Sunday, 13 March 2011

What did they have to say in Svalbard?

Following a comment on the previous post by Jessica Maybury, I decided a bit of background information on it was in order. I had probably talked about Amateur Radio while assuming that everyone knew roughly what it was about. Those who know me well, I suspect, know not to ask me about it at all, even if they don't, unless they want their ears bent.

Amateur Radio is a hobby pursued by millions of people around the world. To become a radio amateur involves passing an exam in very basic electronics, radio communication and the causes of and ways to prevent interference. Once you've passed you're considered competent to venture out on the airwaves with a radio transmitter. Of course, you could just buy a CB licence or even buy a mobile phone - but there are differences. A licensed radio amateur, if they want to, is permitted to build their own radio transmitter - with a CB licence you're not even permitted to tamper with the set you've bought. CB is restricted to one band: amateurs have a whole range of bands to use. Amateur radio is a lot more than talking into a microphone: amateurs transmit and receive Morse code, radio teletype, TV and a range of data modes (encoding signals for transmission and decoding signals with the help of a computer). Licensed amateur hold call signs which identify them and the countries they come from: the "prefix" of the callsign identifies the country. (Sorry, but this map is not the most up-to-date: UK callsigns begin with M these days, not G. Mine is M0KXD) (click to view):

Like "jazz", the term "amateur radio" covers a whole range of activities. Some become amateurs simply to communicate with other amateurs. Some are more interested in building radio equipment. Some use amateur radio satellites or even bounce their signals off the moon. A lot of astronauts are radio hams - it's even possible, as an amateur, to communicate with the International Space Station. There is an ongoing competition, Summits on the Air (SOTA), for hill-walking radio hams who enjoy transmitting from hilltops.

Most amateur radio goes on on the shortwave bands. Using these bands is an interesting challenge. Conditions change: sometimes it's possible to transmit right around the world, sometimes it isn't. The atmosphere bends shortwave radio waves so a signal that's inaudible a hundred miles away can be heard a thousand miles away.

What do amateurs talk about? First, it's not a bit like Tony Hancock. Seriously, I think Hancock gave amateurs a bad press, but here he is:

In real life, amateurs are restricted: you can't discuss politics, or say anything offensive. In a brief contact they'll generally restrict themselves to reporting their names, locations, and the strength of their signals. However, sometimes you can get into a longer chat. The hobby has a language of its own. Basic English is used a lot, but a whole lot of abbreviated terms that are used too which enable people from different countries to understand each other. These started life in Morse code, where commonly understood abbreviations are vital. For example, when I transmit, I usually use a digital mode known as PSK-31 (roughly, this is a bit like a modern, computerised version of the old "Grandstand" teleprinter they used for the football results). Messages are sent and appear as text - we don't talk to each other directly. First I'll transmit, on a frequency commonly used for digital modes:


In other words, this is a general invitation to communicate (CQ) from (de) me (m0kxd). "K" is an invitation to anyone to respond. When I responded to a CQ call by JY5HX (Dr Munzer Qraini) in Jordan the other day I sent this. Important information is repeated, as interference and fading can disrupt signals:

Thanks for the contact Munzer!
RST is 599 599 599
Name: Dom Dom Dom
QTH: Bellerby Bellerby Bellerby

RST is an estimate of signal strength and quality, a bit like the Beaufort Wind Scale.

QTH is a term from the "Q code", used to mean location.

HW? is an old Morse abbreviation for "how?" - i.e., "how do you copy"?

KN is a bit like "K", but means only Munzer is invited to respond.

This over was followed by another in which we offered to exchange QSL cards and said goodbye. Of course, we could have gone on for longer if we'd wanted to.

I could go on, but, out of consideration for patient readers I'll resist the temptation.  If you want to know more, have a google. The internet is awash with stuff to do with Amateur Radio.


BwcaBrownie said...

Thanks for broadening my Cultural Frame-Of-Reference.
I love a good sub-culture.

Gwilym Williams said...

What are they saying in Japan? The dangerous plutonium No. 3 MOX reactor exploded at 11.01am this their time. Do they know about it? Have they been told?
BBC, CNN are obviously under heavy censorship. I'm having to fish around for 'real news'. Perhaps you can find informed people on the airwaves?

Gwilym Williams said...

I mean that there was an explosion at No.3 not that the
plutonium core was involved - but how do we know? They say 11 people were injured almost as if it's an everyday thing.

Rachel Fenton said...

That was unexpectedly fascinating - right up to the code talk - too much like numbers and maths - I'd be rubbish at it - and if you can't talk about anything! Humph! :)

The Solitary Walker said...

I like the way you can bounce off the moon.

Though I think I'll stick to blogging as my communicative outlet. It seems a damn sight easier!

The Weaver of Grass said...

After reading this post my brain hurts.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments, everyone. Just to address a few points raised:

At times of great international crisis amateur radio has played a part in "getting news out" and creating human interest stories. I've not heard of any instances relating to recent events, though.

The maths involved in the exam did make my brain hurt, but I must be living proof that the maths is "do-able" even if maths is not your thing!

The limits on what you can talk about are not as limiting as it sounds. It means that people are themselves and not just propagandists on air, and it's quite refreshing at times of international tension to have contacts with people from countries which might otherwise be difficult.

Moonbounce is definitely amateur radio at its most Romantic.

swiss said...

when i was still speaking to my dad i did ask him if he had any qsl cards left but sadly no. i do remember, in the context of a recent post, helping him assemble the aerial out the back but, unfortunately, i can't recall any of the technical details that would tweak your radio twinky.

he did do his certificate at the naval college in edinburgh and i remember it all seeming a bit technical to me but i still have a certain delight in the sound of the radio waves coupled with 'cq cq cq...'. i never found the 'restrictions' very restrictive, more old school gentlemanly i suppose and in some ways, lots better than the internet!

in the end i don't know what happened to his radio hammery. some of it lives on tho. just the other day we were passing some house and t pointed out the plush aerial. nice kit i said, but in my day we had to do with home made pole with wires off of it!

swiss said...

or should i properly be calling it an antenna?

Dominic Rivron said...

swiss: thanks for all that! I know an elderly ham who gets very irate about "antenna". Whenever anyone uses the word he says "It's a b****y aerial! Antennae are what insects have on their heads!"

Argent said...

This was really interesting. I'm intrigued by how computers have entered the fray - a logical conjunction of technologies, when you think about it I suppose. Do you get taught the etiquette and jargon or pick it up as you go along?

Dominic Rivron said...

Most amateurs start just listening in. Some stuff, like the Q code, along with protocols for conducting contacts are even part of the exam.

The use of computers *is* interesting. Speech csn be unreliable on the radio: the loud bits of a word (like some consonants) are loud, the quiet bits, quiet. You can mess about with it a bit, but you can't transmit the quiet bits as powerfully as the loud bits. Morse and computer generated codes can be transmitted at an even level. You can also transmit and receive more messages in a little bit of bandwidth.

I can go on (I'm told), and on, and on...

Andrew Shields said...

Anonymous said...

Time away from the blogs had me missing this post and its predecessor. Much interest, of course, particularly now that I'm nearly ready to get back on the air. The house sale's gone through so I'm hoping for a big shed in which to house all my books and - tucked into whatever tiny space that might remain - a transceiver, psu, atu etc. Still trying to sort out 'a bloody aerial' and am horrified to see that the mini-quad I had my eye on has gone up to somewhat north of £600! I'll keep you posted.

Dominic Rivron said...

AS: Great post over there on your blog- which is where I've left my thoughts.

Patteran: One can do worse than a fishing pole, although I remember your prediliction for VK-grabbing beams! I still wonder about getting a helium tank and a stock of balloons.