Victoria Spring 2011 – Ham Radio in the 21st Century

ICOM 703+ All Band Ham TransceiverAs much as I wonder, some times, what I did before the internet (and I am not alone on the sentiment obviously…) – I often wonder what I did before radio was a big part of my life.

Because it was at the age of 12 that a boy friend of my older sister handed me a multiband radio to play with for a few days. It had AM. It had FM. And something called “SW”. And Police Band. Double whammy there. Never heard of SW really – and that I could listen to Police and Fire calls on a radio kind of blew my mind.

Photo above right – The ICOM 703+ All Mode Transceiver keeps me in touch with the world…

Those first few sounds on the “SW” dial are forever etched in my mind – other Worldly, mysterious, cryptic… and the languages; English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese.
I was aware that my pocket sized AM radio was capable of picking up Los Angeles and Denver from my perch on Vancouver Island… but foreign languages? This was wild – and it was one of those moments that I knew would change the way I saw things… forever.

Within a few months my Dad bought be an RCA radio from the late 30’s – that had tubes in it – and SW bands – that worked as well or better than the cheap transistor radio that I had been introduced to. Before long I learned the importance of an outdoor antenna – even if it was a random piece of wire or series of coat hangers strapped together with bailing wire – it all worked. That old radio was pressed into pretty hard service for an antique that had probably anticipated a quiet retirement. And I kind of ran it into the ground with constant listening.

After it died, I built a new radio from a kit from Radio Shack – it allowed me to pick up all the regulars, the Short wave broadcasters that I came to rely on for wildly dissimilar views of my own – Like Radio Beijing and Radio Moscow – but now something called “Ham Radio” – a special circuit in this radio receiver afforded several modes of reception that were heretofore unavailable; Morse code and strange sounding “Single Sideband” reception — an odd off frequency duck sounding chatter that only became intelligible when the dial was adjusted just so.

30 plus years later and I am in the digital age with the Transceiver unit shown above – a product from the company Icom that covers most frequencies of interest and all modes of transmission from SSB (Single Side Band) to AM and FM and Morse code — and more beyond that.

It has a transmitter power of 10 watts – which does not seem like much (and It isn’t) but I have direct conversations from other “Hams” all around North and South America, the Pacific (Tahiti) and New Zealand. Amazing considering that radio energy leaves my balcony mounted radio antennas, bounces around the atmosphere a few times (hitting something 75 to 150 miles up called the Ionosphere) and lands where it lands… thousands of miles away. Amazing.

This weekend I spoke with a Boy Scout troop leader and his charges of young cub adventurers near San Capistrano at their camp site, the U.S.S. Wisconsin Amateur radio club in Virginia celebrating their battleships 67th birthday and a variety of radio operators all around North America.

You might say that Ham Radio is the Worlds first modern form of social networking – and the reality is, you never know exactly what is going to happen or who you are going to talk to when you switch the radio on. Yes, it is an interesting hobby, but it also serves as a valuable public service. In the event of a national disaster or regional crisis, Ham radio serves as a back up grid for the internet, cell phone and traditional telephone communications.

This afternoon I explained some of the principles of Amateur Radio to a young lady that works in my lab at UVic – I think I gave some good answers because she fired some really good questions at me and did not fall asleep listening to the replies.

Yea, it is complicated – but it is not outrageously so that it is out of reach of anyone enthusiastic enough to tackle it – An amateur radio license requires an exam from a certified government examiner; an exam that is as much about technical procedures as it is about some basic electronics. You can do it – yes you can… and be a part of a fascinating hobby and public service.

Colin Newell lives and works in Victoria B.C. Canada – holds the Amateur radio call sign VA7WWV