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Ham Radio: What's Old is New
By: David Deschesne, Editor/Publisher,
FORT FAIRFIELD JOURNAL February 2, 2011
It seems the further we progress the more behind we get. This paradox is no better illustrated than in today’s telecommunication systems.
Most of you have a cell phone of some form or another (I still don’t). While they seem sleek and fancy, they are built upon the flimsiest of hardware and a very delicate system of towers that are not 100% reliable at the least and one of the first systems to fail during an emergency at the worst. Even when there is no major disaster to take out cell towers, such as hurricane, ice storm, forest fire, etc., the technology itself is imperfect at best. The cell phones only have a range of four or five miles—enough to get to the nearest tower—and then are subject to dropouts. The cell towers have no appreciable backup or redundancy systems and when too many users are online, lock everyone else out.
Another problem with cell phones is the health issues of holding a microwave transmitter directly to the side of your head and transmitting the same frequency band used by your microwave oven, though at significantly lower power levels, directly into your ear and brain. Cell phones are still a relatively new technology, so we still have to see how the brain and ear tumor scenarios play out over the next ten or twenty years.
Cell phones allow instant communication to people never before seen in history. Its text features have isolated people into veritable cocoons while banging out irrelevant text messages to each other. Most text messages are of such trite nature they would probably never even be discussed if in person. What’s worse is text messaging, with its abbreviated words, is literally changing our language and reducing it to the level of an ignoramus. No complex thoughts or ideas are able to be handled via the text messaging system, yet teenagers and many adults today use text messaging as their primary form of communication. Unfortunately, this is reverting society back to the level of a low-grade moron and will continue to have destructive sociological effects over time.
Now, with all of the problems associated with cell phones, from unreliable service, to disaster-prone and fragile infrastructure, cheap junk construction and the health and social detriments, there must be a better, more reliable way to communicate when that system either fails, or becomes too costly (both financially and socially) to use.
There is a technology that allows one to communicate with others, anywhere in their state, country and even around the world. What’s old is new; I’m talking about Ham Radio.
Ham Radio, also known as Amateur Radio, was originally conceived in the early 1900’s with the discovery of the radio wave. Through the years, Ham radio has evolved into a hobby for millions of people worldwide and is still used today in disaster communications when that fragile, unreliable telephone and cellular communications system fails.
In a natural or manmade disaster, cell phones are generally the first to go dead. The internet is usually not far behind. Then, the landline hardwired phones go down and most people are left stranded in a communications no man’s land.
Ham radio operates on many of the same principles as those communication systems, but has the benefit of much more durable hardware and radios, higher power output, lower frequency transmissions (while microwave is available to Hams, usually the much lower and safer HF, VHF and UHF frequencies are used), and ability to operate on a 12 volt car battery.
With a simple HF (high frequency) rig, one can communicate across the country and around the world. For example, our county’s Aroostook Emergency Management Agency can use HF radios to communicate with the State Capitol when conventional communication is disrupted.
VHF radios are available for personal, vehicle or base use. The latter two can transmit up to 50 watts standard, without an external amplifier, giving them a reliable range of up to 50 miles to the nearest repeater.
In addition to conventional voice communications, Ham radio has evolved over the years to allow the integration of a personal computer to the radio system, allowing one to transmit simple e-mails, pictures, slow-scan television, maps and faxes. This is also an invaluable feature in disaster communication to transmit pictures and other digital information when the internet is down.
Because of its technical nature and increased power transmitting capability, an FCC license is required. The license is available for free to any who have successfully passed a license exam (there is a small fee to administer the exam).
There are around two hundred licensed amateur radio operators here, in Northern Maine. Some of them are active, some have moved away from the hobby but still kept their license and equipment.
For less than the cost of an annual cell phone service, one can instead acquire a 2 meter VHF transceiver that can allow communications out to fifty miles away, depending on the terrain. A phone patch is even available to allow mobile radios to access a telephone land line.
There are no monthly subscription fees for Ham radio users, though most belong to a local club in order to financially support a club repeater to help them increase range, but even that is not mandatory.
Ham radio is not for use in business or anything of a commercial nature, for that there are other portions of the radio spectrum allocated.
While you’re not going to be able to sit around and mindlessly transmit meaningless text messages from a portable pocket device, you will have a solid, heavy duty, reliable form of communication when it’s really needed. Besides, do you really need to spend that much time yakking and texting on an expensive cell phone service that is sending damaging microwaves through your head and body? Why not switch to Ham radio gear for your wireless communication needs, then go visit your friends and family in person to have a real, meaningful conversation face-to-face.