March 19, 1996


Computers and Ham Radio
Bump Heads in Cyberspace

Few people would ever feel an urgent need to answer the question, "What are the parasitic elements of a Yagi antenna?" or to identify all the causes of "splatter interference." Nor will many ponder "the maximum authorized bandwidth of RTTY, data or multiplexed emission using an unspecified digital code."

But that is because they have never longed to become a ham-radio operator and never studied for the license exams that pose such questions. All I retain from my youthful goal to achieve ham status are a fascination with electronic circuits, memories of magazines with stories about transmissions in the midst of wars and earthquakes, and a useless ability to translate Morse code at fantastically slow rates of speed.

And one other thing: the magical feeling brought on by the sounds that emerged from these massive rigs with their lit dials, in which streams of pulsing sound emerged from the staticky ether. For at that time, nearly all amateur radio communication was carried on in Morse code. One operator I knew used a repeating paddle key to stutter out dots and dashes at speeds of 50 words a minute. He seemed to have almost musical ears as he discerned the messages encoded in streams of nonmelodic sound.

Now similar listeners are tuned not to the patter of Morse code but to what computers make of the high-pitched screams of multiple modems making contact over the Internet. And the Net culture has grown out of a technology that seemed just steps away from the ham: garage-built computer kits had the aura of do-it-yourself mystery and mastery; they were clunky, intimidating, demanding expertise.

So there was ample ground on which the two cultures could meet. And they have.

There, on the Net, courting paradox, the masters of short-wave transmissions are sending messages via bulletin boards, mailing lists, and sites on the World Wide Web. No code. No radio waves. No schematics. No licenses.

The hobbyists of one old electronic technology are meeting on the grounds of the new one. But these are not always happy encounters. For in addition to the ritual discussion of hardware, some hams on the Net are arguing over what the new technology has done to their world. There are those who welcome it as an evolutionary force, and those who regret the passing of revered guild principles as new hams are being courted.

"In the next two decades or so," reads one recent post on America Online, "which will be more important for communication -- knowing how to operate a computer and use digital modes of communication or being able to pound out code?"

"The real issue," counters another ham, objecting to easier licensing requirements, "is the lowering of standards." Where has the Internet left ham radio?

"That is one of the key questions," confirmed Stephen Mendelsohn, a vice president of the American Radio Relay League, the nation's premiere lobby and hobby group with 172,000 members and its own Web site.

This group's very name speaks of a long tradition going back to its founding in 1914: the United States Government set aside portions of the radio frequency spectrum for amateurs, who would, in turn, assist in emergencies, explore new technologies and "relay" messages.

Uncharacteristically, the Government left the testing and licensing to the hobbyists themselves, who established grades from Novice to Amateur Extra -- each level granting access to more frequencies and requiring more knowledge.

There has been a tradition of pride in these accomplishments. Morse code was the first important digital form of communication, sending out clearly defined sounds that could pierce through the blistering static of early receivers. And the technical knowledge required meant that broadcasters could literally construct the equipment they used.

But this can now seem as quaint as the idea of a "radio relay league." What use is Morse code and what purpose do radio frequencies serve when E-mail and chat rooms now attract even ham-radio operators?

In 1991, in an effort to increase interest in ham radio, there was an easing of licensing requirements: it is now possible to get a beginning license without any knowledge of Morse code. Mr. Mendelsohn believes that by 1999, the code may be eliminated as a requirement even for the most advanced level.

Already, the new requirements have increased the number of United States licenses to 650,000 from 500,000 in 1990. The technical tests are also likely to change to include more aspects of digital technology.

Mr. Mendelsohn argues that far from being irrelevant in a digital era, the radio amateur has been central, for much that we take for granted in contemporary communications was first devised and tested by hams. More and more amateurs are also linking their PC's to their radios to transmit digital data without the cost of phone lines or Internet providers. A new amateur broadcaster is slowly evolving.

But the deepest appeal of ham radio may be immune to the Internet challenge. Of what use is a PC and the Internet when phone lines are down or war breaks out or a storm knocks out power? The ham is a self-reliant maverick who could set up shop on a suitably equipped desert island.

Moreover, amateur radio requires a kind of attentiveness that is one of the little-noticed appeals of technology. The Internet is being used by ham-radio operators not as a substitute for ham radio, but as a method of talking about it. In real ham activity technology is not talked about but embedded in the essence of the conversation. For appropriate impact, a conversation with an Australian cattle rancher late at night requires the hiss, the wavering, the static, the efforts to find just the right conditions and moment to make contact.

The Internet may share some of this appeal now, but ultimately it may become as invisible and commonplace as the telephone.

Amateur radio, though, will always require a consciousness of process, if not in learning code, then in studying antennas, sunspots, ionospheric conditions. A listener becomes aware of the difference and distance between voices while making tenuous connections between them. The technology is intrusive, audible, malleable and demanding -- which is, if I remember right, just what makes it so appealing.

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