March 5, 1998
Ham Radio, Version 2.0, for the Silicon Era
By JOHN W. VERITY
ike millions of people these days, Keith Baker thinks nothing of sending e-mail from his home computer to friends who may live halfway around the world. But his e-mail does not always travel the usual route, down a telephone line and out into that vast maze of glass and copper cables called the Internet.
Instead, Baker quite often sends his e-mail through outer space, relaying it through a fleet of communications satellites that he helped build. Day and night, one after another, these orbiting bulletin boards fly over his home in Xenia, Ohio, ready to forward e-mail — and throw his voice — to points far beyond the horizon. Delivery may take an hour or more, depending on a satellite's path and each message's destination. But Baker pays nothing for the service and can reach at least some of the satellites using only a $250 handheld radio.
Credit: Chriss Kasson for The New York Times
Ham operators like Keith Baker of Xenia, Ohio, use microchips and satellites as much as quartz crystals.
This is version 2.0 of ham radio, a hobby that is still thriving, still evolving and still captivating, even as technologies like laptop Web browsing and robots on Mars become taken for granted.
A new, digitally hip generation is sweeping into ham radio and virtually reinventing it from the inside out. A lot of today's ham gear relies as much on microchips and software as it does on the quartz crystals, odd-looking antennas and other elements of traditional wireless setups. After a surge of newcomers, during the mid-1970's boom in citizens' band radio, the number of licensed ham operators in the United States has grown to 670,000 today from 497,000 in 1990, an all-time high, with 1.8 million hams active overseas.
In a sense, the hams' shortwave radio spectrum was the original version of what is now called cyberspace, an ethereal venue where hobbyists could meet, compare notes on the latest gizmos and chat with friends and strangers.
That tradition lives on, although most of the innovation now involves much shorter — and therefore higher-frequency — radio waves than before. These higher-frequency signals do not travel nearly so far, but they can carry more information and are less subject to interference. And they make possible greatly miniaturized, even pocket-size, equipment.
The ham shortwave radio spectrum was the original cyperspace||
By bouncing shortwave signals off the outer part of the Earth's atmosphere — or in recent years, using those amateur satellites — hams transmitting with less power than a 15-watt refrigerator light bulb can often communicate with people on the other side of the world. "Radio is black magic," says Dewayne Hendricks, one of the many hams in Silicon Valley and founder and president of Warpspeed Imagineering, a provider of wireless Internet access. "You can't control it."
Nor can you predict exactly where your signal will travel, or who will be there to receive it. "I'll never forget the thrill of being stuck in traffic in Connecticut and talking with a guy driving on the Autobahn in Germany," said Brad Thomas, advertising manager at the American Radio Relay League, the leading ham organization, which was founded in 1914. Thomas remembers making that contact via a mobile radio rig that cost him just $200.
Another tradition that lives on: building one's hardware more or less from scratch. "One of the real thrills of ham radio is the pride of creating something yourself," said Geoffrey Baehr, a ham operator who is the chief network officer for Sun Microsystems, the computer maker in Mountain View, Calif. "It's the ultimate junk box. What I've got is essentially a license from the Federal Government to fiddle."
And with millions of hams all a-fiddling, the amateur airwaves resound these days with a bizarre symphony of many new and sometimes truly inspired subgenres. Thousands of hams around the world, for instance, communicate via some two dozen satellites that have been designed, built and launched by volunteers from the Radio Amateur Satellite Corp., based in Washington.
Baker is executive vice president of Amsat, as the worldwide, nonprofit group calls itself.
Amsat piggybacks its gear on commercial rocket launchings, usually in exchange for helping satellite makers field-test new engineering ideas. The Amsat satellites are open for use by all hams, Baker said, although their limited carrying capacity makes getting access the luck of the draw.
nother group of volunteers devotes itself to a nonsatellite technology called packet radio. The technique has brought into being an essentially all-wireless Internet that crisscrosses the globe with hundreds of thousands of local and long-distance radio links.
A ham operator in 1919.
Although they resemble Internet-based e-mail — in that each message is broken into many tiny radio data packets that must be reassembled at the receiving end — the packets may take an hour or two to get from a sender's computer in Los Angeles to a computer in New York. That is because, depending on data-packet traffic conditions, the packets may hop between hundreds of intermediate packet-radio relay stations before reaching their destination. More than 100,000 American hams run such repeater stations, all swapping one another's packets in a grand display of digital cooperation.
There are even hams who specialize in bouncing conversations off the biggest satellite of them all, the moon.
Others run their own television stations from attics and basements, reaching small audiences of other hams who have tweaked standard television sets to receive and decode the slow-speed signals. And some San Francisco-area hams, fed up with the local phone company, have even begun their own alternative nonprofit carrier, using high-capacity microwaves to beam phone calls and Web pages directly into their homes.
Traditional ham radio has hardly disappeared. Practitioners, though, are mainly the over-40 crowd, people who were bitten by the radio bug well before the computer and Internet revolutions. Often living on hilltops and operating 4,000-watt transmitters — the legal maximum — and towering antennas, these hams are most active in early evening. That is when the planet's outer atmosphere, the mirrorlike ionosphere, is protected from blasts of solar wind and is most placid; that makes it best able to bounce the hams' dots, dashes and voices all over the dark side of the Earth.
Yet, instead of winding their own tuning coils and wielding soldering irons as they used to, most of these traditionally minded hams now operate mass-produced equipment from Japan. Heathkit, an American brand name that was synonymous with the postwar era of sturdy, build-it-yourself radio gear, is but a memory. But it is a cherished one, judging by the several online Heathkit museums that can be found on the Web, like the Heathkit Virtual Museum. When hams celebrate their heritage through Web sites, it is simply one more example of amateur radio and the Internet crossbreeding — not only technologically, but culturally, too.
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