When internet, cell towers and satellites go dark, these hobbyists will make connections
Half a dozen Durango Amateur Radio Club members gathered earlier this month in the warehouse of Creature Comforts. From noon to 3 p.m., they surrounded a white foldout table bearing a power supply, high-frequency sideband voice modulation and laptop computer that plotted changes in radio propagation.
One hundred ships participated in the International Museum Ships Weekend event in which amateur radio operators attempted to contact as many vessels as possible. While the event spanned the whole weekend, the Amateur Radio Club participated for only the three hours, during which time they made 25 contacts.
“Amateur Radio Club is worldwide, it covers the entire globe,” said John Ball, an amateur Radio Club member. “We all are like-minded people with common goals and interests.”
Ball likens the versatility of amateur radio – also known as HAM radio – to skiing or biking and says members with any level of expertise, equipment and experience can participate.
While the origins of the name HAM is not fully understood, https://vigyanprasar.gov says “HAM” was the call sign of the first amateur wireless station in 1908. The sign was derived from last names of the three Amateur Radio operators who manned the station: Albert S. Hyman, Bob Almt and Poogie Murray.
Amateur radio historically
Starting in the World War II era, Amateur Radio operators facilitated communications over oceans and to disaster stricken areas.
“Before the advent of cellphones and satellite communications, the HAMs were the first and only link to other parts of the world or even here in America where there had been a horrible natural disaster like a hurricane, flood, forest fire,” Ball said.
One of the organizations Amateur Radio operators worked closely with was the Red Cross.
“We worked closely with the Red Cross to notify the people that their loved ones are OK,” Ball said. “That’s all there is to it, but it can be comforting to the other family members worrying about the loved ones halfway around the world.”
At the local level, HAM radio operators have been facilitating communications for the annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic almost since the event began.
The Memorial Day event includes a 47-mile ride from Durango to Silverton, which traverses two mountain passes – Coal Bank and Molas – where traditional communication tools, like cellphones and digital and analog radios, are spotty at best.
“One of our operators (would) go down to the State Patrol office … and set up a HAM radio station that could talk to the other HAM radio operators along (U.S. Highway 550),” Ball said. “When someone got hurt or wrecked, we could radio that in to the State Patrol office and ride side by side with them as they solved the emergency.”
With the advent of modern cell networks and internet communications, the necessity of HAM radio has been mitigated.
Despite that, Amateur Radio operators keep participating in events like the Iron Horse and keep their skills sharp in the event of a major communication services fail.
In addition to their shifted role in facilitating communication, other changes have weaseled their way into the Amateur Radio Club.
Traditionally, Ball says, Amateur Radio operators prided themselves in assembling their own radios.
“They would use various parts and pieces and junk TVs,” he said. “You would (get) all the components – mostly vacuum tubes – and build (your) own equipment.”
As commercially made Amateur Radio gear became more readily available, many operators turned away from making their own equipment.
“Why would you want to spend two or three weeks building your radio when you could just get on the phone and order one and have it the next day?” Ball said. “(It’s) one of the lost arts of what the old people did.”
The practice of Morse code is another Amateur Radio skill that seems to have lapsed.
Both Ball and Lloyd had to prove their proficiency in Morse code before they received their Amateur Radio licenses, but the requirement has since been eradicated.
To become an Amateur Radio operator, members must pass a written assessment issued by the Federal Communications Commission, Lloyd said. Once they have successfully done so, they gain a technician class license, the lowest level Amateur Radio license. As members progress, they can test for the higher level general and extra licenses.
“(Amateur Radio) provides a backup means of communication, that’s the justification to having HAMs licensed by the federal government,” Lloyd said.
How it works: understanding radio
“Radio is everywhere,” said Lloyd, as he gestured to the smartphone sitting on his desk. “Whenever you contact a cell tower and you’re making a phone call, you’re using a radio.”
Unlike cellphones, which rely on cell towers and microwave frequencies to form communications networks, most Amateur Radio equipment emits energy in the high-frequency portion of the radio spectrum. Those high-frequency waves can then be received by other Amateur Radio operators.
The signals emitted by the radios are refracted in the upper layer of the atmosphere called the ionosphere before bouncing back to Earth. Lloyd explains that this process, called radio frequency propagation, is what allows signals to circumnavigate the planet.
“If you can’t get any internet and you can’t get any cell service, I can transmit here using a generator around the world if I wanted to,” he said.
A community of hobbyists
In addition to its value as a national recourse recognized by the FCC, Amateur Radio also provides members with a place to explore their hobbies and find a like-minded community.
“It’s a wonderful hobby, and you meet some of the greatest people around and there’s something for everyone,” Ball said. “There (are) probably 50 different modes of local, (close) range and long-range communications.”
Lloyd’s interest was piqued by the latter category, and he frequently uses his Amateur Radio equipment to communicate with operators in “rare countries.”
In Amateur Radio, a country is not necessarily a real country, Lloyd said; it might be a tiny speck of land that is in the middle of the ocean somewhere that is completely uninhabited where Amateur operators decided to set up equipment.
To form a successful connection with another country or station, an Amateur operator must have three things: the call sign, the frequency and the universal Zulu time. Even when all of these factors are coordinated, Lloyd says communication is not guaranteed.
When a successful communication is made, operators exchange QSL cards, the Amateur Radio equivalent of a post card. Lloyd has several displayed on the wall of his office in the back of Creature Comforts, the pet store he has owned and operated for the last six years.
“If I can’t travel and I’ve got to be in this office, at least I can travel via Amateur Radio and talk to somebody in the South Pacific,” he said.
In Durango, the DARC meets once a month at Creature Comforts, where members socialize, do Amateur Radio equipment demonstrations and talk all things radio.
For those interested, Lloyd says the DARC will have a booth at the upcoming La Plata County Fair to answer questions about the organization.