A Vast and Invisible World: Amateur Radio Operators Use Old and New Technologies to Communicate Globally


Allen McBroom stands in the backyard outside his home west of Starkville, pointing skyward.

“You see that?” he asks.

Barely noticeable against the dark treeline in the twilight stretches a 102-foot-long, 14-gauge wire, narrower than a pencil.

“Over the past two weeks,” McBroom continues, “I have spoken to people as far away as Japan and South Africa through this antenna. “

It was part of what McBroom called “the 10-cent tour of a 25-cent radio station,” a tour that ended in an office in the back of his house where considerably more than a quarter amateur radio equipment was ready for use. .

From McBroom’s two-way radio hub, it can possibly talk to someone at United Nations Headquarters, the Vatican, the International Space Station, or one of the thousands of other amateur radios around the world. Just find out what frequency they’re broadcasting from, turn a few knobs, and hope someone answers.

“It’s a big world that is not seen by the average person,” said McBroom, who is one of about 20 members of the Magnolia Amateur Radio Club in Starkville. “… But whatever little interest you might have, someone (talks about) here.” “

McBroom should know. Since setting up his first amateur radio station in 2011, he has recorded contacts in all 50 US states, more than 60 countries and seven continents.

Yes, all seven. Although his only contact in Antarctica – during which he spoke briefly with a government researcher – touched a little closer to home than McBroom had expected.

“When I got it right, he recognized my call sign… like the Southeast (US),” he said. “So he asked me, ‘Where are you from? And I said, ‘Starkville, Mississippi.’ He said, ‘You’re kidding. I’m from Birmingham, Alabama. ‘”

How it works

Amateur, or amateur, radio dates back over a century and has grown from its beginnings of listening to Morse code to a digital age business that often operates in tandem with the Internet.

While digital amateur radio is still a booming business, McBroom said the most common forms are still the continuous wave, with which operators transmit in Morse code, and the single sign band for voice transmissions.

They transmit on high frequency wavelengths ranging from 80 meters to less than two meters with equipment powered by 12 volt batteries.

McBroom said most amateur radios can reach anywhere in the world using 100 watts of power on wavebands between 10 and 80 meters, although he sometimes uses an 800-watt amplifier just to be sure. Over a two-meter band, the radio can reach 40 to 50 miles from its own antenna and across Mississippi if the signal reaches repeater antennas, dozens of which are stationed statewide.

But using web-based Ecolink software, ham operators can jump to other two-meter bands around the world and talk to locals, McBroom said.

The best part, he added, is that amateur radio communication is free and all legal operators are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission.

Each operator must pass technician exams (Morse code only), general license or additional general license, for which the government issues a call sign of four to six digits.

The traditional protocol for ham operators, although not required by law, is practiced quite strictly, especially among the elders.

“You start (a voice transmission) by giving the call sign of the person you’re calling, then your call sign. Then you wait for a response, ”McBroom said. “Then you have your chat, and if others want to join you, you tell them, ‘come in.’ When you’re ready to go, you say “7-3” which means best wishes, and either “watch” which means you are still listening or “clearly” which means you turn off your station. “

Thrill of the hunt

The “thrill” for hobbyist operators is logging as many contacts as possible, and all licensed operators have access to a website where they can see each other’s profiles, when and where they are broadcasting, and their confirmed contact history.

For McBroom and many other operators, the “price” is made up of the usual postcards that it exchanges with confirmed contacts (whose addresses are listed on their online profiles but only for authorized operators).

McBroom made special mention of a card he received from Bulgaria in Eastern Europe.

“I’m really proud of this one,” he said.

Steve Ackers sat at his kitchen table in Starkville on Thursday, listening to a station in Ghana type in Morse code to see if they could get an answer.

Third-generation ham operator and coder, he understood every point and every dash.

His two grandfathers knew Morse code: one was a railway worker and the other an amateur radio operator. His father, a professor of electrical engineering in the State of Mississippi, carried on the tradition and passed it on to him.

“I grew up around him, so I naturally chose him,” said Ackers, also a member of the Magnolia Amateur Radio Club.

Ackers worked as a truck driver for 20 years before retiring. He bought a “minimal” amateur radio station two years ago and has since recorded over 1,100 contacts.

“It’s all over the world and in all 50 states,” he said. “About half of it is Morse code and the other half is sideband.”

Ackers, now bound to a wheelchair, calls his radio his “ticket to the world.”

He listens to contests and special events where operators try to register as many contacts as possible. Sometimes he even encounters unique conversation opportunities.

“You never know who you’re going to talk to on the radio,” he said. “I once spoke to an astronaut while he was at his home in Florida. A lot of times you can just go in and chew, but when they go into contest mode, they deploy the contacts.

Emergency requests

As entertaining as a hobby as ham radio can be, it is also a useful tool in an emergency.

When something like a natural disaster puts an end to conventional communications, high frequency radios are still working, so amateur radio operators are on standby to work with emergency services to communicate with first responders.

The Magnolia Amateur Radio Club even has permanent equipment installed on the second floor of the Oktibbeha County Emergency Operations Center on Main Street, which also houses its E911.

“(Even though they are volunteers) we consider radio amateurs to be part of the staff of the EOC,” said Kristen Campanella, director of emergency management for Oktibbeha. “They give the right people the right information at the right time so they can make the right decision. They are an essential link for our emergency responders, and it is a comfort to know that they are available.

Amateur radio operators are trained to transmit communications in an emergency, such as passing damage reports to first responders. They can be stationed in a central hub like EOC or deployed in an area of ​​need to report information to this hub.

In emergency shelters, they can even help displaced victims send and receive messages to other family members.

The Magnolia club meets monthly at the EOC, where Campanella said members persist in bringing it into their ranks.

“It’s way above my head how it all works,” she said. “They keep pushing me to do it, however. Someday I might.

A sense of accomplishment

McBroom caught the radio virus while growing up in Panola County.

He distinctly remembers, at the age of 10, sticking a wire antenna on his second story window connected to a tube-fed short-wave radio. With her he could hear stations like Radio Moscow, BBC London and Radio Havana.

“I felt like a spy,” he said.

That, combined with reading stories in Boys Life magazine about WWII spies who escaped the Nazis while sending radio messages from behind enemy lines, made the idea of ​​transmitting by radio. “Intriguing”.

It took him until eight years ago to make that dream come true, but he doesn’t regret the investment.

“If I were a millennial, I might be stumped as to how exciting this could be,” McBroom said. “But growing up in the 50s, 60s and 70s radio guys were the heroes because they could make things work when no one else could. Today radio operators tend to be older, but there is a resurgence of young people interested in this.

“I think that’s the novelty of this one,” he added. “If you’re under 30 you’ve never known a world without cellphones and computers. … But to put out a call to, say, Africa on one of these radios and get a response, you get a sense of accomplishment.

Zack Plair is the editor of The Dispatch.

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