The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 10, 2008


Ham radio: A hobby with life-saving potential


Carlisle resident John James is surrounded by his ham radio equipment. (Photo by Jane Hamilton)

Despite the increasing popularity of cell phones and high-speed fiber-optic Internet technology, ham radio still attracts over a million users world-wide. They are referred to as “hams” or “amateur radio operators.” There are critics who argue that ham radio today is just a commodity and has lost its past charm of being the only wireless communication across the world.

Although ham radio has been around since 1925, in recent years its technology has evolved with a new standard called the Digital Smart Technologies for Amateur Radio (D-STAR). The D-STAR system provides not only digital voice communication but also digital data transmission. It can exchange various data files including graphics and images, allowing for a more efficient disaster response, which is one of ham radio’s most significant uses.

The true origin of the term “ham” seems to have been lost, but there are several theories. It may simply be a shortcut way of saying the first syllable of “amateur radio,” or it may have originally been used as an insult. Hams start out in amateur radio for many reasons, but they all have in common a basic knowledge of radio technology, regulations and operating principles.

Ham as a hobby

John James is a ham radio enthusiast who lives on Baldwin Road and whose ham radio call sign is K1YM. He said, “I was surprised when the web site search at showed 54 licensed operators in Carlisle.” James has an assortment of antennas in his yard: “I assembled them by referring to books; each has a specific use.” He mostly uses ham radio to contact fellow users around the world. He particularly likes to stay connected with his friend at Woods Hole, who occasionally travels to the North Arctic.

Philip Gladstone of Curve Street, whose call sign is N1DQ, is another avid user. Although Gladstone had a ham radio license five years ago, he admits, “I never could learn Morse Code. I tried but failed, and this limited me to using a frequency band of 50 MHz. With this frequency I could only communicate within 50 miles.” When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) dropped the Morse Code requirement about two years ago, Gladstone jumped on the opportunity and became an active user, reaching out to hams across the world.

Gladstone, a Distinguished Engineer at Cisco Systems (a coveted title that only few have within the company), used his software development skills to write a plug-in that now comes standard with Ham Radio Deluxe, a Windows program that provides computer control for commonly used transceivers and receivers. Gladstone explains how it is used: “an amateur would call CQ [Ham equivalent of saying “hello”] and could then, within a few minutes, see where his signal was received.” A real-time aerial display of Gladstone’s active reception records can be seen at

Contests for hams


The “Lazy H” antenna appears to be floating above John James’s house on Baldwin Road. It is one of several that James installed himself. (Photo by Jane Hamilton)

Several contests are held within the amateur radio space to keep participation thriving. One popular award is the DXCC award, granted by American Radio Relay League (ARRL). James explained that, “In this contest, each operator needs to reach out to as many different ham radio users across the world within a specified period of time,” and keeps track of the two-way communication on QSL cards. The cards resemble postcards and are exchanged through snail mail; James has a display of some of these cards in his home office. The operator can also enter his contacts on a web site.

Ham for all ages

The FCC enforces strict guidelines on the use of ham radio, and encourages its users to graduate from a casual and fun hobby to being a backup communication service if needed in emergency situations. For this reason ham radios can only be used after the operator obtains a license through a written exam offered by the FCC.

Mitch Stern of New Hampshire, whose call sign is W1SJ, offers weekend ham radio classes to prepare for the FCC exam. The next class is on October 25 in Manchester, New Hampshire. “My students range in age from 9 to 80 years. The only expectation I have is that they read fluently and stay focused in the class.” For more information on available classes, call 1-802-879-6589 or visit

Reliability of ham radio

Ham radio maintains a critical link for on-site communication during catastrophic events like earthquakes. The National Association for Amateur Radio web site ( maintains a report on its widespread use. One of its publications, When All Else Failed – Ham Radio, includes the following extract:“Government officials and news media have recognized that when communications failed after the Sichuan earthquake on 12 May [2008], it was amateur radio operators who stepped in to provide vital links.”

When a disaster strikes, the communication networks are destroyed – cell towers are toppled, making cell phones unusable; the Internet and phone system are down; and most importantly, computers are unusable without electricity. In the case of ham radio, re-establishing the network requires installing repeaters to strengthen the signal as it travels over long distances. These repeaters are far easier to install in a disaster zone compared to cell towers or fiber-optic wires.

In the same article on the ARRL site, Zhang Zhen BG8DOU reports that right after the earthquake, two ham radio operators drove to the centre of the earthquake area and had a repeater setup by the morning of May 13.This repeater enabled the transmission of rescue instructions, status reports and was a main communication channel for public use.”

The American Red Cross and ARRL have a statement of understanding to work collaboratively during disasters as they serve as emergency responders. Stressing the long lifespan of ham, James noted that, “even the military has used ham to help during emergencies. In the past they mostly used ham to allow soldiers to stay connected with their families, but now they would use Internet and cell phones instead.”


National Association for Amateur Radio:

Queries by ham users: ∆

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