Amateur Radio: Challenges and Advantages

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Ham radio operators can keep in touch with friends and family without the cost of phone bills.

As a former amateur radio ticket holder, I’d like to comment on Copthorne Macdonald’s article about using ham radio to keep in touch with like-minded people. And my comment will have to be, “Forget it.” Cop, I think, glosses over the difficulties and inadequacies of this means of communication.

First, all the bands on which hams are allowed to operate are heavily overcrowded (were so already in the late 1950’s when I was active). You may be involved in an interesting discussion, and all of a sudden — ZAP! — another amateur with a more powerful rig tunes in on your frequency and knocks out your transmission or prevents your copying the signal from the person you were talking to. This happens frequently. The more crowding, the more difficult it is for everyone to carry on a conversation, so you find yourself wanting bigger and bigger transmitters to outpower the next guy. (A never ending race for power … sound familiar?)

“An advantage for country folks,” says Cop, “is that they can operate during weekday daytimes when lots of people are working and crowding of the bands is minimized.” What homesteader has time to sit inside and gab on the radio during the day?

All your problems, of course, don’t come from other operators. Cop mentions being able to talk to the States (from New Zealand) with a walkie-talkie due to his signal’s bouncing off the ionosphere. Great, but that helpful “skip” can suddenly disappear right in the middle of your nice conversation.

If you’re just getting started with ham radio, you should also remember that you can’t talk at all — with or without interruptions — for the first year or two. You’re restricted to Morse code, which is a pain and takes time, patience and plenty of practice to learn.

One hassle Cop doesn’t bring up is that your activities on the air may interfere with your neighbors’ television reception. This is generally due to poor design and construction of their receivers, and is cured by installing a filter on the TV set. (Many hams build and fit these devices for the families around them, just for the sake of good will.) Even so, relations with the fellow next door can be rough when you try to convince him that it’s his set and not your transmitter that’s causing the problem.

And don’t forget that you’ll have to deal not only with your neighbors, but with the federal government, which has strict rules governing amateur radio. For instance, you’d better watch your language on the air, the FCC uses some pretty sophisticated gear to track down violators.

That same organization, of course, is the one that sets the licensing exam, which is a drag in itself. All the electronics and radio theory you’ll have to study can get pretty boring and remote from the realities of life, and the whole business is a lot of trouble to go to when we’ve got institutions like MOTHER EARTH NEWS to keep us all in touch. Matter of fact, I’d like to see an article by Cop on the stone houses he saw and photographed in Peru.

The last problem I want to mention – and a serious one – is that ham radio costs money. As Cop says, getting started is pretty easy because you can probably find an established operator to help you, but then it begins to get expensive. Macdonald doesn’t say how much he has invested in his rig (especially the SSTV), but I know folks who are trying to make it on a farm or out in the woods don’t have that kind of cash to spare.

Sorry to be discouraging, friends, but I’ve got to repeat my first comment: “Forget it.” We do need to communicate, but after my own experience with ham radio I just can’t think this is a good way.

Richard Tetz

Being a print (instead of electronics) freak the way I am, Richard, I have to agree with your urge to have Cop put his information in writing. Your other points are well taken too.

On the other hand, not everyone sees everything the same way and Cop has already sent me a big fat packet of letters from readers who think his idea is great. Remember, too, that five or ten or more individuals at a time can use a single station in Macdonald’s network of radio freaks without a single one of them hassling through the FCC tests and regulations . . . as long as they’re working the air under the watchful eye of a licensed ham. Splitting the cost that way would also knock your argument about the high price of amateur radio into a cocked hat.

The point is that a ham network of back-to-the-landers isn’t for everyone, just as this magazine isn’t the final answer for everyone. To each his own . . . and, judging from Cop’s article in this issue, the freak radio exchange (with or without SSTV) is catching on pretty good. MOTHER.

I agree with Cop Macdonald that amateur radio is a unique vehicle for many of us to share mutual interests and concerns, even to kick around ideas and maybe find some solutions.

Since I found out about the New Directions Roundtable, I’ve been participating in the discussions and have talked with Cop and others a number of times. It’s been quite a help. Although the people in our rural area are good folks, my wife and I often find that we have little in common with them as far as our interests and hopes for the future are concerned. The meetings on the air at least make us feel less isolated from those who think as we do.

I’d like to offer interested readers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS in our vicinity (about 5 miles from Montpelier, Indiana) my assistance in acquiring an amateur license. I’ve conducted training classes elsewhere and would be happy to do so again.

Bill Weinhardt
Poneto, Ind.