Wireless and Ham RadioTuesday, May 22, 2007
Each year in May, I travel to Dayton, Ohio for the Dayton Hamfest. Amateur radio operators are called hams and the Dayton event, which has been held for more than 30 years, is the largest gathering of its kind. This year, there were more than 20,000 attendees, 100 acres of flea market and hundreds of vendors showing off their new products and services. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) also had a large presence and there were a number of conference sessions as well.
One of the reason I go each year is to meet a group of 10 other hams I have known most of my life, and together we have space in the flea market and a great few days catching up with each other. I started thinking about this group and hams in general on this last trip. In our group, there is a TV broadcast engineering consultant, one person who was the chief engineer for a major radio station, a lawyer who works with clients who need representation in front of the FCC, one person who started his business career working on communications links for Sperry and now designs surveillance communications equipment and the rest of them taught communications in the military.
Many of the hams at this event are involved in commercial communications, either in the public or private sector, and many hams have contributed to technology advances over the years. A number of firsts in communications can be traced back to the ham radio world, including advances in public safety radio systems, some of the first mobile telephone systems, cellular itself, side-band communications used for long-distance wireless and even satellite communications. Hams have their own satellites and have been bouncing radio signals off of the moon for years.
As I wandered around the Hamfest, I noted that most of the hams in attendance are older and have been in the hobby for many years. Unfortunately, we are not attracting a lot of new young blood. It appears as though the Internet and the ability to use a wireless phone is easier than sitting down and learning about technology and passing an FCC exam (the Morse code requirement was dropped this year). I have been a licensed ham since 1962 and was involved in the first use of repeaters in Philadelphia in the sixties. We also built a ham radio communications system that enabled handheld radio users to talk from Washington DC to Boston. Today there are amateur repeater systems on the air that cover huge areas of the east and west coasts, as well as Texas and a number of other states.
Many of the radio engineers responsible for keeping cell sites and two-way radios working are hams and, in part, owe their profession to their interest in amateur radio. They also owe some of their experience chasing interference and solving problems in the field to their ham radio training. The Radio Club of America, which is a nationwide organization of radio professionals, has hundreds of hams as members, and most of those who have been elevated to Fellow in the Radio Club are hams. APCO, the Public Safety Communications Officials organization, is made up of many communications directors for first responder organizations who are also ham radio operators.
As you would expect, during emergency situations, hams band together to provide emergency communications. During Katrina and other regional disasters, hams are sometimes the first line of communications when the first responder networks are overcrowded and the wireless networks are jammed. Ham radio operators learn early on how to handle radio traffic in an orderly manner, delivering messages when there is no other communication option open. During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the SF Bay Area, our systems handled most of the emergency communications traffic and I have spent many a night at a wild land fire keeping a communications channel open between the scene commander and the dispatch center.
Anyone who has ran a marathon, ridden in a bike race or even sailed in a race has probably noticed a number of people with walkie-talkies; these are hams who volunteer their time to help the event organizers with both routine and emergency communications.
We are a group of people whose hobby and, in many cases, our vocation, are the same: communications. I want to give special recognition to all of the hams out there who are deeply involved in our industry. They understand wireless better than most people and they make it work, no matter what.