In the age of smartphones and the Internet, ham radio strikes many as an outmoded technology destined to go the way of eight-track tapes and film cameras.
“I hear that all the time, and nothing could be further from the truth,” says David Day, an amateur radio enthusiast from Hendersonville. “Licensed ham radio operators in the United States are at an all-time high. It’s been increasing for the last 10 years, and we keep bringing younger and younger people into it.”
Last year, the number of licensed operators in the U.S. surpassed 726,000. That’s about a 60 percent increase since the early 1980s, according to the American Radio Relay League, a national organization formed in 1914. Worldwide, there are now more than 2.5 million ham operators.
The 1912 Radio Act marked the start of federal licensing of amateur radio activities. The Federal Communications Commission now allocates 26 radio frequency bands for amateurs. When natural disasters such as hurricanes and ice storms disable other communications technologies, ham radios still work. Operators provide rescuers with critical information and backup communications for agencies like the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“It’s just one of those invaluable resources,” says Jerry VeHaun, director of Buncombe County Emergency Services. “They provide an excellent backup network for us. We’ve used them in the past when we lost our 911 system.”
No third party
Ham radio is also appealing as a hobby, notes Day, who belongs to the Blue Ridge Amateur Radio Club.
“What I really enjoy is when I can communicate with somebody that’s halfway around the world on a very low-power station,” says the retired pharmaceutical company researcher. “Phones can do that, but you’re going through a third-party service. I’m reliant upon absolutely nobody and no system to make any communications. That phone will only work because Verizon has towers up. I’m communicating directly to that other party, with no intermediaries involved whatsoever.”
Most amateur radio operators have a home radio station that enables them to carry on two-way conversations with other operators on assigned radio frequencies. Operators must obtain an FCC license by passing an exam that covers applicable regulations, electronics and radio use. Each person is then assigned a call sign that they use to identify themselves. The name “ham” originated as a derogatory term used by commercial radio professionals.
Danny Rector, president of the Blue Ridge Amateur Radio Club, says he became interested in ham radio while part of a relief mission in Meridian, Miss., in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“The phones wouldn’t work,” he recalls. “Nothing was working down there. We were sending crews everywhere. One of the guys with us was a ham radio operator.”
Rector watched with interest as his colleague set up the equipment and used it to communicate with disaster relief officials and others.
“I just thought that was the coolest thing,” he says. “So as soon as I got back, I started working on my license and got it. It’s a lot of fun. There are so many different aspects to the hobby.”
A basic antenna on the rear deck of his house enables Rector to connect with other operators in Europe, South America and Hawaii. “I’ve never reached Japan yet; I just don’t have enough power,” he explains. “To me, the long-distance contacts are the neatest thing.”
Dick Smith, another member of the Hendersonville club, got his ham radio license 57 years ago when he was still in high school. Smith says he still gets on the radio two or three times a week seeking out conversations with people around the country and the world.
“You talk about what equipment you’re using and where you are,” says Smith. “Everyone is always interested in what the area you live in is all about. It’s a good way to find out about how people around the world live. It’s just a way to make friends, basically.”
Members sometimes stage competitions at the club’s station in Jackson Park, seeing how many other operators they can reach within a given period of time.
“It’s not always a guaranteed thing that you’re going to make contact with anybody,” Smith explains. “A lot of it is dependent upon atmospheric conditions at the time you’re on the air.”
Day also belongs to the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, which coordinates with FEMA to provide communication services at disaster scenes.
“So if there were a major disaster in the Henderson-Transylvania-Buncombe County area that wiped out the cellphone towers or whatever, I would be asked to provide emergency linked communications with other ham radio operators in other areas,” he says. “It would involve what supplies we need to get in, where the supplies are needed and so on. If I got a call, I would go to where FEMA is to carry out communications on their behalf.”
Ham operators, notes Day, provided crucial support in the wake of Hurricane Floyd, which slammed into the North Carolina coast in 1999, prompting the evacuation of some 2.6 million people in five states.
“It smashed all the communications in North Carolina and South Carolina, and for a number of days the ham radio emergency services helped to coordinate getting supplies to people in need,” he says. “The same thing happened with Hurricane Katrina.”
Ham operators also frequently provide communications for community events. Earlier this month, members of the Hendersonville club helped coordinate the Fletcher Flyer bicycle ride through Transylvania County, which drew more than 1,000 participants.
“We had people at strategic locations communicating to notify drivers when riders needed to be picked up or needed emergency medical assistance or food and water,” says Day. “About a third of the course had no cellphone coverage whatsoever; many areas in the mountains have no cellphone coverage.”
That’s typical of the kinds of service ham operators provide. As VeHaun puts it, “When you need them, they’re there.”