Ham Radio; A GLOBAL LINK IN A DIVIDED WORLD
Boston — The recruiting poster of the 1980s could read: US high tech firms want YOU!
The big question: Where will the ''YOUs'' come from?
Wayne Green says he's got a good handle on the answer - many recruits for the high tech competition with Japan and Western Europe will come from among the ranks of young amateur radio enthusiasts.
''Between World War II and 1963, amateur radio grew at a steady 11 percent a year. Seventy-five percent of those new amateurs were teens, and of that 75 percent, 80 percent went into electronics as a career,'' says Mr. Green, a licensed amateur (ham) radio operator since 1939 and publisher of 73, a monthly amateur radio magazine.
David Sumner (K1ZZ), general manager of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national organization for ham radio buffs, says currently about half of the amateur radio operators licensed prior to college wind up in careers related to electronics.
''Considering the challenge to the United States in high technology fields, it's important to give kids hands-on experience in electronics,'' he says.
It's the tinkering behind the screens and cabinets that some observers say sets ham radio apart from home computers as a means of whetting people's appetites for careers electronic.
''The computer craze might teach young people how to play Pac Man, but it's shallow. It won't teach them how computers work electronically,'' says William Orr (W6SAI), a licensed amateur since 1934 and a recognized authority on ham radio.
In large part, this may be due to the fact that it's relatively easy - assuming one has the money - to become a computer operator. One walks into a computer store, listens to a sales pitch, says ''I'll take that one,'' then takes it home and plugs it in.
Hams must pass exams that include extensive sections on radio theory before they can pocket the required operating license. Once the ''ticket'' arrives in the mailbox, the ham often feels an urge to put theory into practice - and that leads to tinkering.
A study of ham radio conducted in 1980 by the Institute for Social Research (ISR) at Florida State University notes that 32 percent of the hams surveyed averaged one-to-two hours a week experimenting with, building, or repairing their radios; 13 percent spent three to eight hours a week; and 7 percent spent more than nine hours a week. Put another way, slightly more than half the amateurs polled spent an hour or more a week behind a screw driver or soldering iron.
One technique that's tweaked the interest of between 400 and 500 hams worldwide is Earth-moon-Earth (EME) communications - known in the jargon as moonbounce. Signals on VHF, UHF, and microwave frequencies - once thought useful only for line-of-sight communication - are bounced off the moon's surface for transcontinental and overseas contacts.
''When I got into ham radio, I was looking for something different,'' says Ken Kucera (KA0Y), who was first licensed in 1977. He says he found that ''something different'' in EME work.
A monument (of sorts) to his interest rests on a small mound in front of his home, a 300-acre grain and livestock farm near Riverside, Iowa. There, atop a modified, 10-ton surplus Navy gun mount sits a homemade, 42-foot diameter dish antenna. It took about three months and 14,000 POP rivets to build. When the time came to mount it, Mr. Kucera says he got help from members of a local amateur radio club - a high tech barn-raising. The antenna is fully steerable, so it can track the moon as it crosses the sky.
The dish is as much a monument to hamdom's traditional penny-pinching image as it is to moonbounce. Kucera says he got the gun mount from the University of Iowa in exchange for building a storage shed for the astronomy department. He purchased a special type of transmission line he needed second-hand.
Kucera uses homemade receiver preamplifiers and transverters in conjunction with a commercial transmitter and receiver. The transverters allow his store-bought radio to operate on frequencies it wasn't originally designed to use. The preamps boost his receiver's ability to dig weak signals out of the background noise - a vital characteristic for EME work.
What kind of contacts can be made using EME? ''I've worked all states on 2 meters, and I've probably got 35-40 countries on 432 (MHz), '' he says. ''Lots of Europeans, Russians, and Australians use moonbounce.''
It's probably becoming clear that there is a vast difference between ham radio and citizens band radio (CB), which exploded in popularity during the late '70s.
''CB is for personal and business communication. There's no examination to get a license, though you have to be 18 years old to apply for one. And communications are limited to 40 channels and a 150-mile radius,'' says John Small, with the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) personal communications bureau in Washington, D.C.
Amateur radio ''is purely for contacting other hams worldwide - no business communications - and for technical experimentation. Hams have to pass (International Morse) code and radio theory exams to get a license, and they have a broad spectrum of frequencies to use,'' he says. Those groups of frequencies extend from just above the AM broadcast band well into the microwave region.
The distinctions don't stop there. CB communication utilizes voice, and the power limit on a CB transmitter is about 5 watts. Hams use voice, Morse code, radio teletype, television, as well as satellites, moon-bounce communication, and repeaters. The power limit for ham transmitters in the US, with some exceptions, is 1,000 watts.
Like CB, amateur operators are issued a call sign, which by law they must use when operating to periodically identify their stations.
Amateur radio traces its roots back to the days before Guglielmo Marconi's famous transatlantic ''S'' reached St. John's, Newfoundland from Poldhu, Cornwall by wireless in 1901. Prior to that time, hundreds of young people were experimenting with electric motors, wet cell batteries, and neighborhood telegraph systems. When Marconi's feat hit the papers, it set these backyard experimenters to fiddling with the newfangled wireless.
Currently, the US sports some 400,000 ''hams.'' They collectively spend between $100 million and $200 million a year on transmitters, receivers, and a host of electronic parts and accessories. Based on the ISR study, the ''average'' ham radio operator in the US in 1980 was male, about 46 years old, was likely to have a college degree, an annual family income of nearly $30,000, and spent about $301 that year on amateur radio. The total investment in his station: $1,668.
But amateur radio needn't be expensive. It's possible to spend less than $100 for equipment to get on the air. Thirty-seven percent of the amateurs surveyed by the ISR had family incomes of less than $20,000 a year. Amateur ranks are filled with junior high and high school students, senior citizens, truck drivers , housewives, and career women. Even pre-schoolers get into the act. The youngest person to qualify for an amateur radio license in the US, Guy Mitchell (WD0DVX), did so in 1977 - 15 days before his fifth birthday.
In giving it's formal nod to amateur radio, the FCC outlined the reasons for allowing the service to exist: its unique ability to enhance international cooperation and understanding through one-on-one contacts with hams around the world, and its public service and technical contributions.
''If you're a radio amateur, it gets to be an open door'' traveling overseas, says Mr. Orr, who's visited many of the overseas hams he's ''worked.'' But he says one of his favorite traveling-ham stories involves a friend who spent time in Yugoslavia on business.
''This guy went to a lot of trouble to get a Yugoslavian amateur radio license. When it finally came, he asked his landlady if he could put a simple antenna on the roof,'' he explains.
'' 'No you can't,' she replied. 'I don't want anyone up on my new slate roof!' Well, my friend went to a local ham club meeting later that week, and during the course of the evening was chatting with a few of the local amateurs and told his story.
'' 'Don't leave without me!' one of them said. After the meeting was over, this fellow put on his secret police uniform and went with my friend to have a chat with the landlady. He pounded on the door with his truncheon, and when the landlady opened the door, she nearly fainted!
'' 'Police!' the officer growled. 'We want to put an antenna for one of our radios on your roof!' My friend was on the air not long after.''
Underneath the camaraderie, however, lie crucial differences in how ham radio is viewed by its nearly 2 million adherents worldwide.
The ARRL's Sumner says, ''The West sees amateur radio as an individual, leisure time activity that involves interpersonal communication, experimentation , emergency communications, things like that. In Eastern Europe, the focus tends to be more on the training of operators and technicians and group activities, rather than on the individual. In the USSR, there is a definite link to the military. Soviet hams are part of DOSAF, the Committee to Provide Assistance to the Armed Forces.''
(In the US, hams provided a pool of operators from which the military drew radiomen during both world wars. Many US hams participate in MARS - the Military Affiliate Radio System. MARS operators pass messages for the military, usually of a personal nature. During the Vietnam war, according to QST's senior technical editor Doug De Maw (W1PB), the US Army spotted a design for a simple, low-power transmitter in QST magazine and asked the ARRL if it could duplicate it for use in a throw-away field transmitter. And federal emergency planners are said to be assessing the role amateur radio operators could play in rebuilding key communications links in the event of a ''national emergency.'')
In the third world, says Sumner, amateur radio ''tends to be confined to the economically well-off.''
Much amateur radio's support in the US stems from its public service contributions. These activities include providing communications for marathons, parades, golf tournaments, and other public events. Many of the amateurs most effective during these events cut their teeth on networks organized by the ARRL to relay personal messages for the general public free of charge.
But in the long run, the value of these nets lies in their ability to train efficient communicators. The discipline inherent in net operations pays off during emergencies.
''A classic case involved an outbreak of tornadoes on April 2 (1982) in northeastern Texas - particularly the city of Paris,'' says Larry E. Mooney (WB5 PWY), regional preparedness meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) in Fort Worth, Texas.
A severe storm produced seven tornadoes as it moved through the area. Hams trained as tornado spotters located the twisters, began chasing them, and radioed their approximate speeds and directions. One bore down on Paris, a county seat with ''roughly 30,000 people.''
''The city doesn't have a siren system. Instead, they run ambulances, fire trucks, and police cruisers through the city with their sirens on. Paris had 30 minutes' time to send cruisers throughout the city,'' he says. ''They wouldn't have had that time without those amateur radio operators.''
''One of the amateurs tried to catch the tornado but couldn't. . . . But he was the first to arrive in Paris after the storm hit. The city's communications were out, so he set up a station, relayed damage reports, and called for blood supplies and ambulances,'' Mooney says.
''In this case, amateurs were very important. There's a gross misconception that radar will detect tornadoes. But that's not really true. We watched that storm, but we had no way of knowing it was tornadic. The kind of 'ground truth' data provided by amateurs is very important. As a service organization, we're to the point now where we have serious problems: We've got to serve a growing population with a small staff. We couldn't function without help from amateurs, '' he says.
Public service may be amateur radio's most visible role. But the FCC also has stressed the service's role as a training ground for technicians or as laboratory - a low-cost one at that - for advancing the state of the art in radio communication. (Not to mention advancing movie props: The ''phone home'' communicator in last summer's hit film ''E. T.'' was designed and built by Henry Feinberg (K2SSQ).)
Two of the more exotic ''media'' for that art are:
* Satellites. Known as OSCAR (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio), amateur satellites have been aloft since December 1961. Out-of-pocket expenses - excluding launch costs - for OSCAR I were $61.67. The simple satellite was built in basement and garage workshops by hams who also were engineers with the US space program. OSCAR VIII, the latest US amateur satellite in orbit, was built by the Amateur Radio Satellite Corporation, a non-profit group of hams, under tightly controlled conditions ''equivalent to anything that (now) goes into space,'' says ARRL spokesman Peter O'Dell. It cost about $60,000 - roughly 3 percent of the $2 million it would have cost to build it commercially. OSCAR VIII has been joined by six Soviet ham satellites and one from England. Aside from giving hams another outlet for their urge to communicate, OSCAR satellites have served as ''live'' subjects for science classes in elementary schools, high schools, and colleges. The experiments have included plotting orbits and decoding satellite telemetry.
* Packet radio. Hams are taking packet switching, a computer-based technique designed originally for use along phone lines, and adapting it to radio. A packet is a short message sandwiched between a header and a trailer. The header gets the message where it's going, and the trailer controls errors. When used with VHF/UHF repeaters - basically remote radios that relay signals - packet techniques allow repeaters to handle more messages at a faster pace than they currently can. Currently if someone sends a message, the channel is tied up for the length of the message. If the message gets garbled, the whole text has to be resent. Packet radio breaks a message into a group of mini-messages. These are sent when the frequency is clear - even if only for a few seconds between someone else's packets. The headers and trailers ensure that the packets arrive in the right order to reconstruct the entire message virtually error-free.