is in any internet chatroom.

I’d like to think that for the most part, you are dealing with a good group of folks on the Ham bands, particularly on 2-meters. Part of this is probably due to the fact people use their call signs which are licensed by the FCC and your contact information is readily and publicly available to everyone. This probably helps to keep the conversation on the light side and very polite. Which is sort of the way you would want a conversation between friends to be anyway?

ARES, Contesting. Traffic Handling, Field Day, and Skywarn

Besides chatting away, and making new friends, there are a few other positive elements of Amateur Radio that should be mentioned. Ham Radio operators are also volunteers, who are giving of their time in a variety of capacities.

First, its been well documented – as recently as last years’ set of hurricanes that Ham Radio operators play an important role in support of emergency management when disasters such as storms, hurricanes, or floods. Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) provides communication through hams to send radio communication in and out of sites hit by such natural catastrophes. When expensive, state-of-the-art commercial radios go down, low budget hams often provide communication support in conjunction with local officials. Though I should stress here, we do not take over communications, but serve independently in coordination with local authorities. Here is a good article on Katrina assistance provided by Hams.

Ham Radio is so well thought of and proven, that many state armories and disaster plans incorporate Ham Radio as part of the overall operation. This is a volunteer operation without expense to the city, state or government.

Part of what happens during an emergency is referred to as Traffic Handling – which is as it sounds. A net leader coordinates the passage of reports and messages from one point to another through hams in different locations. Ham radio operators around the globe practice traffic handling on their own networks on a routine basis. It’s something like passing a telegram from one person to another via phone.

Each year in June, Amateur Radio combines its practice of setting up an emergency site with that of contesting - the event is called "Field Day". The goal of contesting (and there are many contests through out the year) is to make as many contacts as possible within a given timeframe under a certain mode of operation. For example, some contests are strictly CW, others are low power contests, and yet others are simply DX (or distance) contests.

Field Day provides and opportunity for Radio Clubs to set up make shift camps to power up radios, set up antennas, and act as mobile sites, while throwing in the element of contesting using a variety of modes of operation on a variety of radio bands. It’s actually a lot of fun to participate in. If you ever wanted to experience Ham Radio for yourself first hand – Field Day is a great way to get your feet wet and learn more about the hobby up close and personal.

Lastly, I wanted to mention a word about Skywarn. Skywarn is a program run by the National Weather Service which uses volunteers in the community to watch for and report severe storm and tornado activity. By virtue of the fact that communication is required, and in cases where power and phone lines are out, Ham Radio Operators have been known to help supply the National Weather Service with timely weather data, information, and reports which are used to NWS officials for various purposes.
So, just to end this little essay, I'd like to offer you an invitation to check out Ham Radio for yourself. Here is a site that will allow you to find a ham radio club in your area. Just put in your zip code and the look up will do the rest.
For those in the West Hartford area, I can recommend the following clubs (by proximity from West Hartford):
Newington Amateur Radio League (NARL) - Newington, CT
Bloomfield Amateur Radio Club (BARC) - Bloomfield, CT
Bears of Manchester - Manchester, CT
Central Connecticut ARC - Plainville, CT
Middlesex Amateur Radio Society (MARS/CARES) - Middletown, CT
* Note: I'm a particularly fond of the MARS/CARES gang. They trained me and helped me get my ticket. I can tell you from a first hand experience that they are a fabulous group of Hams who are friendly and willing to help anyone interested in Ham radio - answer questions or help them get their "ticket".
I also recommend listening to the following sites for real audio of the ham bands:
If time permits, I may set up some separate ham related links on this site... propagation reports, sunspot reports, and other band information. This blog is about everything under the sun. I have to admit, I do enjoy a lot of hobbies, and I have a lot of interests. Seems harder to focus on any of them now with a growing family.
Ham Radio has been the hobby that's really taken a back burner. I haven't the time to really work the bands, and I really need to get my rear in gear and upgrade to the General Class license. I should also put my two meter rig in my car, but that takes bringing it in for installation. Stay tuned. I'll keep you abreast of my progress. But don't expect much - I'm still enjoying my little baby girl, who is fun to hold after a long dreaded day of work!

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