Communicating without wires

Michelle T. Bernard
O-N-E Reporter

Amateur radio was essentially the Internet before the Internet. With an amateur radio station, you can communicate anywhere without relying on the Internet or cell services.

With many ham radio operators, It’s all about the thrill of the contact and the international comradery.

The term "ham radio" was first used in a derogatory sense to describe amateur radio operators in the early 19th century. Sort of like "ham-fisted" or "ham actor". The term was also used for bad wired telegraph operators.

John Setzler (AK4FM), Bo Walker (K1BO) and Gene Fulbright (KC4FM) are all local ham radio operators.

Walker started in ham radio when he was 14. Setzler worked in electronics and he “got hungry to play with it when he got out of manufacturing.”

Fulbright has been an amateur ham operator for a long time but can’t remember how he got into it.

All three men operate from amateur radio stations in their homes and have mobile stations as well. An amateur radio station usually includes a transceiver and one or more antennas. While not a requirement for radio communications, most fixed amateur radio stations are equipped with one or more computers, which serve tasks ranging from logging of contacts with other stations to various levels of station hardware control.

Fixed stations are generally powered by electricity and most are able to run off low voltage DC for use in emergencies.

It is thought that amateur radio began in the early 1900s. It was unregulated until 1912 when Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912 which mandated that all radio stations in the United States be licensed by the federal government. It limited private stations (amateur radio operators) to 200 meters or lower. This law also mandates that seagoing vessels continuously monitor distress frequencies.

The Radio Act of 1912 was passed after investigation following the sinking of the Titanic. Interference from ham radio operators was blamed on slowing down rescue efforts.

Whether the interference is true or not is a point of disagreement among historians. The tragedy is "often cited inaccurately as the reason for drawing the Radio Act of 1912," writes broadcast regulation scholar Marvin R. Bensman. "The subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee had actually completed its work on this bill and the bill had been reported out prior to the Titanic disaster."

Despite what may or may not have happened with the Titanic, ham radio operators are known for saving lives during disasters. In January of 1909, Jack Binns was aboard the Republic, when it collided with the Florida off the coast of Nantucket. Both ships carried passengers. Over the course of three days Binns repaired his damaged wireless apparatus that was damaged during the collision and Morse coded for help. He is credited with saving almost 1,500 passengers on both vessels who otherwise might have drowned.

Ham radio operators are able to communicate even if there is no electric power, satellites or cellular service. They have helped in many modern disasters including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

In 1914, Hiram Percy Maxim formed The American Radio Relay League (ARRL). The ARRL supports amateur radio worldwide and organizes and trains volunteers to serve their communities by providing public service and emergency communications according to the ARRL website. At this time, the ARRL has over 750,000 members.

The AARL database lists over 350 licensed operators in Catawba County.

In 1927 the Radio Act of 1927, superseded the Radio Act of 1912 and created the Federal Radio Commission. The word "amateur" is used for the first time in a Federal Statute. The Federal Radio Commission was replaced by the the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934.

In order to get a license from the FCC to operate a ham radio a user must take a test. There are three different levels of licenses - the Technician License, the General License and the Extra license. You must earn them in order.

According to Setzler, the test for the Technician License is very simple and about anyone can pass it. At one time the FCC required some knowledge of Morse code but that is no longer the case.

Why do ham radio operators use ham radios instead of talking on the telephone or via the Internet?

“It’s all about the thrill of the contact – I keep an electronic log book with the names of people I talk to and their locations,” Setzler said. “Just since last week I’ve talked to people in Brazil, Italy, United States, Puerto Rico, Poland, Canary Islands, Columbia and Wales.”

You might think the language barrier may be a problem but according to Setzler most ham radio operators in foreign countries can speak enough English to get by to make contacts.

There are contests run almost daily sponsored by amateur radio societies, radio clubs, or radio enthusiast magazines. The goal of the contest is for an individual or a team operating an amateur radio station to contact as many other amateur radio stations as possible in a given period of time and exchange information.

There are two types of hams making contacts – those that are just trying to establish contact and they are only in contact for a minute or two and those that want to “rag chew” – a term that used for a longer conversation between operators.

Fulbright shared that he recently talked to an operator in Bombay, India for about an hour and a half and they didn’t miss a word.

Radio waves, like light waves and all other forms of electromagnetic radiation, normally travel in straight lines. This does not happen all the time, because long distance communication depends on radio waves traveling beyond the horizon. Sometimes radio waves travel (or propagate) in other than straight-line paths. This is a relatively complicated subject.

“Essentially, propagation is the ability of the radio station to get where you want to go,” Setzler said. “Certain frequency ranges work better at certain distances – all of them work better at certain times of day or night depending upon where the sun is on the globe. Different times of year also make a difference.

“Long distance communication – anywhere from a couple of hundred miles on out are based on signals bouncing off the ionosphere and coming back down. Solar activities affect the ionosphere. Most people do not know this – but hams will tell you right quick what the grey lines are.”
The "grey line" is a band around the Earth that separates daylight from darkness.

“It’s sort of like hunting for Easter eggs, you never know if you are going to find a good one or not,” Walker said. “It might be a good contact or it might be a really lousy contact.”

All three gentlemen stress that they are “amateurs” not professionals. They cannot charge anyone for the use of their radios.

Not long ago a local church contacted Fulbright when they found out he was a ham radio operator. Their pastor was in Costa Rico and numerous members of the church requested that he contact the pastor via “phone patch.” He was offered payment for doing this but he said he couldn’t accept it.

“Millions of calls like this are made on behalf of our military,” Setzler said. “But emergency communication is really what this is all about.”

Setzler, Walker and Fulbright all belong to a Catawba County group that supports emergency communications. There is a ham radio station and antenna in Newton at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) with a ham radio station.

“In a national disaster it would be every one of us on hand full service right quick,” Fulbright said.

Most emergency departments communicate via Ultra high frequency (UHF) or Very high frequency (VHF). If power is lost due to an emergency.

“Basically they can’t talk any further than they can see,” Setzler said. “It’s all line of sight – if the telephone lines are down they are essentially blind unless they have satellite telephones and there’s not a big network of those.

“If there was an emergency, we can walk down to the EOC and fire up our radios and talk to Raleigh and that’s where the head of the state is. The different ham groups throughout the state can communicate back to Raleigh.”

Most ham radio operators can run their radios on emergency power, via a battery – even a car battery.

There are ham field days held all over the United States and Canada where radio amateurs gather with their clubs, groups or friends to operate in remote locations. A Field Day intended as practice for emergencies and informal contests but it is also a social occasion.

One thing that Setzler wants to stress is that ham radios and CB radios are far removed.

“It’s like day and night,” he said. “The similarity is the frequency that they operate on used to be a ham frequency and its really close to an existing ham frequency but the reality is two-thirds of the people that are on CB radios are clandestine and they are operating outside the law – the FCC has just given up on that frequency unless an operator is causing a lot of interference to public service communications and brother they do.

“CB operators are limited to five watts – that’s the maximum they can run in power but some of them are running 5,000 watts. Some of them has spent thousands of dollars on their radio equipment when they can just get a simple license and do it legally but they don’t.”

“A lot of people equate ham radio operators with CB operators,” Walker said. “No – it’s not. It’s handy, dandy on the road to get intelligence about traffic back-ups or whatever but it is not ham radio.”

“CB Radio is the quickest way to get emergency help on the road – if you can get on the frequency,” Setzler said.

Interested in becoming a ham radio operator? You can attend a local Hamfest – a flea market to sell and buy amateur radio equipment. The 19th Annual Catawba Valley Hamfest is being held Saturday, April 16 at the Burke County Fairgrounds in Morganton. Gates open at 8 a.m.

It is not terribly expensive to get into ham radio. You can purchase a mobile transmitter to use as a ham radio station with 50 watts of power for around $30 but you have to have an antenna. Antennas range in price according to their power. If you are technically inclined, relatively inexpensive kits can also be purchased so you can build your own radio.

The Western Piedmont Amateur Radio Club meets the second Monday night of each month at 7 p.m. at the Foothills Community Workshop on 12 Falls Ave., Granite Falls.