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When everything else fails, amateur radio will still be there and thriving (arstechnica.com)
363 points by Tomte on June 19, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 186 comments



I was a volunteer ham working a first aid station during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The cell bandwidth was rapidly overwhelmed. Ham continued to work, including amazing professionalism on the part of Net Control when things got really busy. It's battle proven.

FMI http://www.arrl.org/news/radio-amateurs-provide-communicatio...


Amateur Radio is a great hobby if you're interested in radio wave propagation, RF engineering, radiosport, digital modes, satellites, etc.

It's surprisingly easy to get a license, and you'll find that many of the older generation of radio amateurs are among the most young-at-heart oldsters you'll encounter.


If you are at all interested in Amateur Radio, next weekend (June 25-26) check out a Field Day site close by! http://www.arrl.org/field-day-locator

Field Day is meant to be a test of emergency communications preparedness, where the idea is that hams from all over (the US at least) set up operation off-the-grid, and attempt to make contact with as many stations as possible.

This is a great way to meet the local Ham community, as it is one of the biggest social/public events in Amateur Radio. It's too bad they didn't mention it in the article...


True! There are all sorts of ways people do field day. A few tips for someone planning to follow kbaker's advice:

- Check out a few field day setups, different groups have different goals and culture, and you may connect with one more than another.

- Stick around a while. Many hams will stop by the local field day and hang out for a bit. Someone who is interested in something that you want to learn about might stop by at any minute.

- Give it a try, you can operate the gear with permission from one of the licensed operators.

- Definitely check out CW (morse code). It's amazing that it's still in use but it's lots of fun.


> - Definitely check out CW (morse code). It's amazing that it's still in use but it's lots of fun.

Morse is one of those "unreasonably effective" technologies.

* Short of very advanced (and likewise constrained) digital methods, it's the king of long distance.

* You can whack together a radio out of $10 of scrap bits.

* You can't buy it. It's not a circuit or a thing. It's a skill that you need to learn and it takes way more than just learning the alphabet.


Yes, not to mention that doing it results in a very unique sort of flow/zen state. Highly addictive :)


Thanks for the info! I just got my license recently but have been getting a slow start. I'll have to check this out


I have the impression it's less developed in Europe. Am I wrong ?


It's just one part of amateur radio, but Europe's HAMNET (mentioned in the article https://www.tapr.org/pdf/DCC2014-TheEuropeanHAMNET-DG8NGN.pd... ) is a lot more developed than what we have in the US.


I think Field Day is more of a US thing. It is really setup around an official contest put on by the ARRL, which gives extra points for operating off-grid, or portable. There are no extra points for international (DX) contacts during Field Day operation though, as opposed to some other contests.

But for Amateur Radio in general, it is a very international organization, with widely different areas of interest.


Radiosport and High Speed Telegraphy competitions are very big in Europe, and the demographic in EU is a bit younger than in the US:

Some links:

http://www.rufzxp.net/toplist.htm

and

http://www.wwyc.net/?p=members


I am the type that would go and get a license to start messing around with something like packet radio, but the last time I looked into it I encountered two things that I thought were huge road blocks.

First, the study material and sample questions were way out of my league. I studied physics in college so I am not completely ignorant when it comes to things like frequency, phase, modulation, etc. However, I could not figure out what the hell I was reading in the study guide.

Second was the cost. I am ok with building my own equipment out of repurposed electronics, or spending a few bucks on some type of add on card, but the guides I found were talking about $500 beginner radios.

It is quite possible that I was looking at some very advanced type of ham license and communications equipment. If so, what is the best place to start. If not, then y'all must be some kind of rich geniuses!


I really liked using https://hamstudy.org. I didn't feel like there were any surprises when I took the test. I took practice tests on hamstudy until I was sure I'd pass Tech, then found out the test date was nearly a month out so I started flipping through the test for General and ended up passing it.

When you test you take the first, if you pass you can take the second - no extra charge. Same with the third level.

It is easy and inexpensive. For a starter radio, as low quality as they are, a Baofeng UV-82HP is the way to go. Find out if you like it, use it and have anyone in your area to to talk to before spending the big bucks. I went more than a year with the cheap radio, learned who is in the community and which repeaters I want to use and finally put down the money for a decent mobile radio.


I invested some time in understanding the syllabus and clearing the ARRL exams. You may want to take it one step at a time.

Also, radio needn't been too expensive. Check out the Baofeng hand held units that retail for about USD 30 on Amazon. These are only for UHF and VHF. For HF (international), you could either use repeaters, or Radio gateways on the Internet, or EchoLink. I use EchoLink on my mobile phone when I'm in countries where I don't have a license to operate.


What's nice about the Baofeng VHF/UHF handhelds is that they correspond with the frequencies available to an entry level ("technician") US amateur radio license. When combined with an online study guide, the test fees and radio combined are less than $75, providing an inexpensive introduction to learning a lot about RF systems and proper radio operating procedures.


True -- And this is just the very tip of the iceberg. Not bad if you want to spend $35 to get started, but far less amazing than if you spend $100 on some simple HF gear.


The tests are not as hard as the study guide would make you believe. And frankly (at least when I took them a few years ago) were not put together very well. I wasn't working through practice test apps very long before I picked up a lot patterns to the questions and answers.

If you passed college physics, you can study enough to pass technician and probably general in a weekend. I passed all 3 in one sitting on my first go.


Memorize the book, and then test, you honestly only need to understand about 1/3rd of it later, the rest you'll pick up as you need. Second, used land mobile gear is a great way to get started, I can help you find a radio too.


Check out The No-Nonsense Study Guides[1]. They are stripped down to just the essential knowledge for the exams. They won't help you master the material, but will give you more than enough information to pass the exams.

I used them with great success to pass all three tests on my first attempt.

[1] http://www.kb6nu.com/study-guides/


I am certainly a layman when it comes to the sciences, and I had no problem passing the cert. Best thing to do is to check with local clubs, often there will be weekend or evening classes (only a few hours total) that you can take which will speed you through the process immensely. It's definitely the kind of thing you can learn by rote and then figure out the 'why' later on.


- There is a lot of gear available at low cost. Many people will mentor you and loan you some gear to get started.

> y'all must be some kind of rich geniuses!

The issue is that it's actually a really fun hobby, so it ends up feeling reasonable to spend a fair bit on it, but you certainly don't have to in order to have fun.


Totally the truth. I got my technician license with about an hour of studying and the "experts" were great folks, and desperate for new blood. Young people aren't learning about radio as much these days.

One of the old guys took me out in his brand new Tesla Model S around the time the cars had just come out and I had never seen one. It was pretty neat and a good memory I have of the community.

There are some really nice and knowledgable people on the radio. Listen for me, KK4PPF!


At my license exam, I was the only one under 40 there. There's definitely room for hobbyist radio to expand, especially with the proliferation of SDR, arduino and other hobby electronics. But the stereotype of hams as old white men who use fancy radios to talk about the weather is pretty accurate in my experience.


I'm on the board of the amateur radio club at my university. It's incredibly difficult to attract students to the club. I think it's less a problem of an age gap and more a problem of the opportunity cost from tinkering with transceivers and not, say, strongly typed programming languages.


If my university had such a thing, I'd be the first person to sign up!

As it stands we don't, but a couple friends and I are working on a CTF team (the security competition kind) with weekly meetings. We have been meeting for almost two years now, but as we go on internships and even graduate, potential new members seem indeed more interested in drinking and Call of Duty...


You should start one. When I was a freshman my university had a faltering club and I sort of gave up on it but really wish I'd helped revitalize it.


The same could have been said about a lot of electronics not too long ago. I feel like the tide could swing back with the resurgence of hardware tinkering/Maker movement. It wouldn't take the form of cranky old vacuum tube radios though. More likely HackRF digital stuff controlling a wide area of IoT widgets or something.

I'm surprised we're not seeing more Amateur Radio style equipment used in drones but perhaps the FAA line of sight restrictions don't make range such a priority.


At my license exam, almost everyone was under 40.

But that was at DEFCON. In general you are right.

They don't only talk about weather though.... they also talk about their health problems and rant about Obama.


Is it a good crowd there? I didn't try and find where they were doing it at DC 23. I might try for my general at 24.


You're lucky if weather is the big topic in your area - usually all I hear are bowel problems.


> At my license exam, I was the only one under 40 there.

If they want more young blood, ham activist should seriously lobby to abolish the licensing requirements.


The licensing requirements in the US are largely guided by the American Radio Relay League, which is Amateur Radio's lobbying group.

The requirements are quite minimal. I was licensed as a pre-teen with no trouble, and many on HN describe passing after studying for a few hours.

The important thing about the license is that it is a knowledge-based test. Even though you can memorize the answers to the questions, you learn that there is theory behind it and it's not just magical technology.

There are also a lot of questions about band plans and operating procedure, which help keep things civil and organized (though we could use more FCC enforcement).


That may or may not be true (CB radio isn't licensed and there's still not much interest in it), but I think the cons far outweigh the pros there.


I'll probably get modded down for saying this, but I think the stereotype is true, and there's a good reason no one under 40 bothers with the hobby: why waste so much time and energy and money on a hobby where all you can do is talk to people? (Note, I'm not under 40, I'm just over it.) I can get a smartphone and use apps to text people, and see their photos, save the conversations, etc. I can get on the internet with a phone or laptop and participate in discussion forums like this one, and see people's thoughts in text form: it's much faster to read than to listen to someone drawl, plus I don't have to actually be here at the same time; I can read someone's response hours or days later and then compose my reply.

What exactly does ham radio offer than isn't done in a FAR superior manner with the internet?

I tried getting into ham radio when I was younger, but I quickly realized I had no interest in it beyond the technology itself (since I like electronics).

For my to get interested in a hobby, there has to be some real utility to it (such as car repair), or it has to bring me real enjoyment somehow (such as playing guitar). Ham does not offer this at all. There's no utility to it for me (I'm not really interested in being involved in emergency communications), and there's absolutely zero enjoyment in it (I have zero desire to "shoot the shit" with a bunch of random men and no women, and all of them in far-away places where I can't even see them).

It seems that the only real value the hobby has, once you have a working radio, is for socializing. But if I want to socialize, there's far better ways for me to do this using technology: dating apps, meetup.com events, or planning something with one of my existing friends in "meatspace". Jabbering with some random old guy 2000 miles away does not sound like fun to me.


Here are a few examples of things that are fun and are not conversation oriented:

- Radiosport: competitions involve completing short contacts with other stations, but the information exchanged is usually a serial number, location indicator, etc. This is fun because it's a flow activity that requires great strategy and knowledge of radio wave propagation, band conditions, etc. It requires no pleasantries or exchange of personal info whatsoever.

- Satellite stuff: Brief contacts are made during flyovers, but most of the energy goes into understanding the orbits, timing, doppler shift, antenna characteristics, etc.

- Low Power / experimental VLF bands: Some amateurs love to squeeze out the most from milliwatts.

- Designing / Building radios, circuits, filters, antennas, etc. There is always room to improve the state of the art, share designs, ideas, construction methods, etc. This is similar to hobby electronics however the communications use of the gear is a nice way to prove that your approach was solid (or superior to other engineering approaches used in the past).

I think for most who end up enjoying amateur radio, radio waves feel a bit like magic, and there is something very cool about understanding them and (relatively directly) manipulating them. If you don't feel a difference between communications on HF using gear you built or designed and using Skype, then I'm pretty sure you would not enjoy Amateur radio.

The same argument could be made about the other hobbies you mention. Why play your own instrument if you aren't better than whatever professional musician you like best? Why play casual sports if you aren't ready for the professional team?

If you look at the difference in band activity between popular radiosport events and casual conversation, there is about 1000x more activity during the radiosport competitions.

The nice thing is that many radio amateurs are fairly interesting to talk to and have interesting backgrounds and stories. Not all, but I'd say that compared to the people I typically meet at a meetup or random community event, amateur radio is a better predictor of someone being interesting, creative, successful, having good critical thinking skills, etc. There are always exceptions, but it is a pretty unique subculture.

If you don't find it a fit, that's completely fine, but it's likely to be your loss. I think your comment got downvotes because it comes off like a bro lamenting too many dudes at a bar.


Your examples still fail my "usefulness test" I mentioned before. It's basically just doing something technical for the fun of it. It's not different than writing some fancy program that does absolutely nothing useful, just so you can have fun programming. If you like to do that kind of thing, then more power to you; I personally don't like anything like that: I have to have a real purpose behind any project I spend time on, not just doing for the sake of doing.

As for the purpose behind playing an instrument, that's basically an enjoyment thing. If you're musically talented or inclined, you'll enjoy playing an instrument in a way you don't get just listening to someone else play. I don't think you even have to be musically inclined to understand the concept though: lots of people like driving cars, for instance; that doesn't mean they want to sit on their asses and watch someone else drive in circles. Having the experience yourself has a significant value, which you don't get by watching someone else have the experience.

The same partly goes for playing sports, except that playing sports also gives you exercise, develops your muscles and reflexes, etc. Sitting in front of the TV drinking beer and watching other people play sports just makes you fat.

I think my comment got downvotes because the people on this site are generally jerks who downvote anything that disagrees with their hivemind opinion. This place is far, far worse than Reddit that way, and this is usually a big complaint about Reddit. Reddit has nothing on the readership here. Because of this, I generally will upvote any comment I see here which shows up in gray, unless it's obviously a really bad comment that truly is worthy of downvoting. I see far too many comments downvoted here simply for expressing an opinion.


Your comment probably got downvotes because saying things like "This will probably get downvoted" is considered bad etiquette here.

Re: usefulness of HAM radio - it's not really 'useful' in the developed world, but it's a good system to have in place during times of disaster. It's not a hobby for everyone, which is understandable.


>it's not really 'useful' in the developed world, but it's a good system to have in place during times of disaster. It's not a hobby for everyone, which is understandable.

That's fine, but every time it comes up in circles like this one, people talk about it like it's such a great thing, and lament how there aren't enough people doing it these days.

Some things fade in popularity for various reasons; sitting around whining that they aren't as popular as they once were is pointless and unproductive, and just makes one sound like an old curmudgeon pining for the "good old days". How often do you hear people whine about big band or swing music not being popular any more? Or disco? Is it some huge travesty that they aren't? Are you going to downvote someone who says "I've listened to disco, and I really just don't care for it"?


Based on your comment, I'd assume that you listen to a lot of Drake and Rihanna.

Amateur Radio is just a hobby and does not need to be useful or to have a point. Like many hobby activities, it offers a way to learn lots of useful things.

I think your distinctions about music and "usefulness" are simply your own personal tastes. There is nothing superior about a Drake song to a Mozart concerto.

There is nothing superior about a satellite phone to an HF transceiver. Each has its own relative strengths which depend a lot on context. It has nothing to do with the present vs the past.

Amateur Radio is not a nostalgia hobby any more than cooking is. Just because you can buy pre-packaged food doesn't mean you wouldn't enjoy a less pre-packaged version now and then. I'd also argue that enjoying Jazz or Classical music can be done for its own sake, with no nostalgia at all, even though you might argue that Drake has learned all the lessons from previous composers and artists and is producing an overall superior product today than was available in decades past.


I don't know WTF "Drake" is, but I'll assume it's some kind of crap music since you mentioned it alongside Rihanna, which at least I've heard of somewhere. Where you got the idea that I would like crap music, I have no clue. A Mozart concerto is far, far superior to any kind of modern pop, though I'd also really like Bach, Handel, or Vivaldi.

But sorry, I completely disagree with you. Ham radio is absolutely a nostalgia hobby. It really offers nothing in usefulness over internet-based communications, unless you're one of those wackos who thinks civilization is about to collapse any day now. Normally, I wouldn't care much about it, because your second paragraph is mostly correct: a hobby doesn't necessarily need to be useful or have a point, and can offer a way to learn lots of useful things. My problem is that, for me, a hobby does need to be useful and have a point usually, and I don't see it here. I like electronics and all, but if I spend a bunch of time building a radio, WTF am I going to do with it? Chit-chat with a bunch of old men thousands of miles away? Yippee. I can't think of anything more dull. But what really annoys me are 1) expressing this opinion and being told I'm wrong (I'm not: it's an opinion), and 2) the constant whining I hear from ham radio enthusiasts about how the hobby has lost so much popularity, which is the only reason I even offer my opinion. I never hear disco fans whining about how discotheques playing 70s disco are all gone, but the hams are constantly whining about it. And then when someone explains from their perspective why they don't find it a worthwhile hobby, they get all defensive about it, as your post clearly illustrates.


> I hear from ham radio enthusiasts about how the hobby has lost so much popularity.

I'm not sure who you are talking to about this :) The hobby has actually gained tremendous popularity in recent years. There are more licensed radio amateurs now in the US than ever before.

FYI this is Drake: http://www.drakeofficial.com/

I mentioned him because of your assertion that only the most modern version of something is useful and non-nostalgic.

> being told I'm wrong

You made a variety of incorrect assertions. I am not trying to change your opinion, just help you avoid making embarrassing false statements. I also do not believe for a second that you are unfamiliar with Drake.


Out of curiosity, what (if any) online forum do you approve of?


They all have their plusses and minuses, like anything. There's no perfect forum, or else I wouldn't be here. Some sites have more interesting stories/articles, some sites have better comments from readers, some sites have better moderation systems, some sites are better depending on the subject matter you're looking for, etc. If I want to read discussion forums about a particular genre of music or a car, Reddit is easily the place to go (there's a subreddit for nearly anything). Slashdot still has good general-tech articles, but the commentary isn't that great any more (too many good people have bailed out, maybe things will turn around with the new ownership), and the moderation system sucks. SoylentNews basically copies Slashdot's articles with some extras, and has a smaller audience (mostly Slashdot refugees) but some of them are really extremist, but the moderation system is pretty decent there (like Slashdot's, but fixes the flaws mostly). This place has really good articles I don't find anywhere else, many about obscure programming stuff but others about other tech things, but the commentary is ridiculously dry and hivemind-ish and the moderation absolutely terrible, but there are comments from extremely knowledgeable people mixed in that are worth the read.


Why would you learn to program an arduino? Sure it has some practical uses, but in most cases what you can build yourself is not better or cheaper than commercially available products.


That's easy to answer: there's all kinds of things that you might want to do which can't be done exactly right with a commercial product. With an Arduino, you can program it to do exactly what you want.

If it's an extremely small niche application and there is a commercially-available product, it's likely far more expensive than the Arduino because of supply and demand. And it probably still doesn't do exactly what you want.


Some of the youngest guys in my class were Rally racers who competed on really long remote courses and needed some bulletproof communication devices for emergencies.


Or if you just want to screw around in the field, you can pick up RTL-SDR dongle for $10-20. One of the most fun things I've experimented with recently was trying to receive local police and bus radios, pretty interesting stuff. You can also use it to pick up amateur radio conversations on some bands and to learn some general radio stuff.


I'd also recommend SDRPlay as a great (and relatively inexpensive) SDR that lets you listen to a lot of interesting stuff. The SDRPlay also lets you listen to HF, which is where most of the interesting stuff is (in my opinion).

http://www.sdrplay.com/


If you're willing to pay that price though you might consider going to a more expensive device with transmit too like the HackRF, bladeRF or LimeSDR.


When everything else fails because a massive catastrophe has hit your local area, even something as big as a 9.2 earthquake destroying most of California... Everything satellite based (that is not dependent on teleports in CA) will still function fine. Amateur radio is nice and all for voice communication, but for IP data you could still use:

a) C, Ku and Ka-band VSAT terminals via geostationary satellite, to earth station anywhere else in the same hemisphere. Example: 1.2m VSAT in CA, teleport in TX.

There are all sorts of mobile VSAT systems including auto-aim/auto tracking antennas and military grade ones that will fit into a large backpack.

b) Handheld satellite phones: Iridium phones will work fine after a huge clusterfuck disaster. And run on a lot less power than a ham radio rig. They use a LEO satellite network. The Inmarsat iSatphone talks to the I-4 series of geostationary satellites and will work fine.

c) Portable L and S-band laptop sized Inmarsat terminals (BGAN), again speaking to the I-4 series satellites. These are about the size of a fat laptop and also require a lot less power than a ham radio setup. Speeds from 100 to 500 kbps depending on spot beam capacity/utilization and TDMA contention ratio. Some have built in wifi hotspots, others have a 100BaseTX interface to plug in your own router.

You can do all sorts of useful VoIP tricks with Iridium and Inmarsat satellite phones - both services offer regular US NPA DIDs that ring on your phone, and it's easy to set up a phone with a short 50 ohm coaxial cable to an exterior roof antenna if you need to semi-permanently install one on the desk of an indoor command center/disaster relief comms post.

edit: The major use of geostationary satellite in a disaster is to repair and bring back online a broken/islanded TCP/IP network. You can show up to a completely off-net command center (for example: Disaster operations HQ for City of San Francisco) and bring it back online to the outside world by parking a 1 to 2 meter sized VSAT dish on the roof and connecting a satellite modem to the WAN uplink of their router. Satellite serves a different and complementary purpose to ham radio which is almost purely analog voice in a disaster scenario. Two people can carry the equipment needed to bring a 5 Mbps x 5 Mbps pipe with 0.0% packet loss.


Satellite phones work well for one-to-one communication or similar; if you need an emergency phone for your own use, or a phone for use in isolated areas away from any cell tower, that's what you want.

But for broadcast communication and coordination in a disaster (e.g. "which hospital can take a busload of people", or "family seeking missing person <name>"), amateur radio works very well.


Drawing from direct personal experience in the defense contracting industry, I can guarantee you that if a major Class-A clusterfuck disaster hits somewhere in the US, you'll see the military and federal response heavily using satellite. In-the-clear VHF, UHF and shortwave radio, sure, a lot of it, and the military equivalents thereof for their own communications, but you'd also see things like homeland security command trucks with 1.8 meter VSAT terminals on the roof parked outside major metro areas' hospitals.

Satellite can also be used to quickly restore portions of a badly damaged telecommunications system (mobile phone carriers and LTE networks) by giving an islanded/disconnected network a new multi-Mbps uplink to the outside world. With the right ground terminal equipment and transponder capacity you can do 130 Mbps full duplex through a relatively small portable satellite terminal. Such a pipe can be connected to a LEC network, to a mobile phone carrier, to a major ISP, to just about anything given the right network engineering expertise.


FEMA spent the money to equip US local first responders with short wave radios as a backup comm system. But they have trouble getting non-FEMA agencies to use them and test them occasionally.

The problem isn't the radios. It's that the culture of operating with very limited communications bandwidth and slow message forwarding has been lost. Writing out messages on paper to be read over the air and copied by hand at the other end is totally alien today. You have to design your operations to minimize long distance traffic, and nobody does that any more.


Low-bandwidth, text based communications? There have been purely text based IRC servers (and XMPP/Jabber) on SIPRnet since 2003 or around then. All IP data and frequently implemented over geostationary satellite. It was interesting seeing what people in FOBs in Kunar province want to talk about. Very much agreed that getting non military people to learn communications discipline would be difficult.


They still use IRC over SIPR.


I started to agree with you but then remember text messages. Older people often complained about younger people sending such cryptic messages with all kinds of short-hand over extremely-limited bandwidth of text. Even had delays in the network they got used to. This repeated with Twitter minus the huge delays.

So, I think they could use it if you gave them a limited interface with a popup like "Warning: This connection is slower than dial-up. Send messages frugally like on text messaging. If images, send tiny and compressed ones with lower, quality settings. Don't even think about video. Delays in responses could occur at any time."

I figure they'd get the idea and adjust.


Sounds like having relatively high bandwidth won't be a problem. Isn't bandwidth available a bit arbitrary any way? Shouldn't my device just be able to communicate anywhere in the spectrum with handlers for all legacy protocols?


The issue is routing. HF Amateur radio as used for emergency purposes routes by manual re-copying of messages between an ad-hoc network of stations. This is basically WWII technology. Works OK, but very limited traffic capacity.

There are VHF repeater chains, AX-25, and other fancier ham infrastructure, but if that's up and running, the cellular network is probably up, too.

The next ARRL Field Day is June 25-26. This is supposed to be practice for emergency communications, but it's really just a DX contest. Everybody just tries to contact other stations at random; there's no attempt to set up a net. You'll see antennas in parking lots. Visit the people there and see what they're up to.


> You'll see the military and federal response

For the whole life of the service the regulations state that one of the many reasons for the service to exist is to help the public during emergencies. And for that entire time, there's been endless philosophical / political arguments over if helping the government equals helping the public or if the government and corporations can take care of themselves or only take care of themselves while hams help the general public. Does the public mean random dude off the street or does it mean licensed ham radio operators or does it only mean the government and corporations or every possible combination of the three? Furthermore there's a dimension of some people see emcomm as a calling for survivalism and societal collapse and post-earthquake exclusively, whereas 99.99% of actual over the air emcomm activity is just another boring day until one guy reports a car accident or medical emergency in a rural area with no cell coverage and it'll never make the news.

I don't want to fight the argument here, but the point I'm making is for decades there's been healthy debate, so if the loudest definition is making cognitive dissonance in your head, that's OK, because a very significant fraction of the ham population sees things like you do. For all values of what you're seeing.

Ham radio is extraordinarily big and one thing many people have in common across the entire hobby is a viewpoint that their small corner of the very large hobby is the only real ham radio and their interpretation of the rules is the only correct interpretation. That is about the only ham radio stereotype that is really true most of the time. If someone claims the only "real ham radio" or "real path to ham radio" is local FM repeaters or 75 meter SSB voice or contesting or not contesting or emcomm or not emcomm or restoring old radios or building new radios or microwave experimentation or pretty much any ham radio activity, the only thing that is certain is they're completely wrong.


That'll all work great for the government workers, but there's always going to be a window between when those comms are available for the government and when cell service is restored to the point you can coordinate with family and friends reliably.


That's fine for governments and corporations, but expensive for most individuals.

Also, a geostationary amateur radio satellite is being launched in 2017: http://www.kb6nu.com/first-amateur-radio-geosynchronous-sate...


Wow, that sounds awfully fancy. How much does all of that cost? Subscription required?

Seems like Ham would be much cheaper and just as good, funneling local emergency communications into more sophisticated setups (that are probably owning and operating satphones for you).


I think if you find your local 911 call centre/sheriffs office or other major facility that will meet the category of "continuity of essential services", you'll find that it already has several Iridium phones active on standby accounts funded by FEMA/US DHS money. So the money is already being spent. For VSAT, a great deal of the DHS funded geostationary federal government satellite capacity (in terms of chunks of kHz on FDD transponders in space) is already there and being paid for on long term contracts whether it's actively in use or not.


And also, you can travel with it to India

http://m.timesofindia.com/city/kochi/Satellite-phone-spells-...


I know more than ten people who've been to India with Iridium phones and no problems. They're "technically" against the law in the same way that 80% of the adult content on the Internet is in violation of Indian law. There's all kinds of stuff that's technically illegal in India and laws that everybody ignores in daily practice. What you're looking at in that news article is the end result of a failed bribery/shakedown attempt by corrupt Indian police and a stupid white foreigner who was too dumb to know when to pay Rs1000.


I wouldn't put it in the same category as porn. Indian authorities are pretty paranoid about satellite phones since it is the preferred form of communication of terrorists. Bribing doesn't work always, especially when dealing with central-government authorities.


That's the reason for the ban?


Yes. It was discovered to be used by terrorists in the past (esp. the 2008 Mumbai attacks).


No, it's the government's excuse to crack down on foreign journalists poking their noses into places where they don't want them to go (Maoist insurgencies, for example). Getting a "burner" phone in India on GSM networks is ridiculously easy and costs about ten bucks. Actual terrorists like Laskar-e-Taiba are well aware that using a satellite phone is one of the quickest and most effective ways to get your calls listened to by the NSA. Iridium has effectively zero security and all of its calls pass through a few centralized gateways.


You raise some good points. However, amateur radio has a larger install base than satphones, and isn't dependent on any external equipment that can't be carried on one's person/vehicle (like a satellite).


Might want to look into how many local amateur radio clubs' mountaintop VHF / UHF radio repeaters are dependent on the electrical grid continuing to function... They're not as autonomous as they seem at first glance. Shortwave and other bands for longer distance communications are not as dependent upon regional repeaters, sure, but take a look at how many VHF/UHF repeater sites are wired into the same grid as the other telecom things on their hills. Not very many of them have been built as fully off-grid photovoltaic/wind power.


So much this and worse.

In my state the ARES/RACES people got together and made a "statewide emergency network" of repeaters using local IP for interconnect. Our rural WISP arm provides the IP for several of their repeaters (incidentally we also provide IP to local gov). Our gear: 2-3 days of battery and industrial/carrier networking equipment. Their gear: APC UPS with (optimistically) 45 minutes of runtime powering a old Gateway P2 running WinXP.

Maybe 20 years ago they would have been useful, but post 9/11 FEMA/DHS grants have been very good to local emergency comms. My county now has their own towers with a ton of batteries, generator, and 11Ghz/18Ghz interconnect.

I'm just not seeing a scenario where their repeaters stay online, traditional comms fail, and we still have enough societal function where you can call for (or provide) help.


If there is a megascale disaster here (Seattle/Vancouver area), I know who I'm going to for my emergency electricity needs to power communciations gear, and it's certainly not the local amateur radio greybeards... It's the ISP network engineering people who have 'enable' on the core routers for many of the larger regional ASNs and have been collecting things like 40kW diesel generators for their houses, and datacenters with massive fuel storage on site.


It seems like you've got a chip on your shoulder against hams(greybeards, seriously?).

Not all of us live in a major metro area, where I'm at it's ~20mi to a major city so VHF/UHF fits the needs we have.

Question, did you participate in Cascadia Rising? Just about all of our local ham club did. We've had some pretty serious things happen down south here over the last few years and the local club has always stepped up. They also do a fantastic job of helping with community communication for events in remote areas that don't have cell coverage.

I totally get geeking out over the latest and greatest tech, but that doesn't mean you need to dismiss a whole group of people who would be happy to help in any situation.


(not OP, but since I agree with most of their comments in this thread...)

So, I knew a older ham once. Dude owned a commercial tower & paging company. Built his own power supplies because COTS switching power supplies were "too noisy". Gave me one to run our gear at one of his towers before we switched to -48 rectifiers. Awesome guy. Really knew his stuff on anything radio (RF, tower, grounding, etc) Got offed in a stupid employee payment dispute :(

Unfortunately most of the hams I know aren't like that. There's a type: generally older men with decent-sized egos who have been around forever and see ham insider tech (winlink, "high speed" data measured in bps) as the end all-be all of comms. They stress how they are first responders doing emergency communications. Throw lights on their cars, etc. Sometimes they've been around long enough to get a seat at the table and then everyone has to work around them. Generally ARES/RACES-affiliated, not SKYWARN. I haven't had any bad encounters with SKYWARN folks...

Of course, I'm sure there are a ton of decent hams around that I haven't encountered. Likely because they aren't being obnoxious :)

I mean, ham should be entering a renaissance and full of awesomeness doing hobbyist SDR and IoT things but there's so many people stuck firmly in the past...


I give the average ham emergency-response person 10 out of 10 points for motivation and enthusiasm, unfortunately, in the modern era IP and packet based emergency communications systems are increasingly much more important than half duplex analog radio channels. They are also seriously hampered by finances - ham projects are a labor of love for the mostly age 45+ males who are the vast majority of the community. I didn't mean to be dismissive or insulting by calling them greybeards, but if you google "ham radio shack" and look at the pictures of people about 9 out of 10 of the people who are seriously into the hobby are older white men who fit a particular demographic niche. It's a much less diverse community than the Internet engineering/IP community as a whole. Not that a NANOG or APNIC meeting has a great deal of female gender representation or ethnic minorities, but the demographic skews a great deal younger.

Regarding the finances - projects funded out of peoples' pockets and small funding sources won't be able to build the sort of serious five to six nines reliability networks with significant N+1 redundancy that will survive a major disaster. The amount of money that has been thrown around via the US DHS to local agencies in the past 14 years is immense. Similarly, large ISPs and major telecoms and their infrastructure providers (major IX points, datacenters, colos) have put a metric shitload of money into being able to survive a major disaster. Look at the engineering of the NAP of the Americas in Miami, for instance. In a major disaster I know of at least a dozen ISPs that might lose 75% of their network, towards the edges, as sites run out of battery and generator and fall of the network, but the remaining 25% of the network including their core will remain online for multi-week periods with fun things like 50,000 liter diesel tanks and N+1 2 megawatt generators. The telecom industry has a long tradition of seriously overbuilding stuff to survive disasters.

In a serious disaster, small transportable first responder command posts and similar need access to services that can only be delivered over reasonably-close-to-broadband IP services: GIS mapping, sending/receiving photos and schematics, logistics manifests, VoIP with 0.0% packet loss, medical data and a myriad of other things that you can't do by half duplex voice alone.


Hi walrus01, thanks for the reality check, and the detailing into the various present-day approaches for comms. I certainly have a lot of reading to do now :)

I do believe there are many situations where Amateur Radio can help during disaster scenarios since not all places have these IP networks that you're pointing us to. There are lots of real stories, as recent as last year, where HAMs went out of their way to help during local crisis. See the Chennai floods last year, for instance. I have many more such stories from India at least.

Amateur Radio is within the reach of the average citizen. One doesn't need expensive equipment, or connections with the Defense, or lots of money. I've attended camps where we learned to put together antennae for under a dollar, which gave us a range of about 300 kms. I've seen simple radios put together which permitted VHF and UHF communications. I don't have a license in the part of the world I'm in at the moment, but in the US, I've spent time with HAMs who are active on CW - transmitting Morse code all over.

While it is certainly true that ISPs would have lots of fuel, and that most repeaters are powered from the regular electrical grid, I believe these are opportunities for like-minded HAMs to put together something that is independent of regular power grids. e.g. Solar and wind powered Repeater stations, spare equipment wrapped up in Faraday Cages, and lots of people getting licenses to become Amateur Radio operators.


There's also a lot to be said for having the gear to be able to coordinate with friends/family until normal comms are restored for non-responders.

Just because you aren't coordinate the "real" help doesn't mean having your own communications in the short term won't be handy.


The demographics almost precisely match the classic car hobby or woodworking in that if you buy a $200 graphics card 5 years ago, today you have a paperweight sitting in a landfill and your net worth is $200 lower. Therefore "computer people" are somewhat egalitarian, a 65+ white guy probably spent the same amount of money on his macbook as a 22 year old black woman.

Ham radio or classic cars or woodworking are different. You can safely assume an old guy will have a fabulous workshop in the years before death. I inherited a nice 1960s craftsman drill press and it works perfectly and looks stylish in a retro manner and when I'm 65 people will be subject to google image search pix of my shop. No 25 year old kid is proud of his workshop unless he's trust fund rich or there's a weird back story. My electronics lab is about the same as is my ham radio gear.

There is also a side dish of all computer people are noobs, almost all of them, who will leave the field in a couple years either fed up or ageism'd out or they were only in it for the $$$ or maybe its just a hobby that doesn't appeal to most people for more than five or so years. Whereas you have hams or woodworkers or car nuts who've been into one hobby from age 12 till 82 and 70 years of growth in skill and equipment will result in some impressive internet pix of some 82 yr old dude's shop.

Likewise if selection pressures mean you're only going to see old peoples workshops, the demographics are going to look very much like a college EE class from say 1965, because that's who's workshop you're looking at. Its highly likely that in 50 years you'll see old people workshops online that match the gender and racial demographics of the MSEE graduating class of 2016, but you're going to have to wait 50 years to see todays freshly minted MSEE's as old people.

Finally I'll admit my workshop is not terribly well organized, or could be improved, and there's that selection pressure that I'm not going to post a pix of my table saw with pieces of wood stacked on the table or sawdust shavings all over my router table. What you see online is staged and unusual and artificial, much as very few houses in the real world look like the pix in a "Better Homes and Gardens" magazine. And that staging taking piles of cash and time mean you're mostly seeing old people stuff. Even if most of the world in reality isn't old people stuff, most of the pictures certainly are.



The ham radio version of the mall ninja!

http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Mall_ninja


I wish the ARRL would stop pushing EmComm to the exclusion of anything else.


Relevant short story: "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth"

http://craphound.com/overclocked/Cory_Doctorow_-_Overclocked...


The best short story I've ever read. Hands down.


VHF LoS (Line of Sight) would work over a distance of about 65 miles (curvature of the earth) and HF/SW pretty much world-wide, I suppose?


In the real world, dealing with handheld and vehicle mounted VHF/UHF transmitters in the 2.5, 5 and 10W transmit power range, having local repeaters in high places like mountaintops or on top of 200m tall office buildings is extremely necessary for that repeater to cover even 1/20th of the land area of a western US state (WA, OR size).


I was referring to stand-alone stations - as in those with a simple GP antenna (VHF) and a half-wave dipole (HF), where there are no repeaters or other external devices involved.


Yup, also satellites are a limited resource where as ham is completely decentralized.

In 5 minutes I can setup my D710 as a cross-band repeater to a VHF <-> UHF allowing anyone who has a $35 Baofeng within ~7mi of me to cover over ~100mi area. Sure sat phones are great but they aren't nearly as good for local communication.


For me the best thing about HAM is that it makes you learn before you can play. For a non-engineer such as myself, having to learn the electronics, physics, antenna design, FCC rules etc. forced me to acquire knowledge I probably wouldn't have otherwise gone out of my way for as an adult. I got my General class license a few years ago and keep trying to get myself motivated to go for my Amateur Extra license but doing HAM in NYC is hard. Unless you are lucky enough to have someplace you can put up some kind of antenna you are largely limited to a 5 watt HT. There is so much that is exciting happening in HAM today. SDR systems are very exciting as is all the internet hybrid. It is super fun and I do hope a new generation gets psyched about it and drives innovation.


My parents live somewhere relatively rural and I live in a major city. For a while I had a laptop hooked up to a Tentec tranceiver and a 40' vertical back at my folks' place. I was able to remote in and control and hear everything. If amateur radio were more popular I kind of wonder if timeshare on a system like that would be feasible. Sort of defeats the point of operating your own equipment though :P


These guys are doing just that: http://www.remotehamradio.com/


One of the things I like about amateur radio is that it teaches you to respect a common good (in this case, the spectrum). Hams seem to really understand this concept. It's easy to be defeatist and cry about tragedy of the commons but in amateur radio people are largely respectful and abide by the etiquette.


Yeah... but it also doesn't hurt that there are a number of regulations designed to prevent abuse and the FCC isn't shy about handing out $10,000+ fines to repeat offenders.


This really isn't it, though. The respect for others aspect is baked into the instruction you get if you study at a club. I think people generally understand that the only way for everyone to make those long range contacts they want (or whatever they're trying to accomplish) is if everyone is mostly being fair in their use of the bands. I don't get the sense that people would start acting out of turn if only someone stopped watching them.


Sure, the culture is a strong component, but that's how most rules work. You have strong social pressure, such that the majority of people don't even consider breaking the rules, and then you have enforcement to dissuade the few remaining bad actors. Neither alone is sufficient.


There are a handful of incidents every year that the bureau does take action on. It's hard to draw any numerical conclusions from, but it is interesting to read some of the enforcement letters

https://transition.fcc.gov/eb/AmateurActions/Welcome.html


Not to mention punishment isn't handed out unless you are an infamous jackass like what happens on 14.313, or if you are a serious repeat offender. It really isn't the motivator; it's honor.


It helps that hams must learn FCC rules and regulations in order to become licensed.


And the community themselves are the most ardent investigators of these regulations.


I got my license in the 6th grade. Which wasn't all that long ago for me. We helped establish a local radio club. Like programming, amateur radio can be very intimidating, but isn't ultimately that complicated.

On a side note, megabit speeds on HAMNET? Holy Crap. Most packet radio only talks maybe 9600 baud max. Hmm. Come to think of it, Linux does have kernel-level AX.25 networking support... Anybody up for Quake over radio? :-P


The FCC (i.e. US) has enshrined such baud rate limits into law, regardless of technical capabilities within the bandwidth used. I don't believe such a limit exists in Europe. It's pretty ridiculous and needs to get tossed out. Most hams only care about analog voice or Morse though so there isn't much pressure to make it happen.

https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/47/97.307


My only major concern about that is would the data encoding of quake be considered "encryption" in the eyes of the FCC?

Other than that, it'd be pretty cool to see that.


IIRC, according to the amateur radio rules as written by the FCC, you can use any encoding for amateur traffic, provided that it can be decoded using freely available software (by anybody who downloads the software, so don't be getting ideas about GPG), and QuakeWorld traffic most certainly can be. Although the fact that some of the datastream requires proprietary assets to be applied fully (player location, etc.), it may be a grey area, but I think it works. In which case, Xonotic, OpenArena, or Teeworlds would fit nicely. Although Xonotic uses the DarkPlaces network protocol, and I don't know how optimized for low speed the DP protocol is. Heck, for all I know, it's NetQuake derived.


It doesn't even need to be free (as in beer or speech) software... there are a number of popular proprietary protocols like DStar.

I kind of wish that weren't the case. At a minimum the protocol should be documented and unencumbered by patents.


Well, then, I'm in the clear. I guess I kind of have to do it now... we shall see...


My father introduced me to amateur radio at a young age. I got my license as a teenager.

I play with a mode of communication called Earth-Moon-Earth, or EME. The idea is to bounce signals off the moon and have them get picked up by a pre-arranged partner back on Earth. It feels cutting-edge.

Were more people exposed to such off-the-wall applications of ham radio, I think there'd be a resurgence in the hobby.


So for someone completely uninitiated: what's the smallest and cheapest possible step into this world? I'm not ready to dive into it fully, but I feel like a good first step might be to just get portable, cheap equipment that lets me tune in and listen to broadcasts on various frequencies. Does my thinking make sense?

Background: I have ADHD so I have to force myself to not jump in at the deep end whenever I hear of something novel and cool.


Cheapest? A Chinese radio off Amazon, e.g., https://www.amazon.com/BaoFeng-UV-5R-Dual-Radio-Black/dp/B00.... This will allow you to tune in to local repeaters and listen. N.B., you cannot legally transmit without a license which is easy and cheap to obtain http://www.arrl.org/getting-licensed.

After getting licensed, you'll probably get frustrated with the UV-5R and look into a more capable hand held unit, or a mobile radio. These start at around $150 and go up from there (plus antennas, power supplies, etc).


Thanks! I'm well aware I'm not legally allowed to transmit and don't plan to either. I'm just fascinated by the prospect of receiving invisible waves and having them translated into sound in my hand.

Can I read somewhere about which frequencies are used by ham operators, and descriptions of things like UHF and VF and narrowband and such?


Google "ARRL Band Plan"

http://kk4mes.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/arrl-bandplans....

I roughly split spectrum in my head as "longer waves" (kHz, AM radio, needs impractically large antennas), "HF" (thousands of miles of range, largish antennas), "VHF/UHF" (line of sight, 25 miles, walkie talkies), and "microwaves" (1GHz+, short range, tiny antennas for wifi).

Someone already mentioned the Baofeng style of cheap Chinese radio. They're good enough but they also produce pretty dirty signals that there's a chance they aren't legally compliant. That being said, everyone seems fascinated with them right now so they get away with it for the moment. I wouldn't let that stop you since if you stick with it, you'll move up soon enough and it'll become the backup/beater radio.

I'll add on that $25 RTL-SDR (get a "TXCO" one like a Nooelec Blue) is also a pretty cheap entry into listening to absolutely everything. With that, you can start making antennas, listening to satellites, running your own FlightAware ADS-B scanner, etc. To listen to HF, you can add a $75 upconverter.


If you do pick up a Bao Feng be sure to grab a 16" whip like this: https://www.amazon.com/Authentic-NA-771-15-6-Inch-SMA-Female...

Will do wonders for what you'll be able to hear(and send). I've got a similar Diamond one on my VX-8DR and I can pick up the repeaters ~20mi away. Can't hit them though, but that's what cross-band is for :).

I'm able to run a pretty resonable APRS setup w/ BF-F8HP + above and a mobilinkd for ~$120.


If you don't have any interest in transmission (for now) you should probably pick up an SDR dongle since they can tune a much wider range of frequencies, and are cheaper.

http://www.rtl-sdr.com/


I bought an rtl sdr before I started studying for my license. It is a great entry point into the hobby. GQRX and SDR# are great applications for browsing and visualizing. Another fun thing to do is get weather data from commercial outdoor wireless weather sensors in your area with RTL 433 https://github.com/merbanan/rtl_433


http://websdr.org/

This is as cheap as it gets, given that you've already got internet access and (I assume, not sure if it works on mobile - theoretically it should, it's all HTML5 now) a capable PC.


Okay this is surprisingly captivating. I didn't think something "on the web" would be as good as the real deal, but I've been stuck with this for 30 minutes. Currently tuned in to a couple of Russians talking while I do the last bit of work for the night. (I don't know Russian so the static on the air plus the foreign language is a nice background noise.)


Oh yeah, it's absolutely brilliant, I have literally zero interest in radio but I spent a good 2 or so hours just fiddling around with it a few days ago - it's surprisingly relaxing just tuning in and out of different things.


This is really cool. The article mentions that encryption is illegal over these radio frequencies, but why is that? Are people actively detecting encrypted data?

It would be cool to experiment with these radios but have it all communicate using TLS or something.


Let's start with all useful parts of the radio spectrum falling under various sorts of restrictions (with examples):

* Closed licensed users: cell providers, public safety, etc

* Location limits: immobile antennas like broadcast FM

* Technical limits: ISM devices, Wifi, or FRS walkie talkies

* Content limits: Amateur radio

Amateur Radio gets to bypass a ton of these restrictions:

* Anyone who can pass a test can get a license to use these frequencies

* You can transmit from nearly anywhere

* You can use tremendous amounts of power (1500W vs Wifi's piddly 0.5W or less)

* You can use whatever equipment you can solder together, no certifications other than an honor system of "I'm fairly confident it's within spec"

Encryption would negate the ability to police the few limits left but also notably, the content. And that primarily means preserving noncommercial purposes but additionally, you're required to periodically identify yourself using your FCC callsign.

The Amateur Radio community is already a little nervous with the influx of cheap $30 radios falling into the hands of unlicensed and inexperienced users (notably "prepper" types that read disaster readiness articles like this one).


> * You can use tremendous amounts of power (1500W vs Wifi's piddly 0.5W or less)

Here's a fun one: wifi 802.11b channel 1 is in an amateur band, so if you have an amateur license, you identify with your callsign (using the ESSID works), and you transmit everything in the clear, you can use modified/amplified wifi equipment at higher power levels than wifi normally allows. (The standard common-sense restriction of "no more power than needed for the application" applies.)

An amateur rocketry group I worked with (http://psas.pdx.edu/) uses this to receive wifi at 1W from a rocket miles away (and going Mach 1.1).


Wow, that's really impressive. I'd have assumed you'd run into some kind of doppler shift issues going that speed unless you were pretty far away from the launch site. Why bother with a TCP/IP link, though? Seems like a less verbose protocol would be a better choice to use to get a simple data stream from your rocket to ground control.


> I'd have assumed you'd run into some kind of doppler shift issues going that speed unless you were pretty far away from the launch site.

Doppler shift might come into play if the rocket went much faster, but Mach 1 just isn't that fast compared to the speed of light. A quick calculation suggests that a 2.4GHz signal would get shifted by ~3kHz. Wifi isn't that sensitive.

> Why bother with a TCP/IP link, though? Seems like a less verbose protocol would be a better choice to use to get a simple data stream from your rocket to ground control.

We used UDP/IP for telemetry data (and had almost no packet loss). TCP/IP did allow us to SSH to the (Linux-powered) rocket for debugging, though.


I stand corrected.

Also, being able to SSH into a rocket is pretty fucking awesome on it's own. :)


That is awesome. Learn something new every day.


Commercial use is a big one. Spectrum is extremely valuable and companies would grab it in a heartbeat. If you allow encryption, you have no way of telling whether a given user is operating commercial traffic - could be a ham, could be a taxi service running their dispatches in amateur spectrum.

For a preview of what this would look like, consider the push to run cellular service in the wifi bands (LTE-U). Wifi/Bluetooth/Zigbee devices are about to get crapped on, if Verizon gets their way.


The vast majority of governments all over the world allow ham radio, and don't consider it a threat. (Every country except Yemen and North Korea allows it.) You can obtain a license, operate radios, and talk to people all over the world. Standards between countries align quite well, so that many of the same frequencies work across most jurisdictions. It's a model of international cooperation.

A large part of that comes because nobody can hide anything on amateur radio. You can't encrypt, you can't use ciphers or codes, you can't do anything to obscure your message.

If amateur radio allowed encryption, it wouldn't have the universal international acceptance that it does today.


>you can't use ciphers or codes

That can be distinguished as such, anyway. "Yes, Oleg. The hops are coming along nicely".


Yes, it's an important point. The charming case of Velvalee Dickinson https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velvalee_Dickinson comes to mind.


Encryption over airwaves sounds like pseudorandom noise / interference (ever get a scrambled channel on cable?)

If they allow encryption, they can't enforce the ban on commercial communications. Hence they mandate broadcasting in the clear.


Ah I see, thank you.


In that case, it would be interesting to use steganography to bypass those restrictions.


In the UK licence at least, the reason for mandating openness is to allow anyone to learn. Defeating the requirement seems counterproductive in that light.


It's a public space meant for public communications.

Encryption isn't really banned. You can still speak in code. It's just that automated encryption fills airways with private noise.


> Encryption isn't really banned. You can still speak in code.

No, you can't. Other than one very narrow exception, you cannot use "codes or ciphers that hide the meaning of a message". (The exception is for transmitting control commands to a radio-controlled craft or space station.)


You can speak Navajo though or other language...? Some communities also use heavy jargon such that unless being part of it, it is hard to really understand what is going on.


Maybe in the US. Plenty of users in Canada speak in code, particularly in the north.


Seriously? There are restrictions against, say, sending a stream of packets with PGP encrypted payloads? Why? I mean, what could you do over amateur radio with encrypted comms that you couldn't do over the Internet?

And how do hams share information that should be private, like a bitcoin wallet's private key? How do you shell in to the admin interface of a remote tower? You just don't, over amateur radio?


The regulations in question all talk about not "obscuring the meaning of a message", so protocols that use authentication without encryption are typically considered acceptable.

Other than that: right, you just don't. Hams share information that should be private via other communication mechanisms; amateur radio is public.


That's correct. The bands are for public use, commercial use is forbidden. The only way to effectively enforce that is to prohibit encrypted communications. Using amateur radio bands to send sensitive data is a huge mistake, that's what something like the Internet would be much better suited for.


Note that encryption is banned, but digital signatures are not. In theory you could configure SSH to authenticate but not encrypt a connection.


Administering an expensive, high power piece of hardware in the clear, with a "perfect" authentication and authorisation scheme, would require balls of steel. Someone should try it, maybe write a book about it. For science.


For PGP encrypted, yup, it's not allowed. PGP plaintext signatures are presumably allowed as they do not obscuring the meaning of the communication. That was my thesis in 2004 and I believe it to still be true based on Part 97.


IIRC, if you provide the full keys required for decryption alongside the message, you can send encrypted messages.


I wrote an extensive piece on this as part of a presentation in 2004, called Authentication Without Encryption for Ham Radio - https://rietta.com/blog/2009/08/17/authentication-without-en....

Gave examples of using PGP cleartext signatures and Cram-MD5 (shudder) challenge-response for authentication without obscuring the meaning of the communication. At the time I thought that IPSEC with Authentication, but Encryption may be the best thing, but that has been slow to take off altogether.


Amateur radio will thrive but only relatively speaking - it will still be pretty useless.

1. Without repeaters, which in the best situations only have enough battery for less than a day, you will not be able to reliably communicate farther than 10-20 miles in most circumstances. With handheld devices, only a couple of miles.

2. For repeaters that do manage to stay up, even less than a day, they are usually exclusively for emergency response use only.

3. Anyone you need to talk to has to have a radio. Most people don't. Most people don't even know someone who has one.

I looked in amateur radio as a tool for emergency situations and found that its usefulness was pretty limited. If I had a natural disaster in my city and needed to communicate to family in a city 300 miles away, it's pretty complicated and expensive to do so without a repeater, and repeaters can't really be relied upon in situations like that. My state even has a repeater network that accesses most major cities in the state, but given that only a single person can talk on it at a given time, the opportunity to talk to my family over it during a natural disaster seems pretty unlikely.


1. You don't need repeaters. HF is plenty for worldwide communication, and VHF/UHF can handle local communication very well. So in a disaster situation, local volunteers would use VHF/UHF to communicate with some central command. Ideally, that location would have an off-the-grid HF setup, which could be used to relay information into and out of the affected area.

2. This is simply not true. Emergency traffic is prioritized over everything else (by law), but almost every repeater is publicly usable by anyone with a valid ham license.

3. Yes, that's how two way radio communication works.

I'd encourage you to connect with a local ham club, or even better, go check out Field Day (http://www.arrl.org/field-day) this weekend. Literally the entire hobby (as far as the ARRL is concerned, at least) is focused around how to most effectively communicate, no matter what the situation is.

As far as using the repeaters directly to contact your family members, this would be one of the situations where you'd need to coordinate with local volunteers to get a message out of a disaster area (if that's the situation you're talking about). It's very possible that you might get to pass the message over the air yourself, but even if you can't, at least you could let your family know that you're safe.


1) Handheld range depends on where you are. It isn't uncommon for me to go 10-12 miles without a repeater. Any ham worth anything has more than one battery and many have a small solar setup to charge batteries or charge from a car. I can listen for a week on the same battery. 2) Many repeaters have solar. Some in my area aren't on the grid and I don't recall them going down. 3) Yes, you have to have a radio. I hope so. If everyone had one it would end up like the cell networks in an emergency.

300 mile is a challenge. I'm happy being able to talk in my community and my wife. I won't be able to talk to extended family because if distance and that pesky problem that they don't have radios, but knowing I can find out where my wife and kids are and let them know where I am - that is priceless.


It might be difficult to have a conversation with your family, but you could almost certainly get a message out to them.


HF needs to repeaters for around the world coverage.


I don't understand. HF do not need repeaters. I was able to get QSLs from all over the world, with a single quartz crystal, .5 watts, one transistor CW transmitter. The band was 40 meters (7,200 kHz), using a dipole antenna around 30 meters up the ground.


In the right conditions, with an extra level of licensing, with a lot of knowledge needed, and using extremely expensive equipment. These do no make for a good solution for the average person in the event of a natural disaster.


Wow. Such negativity. I thought we were all techies here. It seemed to be cheap enough for me and work well enough for me when I was 12 years old and mowed lawns to buy radio parts. But I guess actual experience with the technology is trumped by your superior intuition.


General class isn't hard. Decent equipment can be had for a few hundred bucks.

You're right, it's not good for everyone, but it's good for techies.


I have an antenna ready to be raised and station in a box.... but other then feeling like a prepper I have no practical use for it. Network effect applies here too, like for any other social network. Only old people here on waves, checking weather daily. I was excited years back, but now it feels like dying breed.


Yup, really depends on what you're local club is doing.

We've got a pretty active club here with is pretty awesome and I'm hoping to spend some time playing around with alternate data protocols later this year.


There are videos on youtube where some guy scans very long range (across continents; maybe leveraging atmosphere reflections) and randomly connecting with dudes up high somewhere in Siberia. I felt living 2001 a space odyssey in real time. Since I want to go into HAM.


Yup, with the right ionospheric/propagation conditions, a CQDX call on the 20M/14MHz band could get you some unlikely contacts, even with a pretty low-powered rig (~100 watts) and a well-tuned antenna.


The intersection of Ham radio and SDR (software defined radio) is proving to be quite interesting.


My neighbour (next door) is a radio aficionado and a thing that worries me is that sometimes when I'm with the headphones or speakers connected to the computer, I can hear him speaking... Does anyone knows how is this possible if the macbook does not have receiver? this has me puzzled...

I find the amateur radio somewhat interesting, but on the dev level. I was about to buy a HackRf, and I'll probably do it when I have more free time...


Any sufficiently long wire is an antenna. If your neighbor is using amplitude modulation, there isn't much of a difference between the signals your macbook produces on its end and the signals his radio waves induce directly into the wire.

EDIT: this is why differential signalling [1] over twisted pair is used for ethernet, USB, etc. Otherwise the radio waves already present everywhere would garble the signal for any non-trivial length of cable.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Differential_signaling


So if you are picking him up, go ask him about it. He'll be able to sort out what's going on and fix it. As a long time ham I've had two complaints, both about cheap cordless phones.

And I had a neighbor that had a microwave oven that splattered RF everywhere. It was older and cheaply made. I poked at it to see if there was an easy fix. Nope, so I just bought them a new one.

Hams work very hard to not be a radio nuisance.


If it's audible in headphones I suspect that the fix would involve soldering HF bypass capacitors at the inputs of the onboard headphone amplifier. Doable, but will the owner agree to this? Well... ;)


He's likely breaking a FCC anti-interference law (with older equipment probably). Radio waves have harmonics like instruments do, sort of. So you repeat your transmission quieter and quieter on some surrounding frequency.

You can hear it because your headphone wires will pick up wavelengths about the same length (ever heard of people making AM radios with wire and a tin can?). My understanding and I hope I can be corrected if wrong is that this only will work for FM transmissions.

I've heard the best thing to do in these situations is to politely inform your neighbor of the situation and to investigate a solution. Probably some filter on his transmitter would do the trick. But I'm sure if he's serious about radio, he'll have a grand time fixing it...


A useful rule of thumb:

If a non-radio device is picking up radio signals it can never be the Transmitter which is at fault.

It must be RF breakthrough caused by bad (eg cheap) design in the device.

Source: Retired EMC engineer.

P.S. I've never heard of people building an AM radio with a wire and a tin can. And if it were possible, any fault would be with the poor receiver not the transmitter.


A tin can wouldn't be the best choice, but almost any cylinder would work. I've seen crystal sets using Oatmeal boxes, water bottles, etc. I've built them using wood 2" square and about 6" long. Some wire, a crystal or other diode, and a capacitor and you can get any of the clear channel stations.

(Capacitor can be made out of foil and paper, crystal out of the graphite from a pencil and a razor blade. The radio pioneers were pretty inventive. Google early crystal radio receivers.)

"..any fault would be with the poor receiver .." is correct, but if you took the time to build your own crystal set, definitely go see the ham next door, he most likely has the parts in his component stash to add some better RF selection/rejection to your radio.

Just like most of you like to tinker with code, we like to tinker with radios.


As far as I know, Part 15 Class B devices are required to accept interference from licensed transmitters that are operating within FCC limits.


Not necessarily. I have seen one crappy amplifier which picked up commercial radio broadcasts. Many audio devices pick up cellphones. All these signals probably are within spec.


It seems there are some ham radio operators here, I hope someone can help: I'd like to get introduced in this world, is there some guide I can read to know what I'll need to learn and which equipment I'd need to buy in order to get started?


Best to contact a radio club in your region. Try these guys: http://www.fediea.org/miembros/?call=rcb or http://www.ure.es/


> When everything else fails...

What about nuclear war or a solar mass ejection event? I'm thinking a big fat EMP will smoke the semiconductors in most amateur rigs: they often have big antennae and sensitive pre-amps.

Is there any RAD-hard amateur gear?


Two things:

Firstly hams equipped for emergency communications keep backup radios (disconnected from antennas) for this very reason.

And if their gear was damaged by EMP, the hams would have the knowledge to effect repairs, or at least build simple valve based gear by scavenging old TVs, etc.

Again, this is a popular activity at fields days: A race to see which team can first make contact by means of a simple Transceiver built from scavenged junk.


Yes, tube gear is rad-hard and there's plenty of old 30s-50s vintage all-tube rigs around if that's your thing. Yes, you do still want to disconnect the antenna but either way tubes are much more durable to abuse and are going to have a better chance of surviving.

Tube gear is often quite cheap because nowadays everyone wants fancy electronic gear. About 12 years ago I picked up a 70s-vintage Kenwood TS-820S hybrid rig (tube finals, the rest as solid state) for about $150, when a comparable electronic rig would have been about $1k. I abused the crap out of that rig and it took it quite well. I finally need to have it serviced one of these days, the output power was starting to tail off (probably a tube finally giving up its magic blue smoke).

Tube gear has a bit more of a learning curve than solid-state gear (eg tuning up before operating) but it's very durable and easily serviceable. Generally the most you will do is blow a tube whereas with a transistor-based radio you definitely will smoke the semiconductors and the radio will be a write-off. Unfortunately tubes are getting rare/expensive, but it's still better to track down a couple of $25 tubes than to replace the whole rig.

Tube rigs are particularly common in high-power gear (again, especially if you are trying to keep costs down). Solid-state amps in the 1KW range only became feasible relatively recently and are still much more expensive than a tube-based boatanchor. They especially dominate AM/FM broadcast equipment, which can range from tens of KW up to megawatts of power. You just can't push that much power through transistors very easily.


amateur radio was used in the civil war in yugoslavia back in the 90's as a way to spread news and as a way for friends and relatives on conflicting sides to kind of get in touch

YU1MVV


This might seem like a silly question, but what does one do with a HAM radio license? Just talk to other people?

I have trouble seeing where the creative, build-cool-shit part comes in, though I'd love to be wrong about this!


* Antennas are usually the first step since it's just straight up metal bent into the right length and shape. Build a QFH to receive weather satellite data directly. Build a Yagi to talk to the ISS (that is, usually people using the ISS repeater) or other satellites.

* Kits for peripherals usually comes next. Antenna tuners, power meters, etc.

* Kit radios themselves. Usually more complicated than regular kits but the potential for hands-on learning is huge.

* Tweaking and tuning. Like squeezing every ounce of performance out of your code, you can always refine your radio setup to go farther or do more on less power.

* SOTA - Summits On The Air. Assemble a radio setup that's light enough to carry to the top of a mountain then prove that it works by contacting other people with it. Typically this is a small COTS or kit radio running on AA batteries with a homebrew antenna.

* EME - Create a high-gain directional antenna and a high power amplifier. Aim it the moon and see if you can hear yourself.


The 'creative, build-cool-shit part' is always available to those who are so inclined in this way:

Build a rig from scratch (using even discarded components for the most part) and then use it to talk to others across the town (VHF/UHF) or across the ocean (HF), completely off the grid!! How cool would that be? :-)


Given the lack of privacy, security, etc. - using amateur radio is a no go for me.


Lack of privacy and security? It's public radio communication. What exactly do you expect?


My expectation of any communication channel is that it allows true anonymity & strong encryption.


You have the wrong expectation of amateur radio then. It's about as anonymous as two friends going to a park and yelling loudly to each other.

Encryption is also not allowed by law, since it's public spectrum. Allowing encryption would be akin to allowing somebody to just build a structure in the middle of a public park. That takes away usable recreational area from other people.


Last I checked public parks by default allow anonymity and the exchange of encrypted messages in public.

Further, allowing anonymity & strong encryption on amateur radio is possible.

If you're claiming there's a difference somehow in the use of spectrum bandwidth, I'm not seeing it; meaning even with anonymity and strong encryption it would be possible to manage bandwidth abuse.


Yeah, the park analogy kind of breaks down a bit with radio, but the point is, ham radio is not for the people that want to discreetly pass coded messages on slips of paper to another person in the park. It's a medium for the guy with the megaphone telling people to evacuate due to imminent threats.

In any case, it's the same argument for not allowing automobiles on walking paths: sure, it'd probably work, but it sort of takes the fun and utility out of it for other people. Encrypted messages converted to sound for transmission over the air sounds horrible, and for somebody that's scanning through the band, landing on that monstrosity is very unpleasant. Also,if you are transmitting encrypted traffic, you are by definition doing so at the exclusion of every other ham; they can't know what you're transmitting, and they can't transmit there. Plus, ham bands are 100% noncommercial, so there's also no way to enforce that rule.

The purpose of the ham bands is not for you to pass your tinfoil wrapped messages to other similarly paranoid people. If you want that, use unlicensed spectrum. You can pass whatever kind of traffic you want there, assuming you're not causing interference.


Properties which both have to be built on top of the raw communications medium. Amateur radio is as private and secure as a basic TCP connection is, which is to say that it's not on its own but is ready to have additional protocols built on top that give you additional properties.


As has been stated elsewhere on this page, it is explicitly prohibited to do as you describe. For the private part, at any rate.


Pretty fun read. I've been into amateur radio for a while, so here's hoping it one day proves more useful than just a frivolous hobby :)


When everything else fails, I'll write the message on a piece of vellum.


*if everything else fails




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