Contingency Communication

CQ DXThe ability to communicate with the rest of the planet is now so common that it's generally taken for granted. We just push a few buttons on our cell-phones, or our computers, and that's that. Cellular networks have a lot to do with it, but mostly it's the Internet that allows us to connect on this global scale. And it doesn’t matter if you're sending a message—or calling someone—across the street or around the world; it's as easy to do one as the other. This easy connectivity is great, but it all relies on three things: power, access to the network, and the network's health. Take away just one and the others don't even matter anymore; your ability to communicate with the outside world is gone. I've often thought that complete reliance on only one or two communications paths is a formula for eventual misery, especially when both paths have so many common nodes, and revisiting the Katrina blog I mentioned in a recent post brought that line of reasoning back to the forefront. But short of buying your own cellular company and somehow replicating the Internet, we're basically stuck with crossing our fingers, right?

Not entirely. There's another global communications network that predates the Internet, and Arpanet, and nearly everything but smoke signals for that matter. It is, and has always been, a wireless network, and so doesn't rely on local, physical connections for access. It's the network of transmitters, receivers, antennas—and of course computers—that got its start at the turn of the previous century when Marconi's colleague sent the first trans-Atlantic radio transmission. This achievement triggered a surge of interest in the new wireless communication medium, and many of those early experimenters would go on to create the extraordinary hobby known as Amateur Radio. This may be an unfortunate label, because there's nothing remotely amateurish about it; many of the discoveries and subsequent advances in the communications field have been due to those hobbyists. The restraints that generally define the term hobby have kept commercial interests out of the mix; Amateur Radio continues to attract those with a genuine interest in the scientific and social aspects of long-distance wireless communication.

That's nice, you say, but what does any of this have to do with my e-mail, or my nice high-speed Internet connection—which is working just fine, thank you very much. Absolutely nothing, as long as it's working. But if you were unfortunate enough to be stuck in New Orleans during the Katrina fiasco, or have otherwise experienced the failure of your local communications and/or electrical infrastructure, you already know something about the ultimate reliability of commercial Internet and phone services. Your cellular and Internet providers may have diesel-powered backup generators, but they'll run only as long as there's fuel, and someone to feed them. If you have deep pockets, you may be able to set up some kind of satellite-based system, and get your power from wind turbines if you're away from civilization, but for most of us, those aren't viable options. A CB radio in your vehicle may or may not be useful for basic communication, depending on what's happening in surrounding areas, and the overall condition of the 27 MHz band at the time. The little UHF Family Radio Service walkie-talkies are severely limited in range, and the slightly more powerful General Mobile Radio Service versions won't be much help, either; doubling the range of a transmitter requires quadrupling the power output, so unless you're on a mountaintop, you'll be lucky to get more than a couple miles out of those without a repeater. And like cell-sites, repeaters require power to function; they also require other humans with repeater-capable radios, which happen to be tuned to your frequency, on the other end. The consumer-variety VHF radios may get you slightly better range, but like the UHF versions, hinge on the presence of someone relatively nearby, and whose current circumstances are better than your own.

In sharp contrast, Amateur Radio suffers from none of these limitations. Although local repeater-based activity is popular in the Amateur community, it isn't the only option. If you've ever listened to a shortwave broadcast, you know it's possible to transmit around the world without any kind of relay, or repeater; the planet's ionosphere reflects the radio waves back to the surface much farther from where they originated. Since Amateur Radio systems can also use shortwave frequencies, they don't require anything but the ionosphere—and electricity of course—to operate. Reliable communication, especially during natural disasters or other catastrophic events, has always been one of the hallmarks of Amateur Radio; the power-availability factor has never been an issue, even when nothing else is working. In fact, the only communications systems that did work in New Orleans during Katrina were Amateur Radio systems. Although computer-based communication is as much a part of the Amateur world as it is for others, there are so many Amateur Radio operators throughout the world that, even if the entire Internet—and every cellular network—were to crash at the same time, it would still be possible to get in touch with someone. Probably lots of someones; they're a very helpful and accommodating bunch.

Shortwave frequencies aren't the only possibility. The first Amateur Radio satellite was launched in 1961, followed by dozens more over the years. And as is the case in the commercial world, microwave frequencies have seen increasing use by Amateurs as well; the familiar IEEE 802.11b protocol that lives in so many residential and commercial wireless routers—and their clients—is of interest to the Amateur Radio community, too. While Amateur Radio may not be a viable substitute for the ubiquitous high-speed networks and pocket global digital communicators we take for granted on a daily basis, it certainly isn't irrelevant. When you think about communication alternatives, there really isn't anything else like it on the planet. The bad news is you need a license to operate Amateur equipment, and that license requires technical knowledge. On the other hand, although it's true that astronauts have always been well-represented in the Amateur Radio community, it ain't rocket science. But even if you don't have the inclination to get a license of your own, it may not be a bad idea to make friends with the Amateur in your neighborhood. You never know when you might need to send that crucial message.


P.S. After all this, you're probably wondering what sort of Amateur station I'm running. Sadly, the answer is none. Although I've been intrigued by the idea for many years, there have always been reasons—I mean excuses—for not getting that license. But right now, I'm having a tough time thinking of a single one. Maybe it's time to just do it. Okay, now what did I do with that Amateur Radio Relay League link . . .


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