We get signal. Main transceiver turn on

First of all, accept my apology for the groan-inducing title of this post. It popped into my head and I couldn’t not run with it.

Last night I was idly chatting away on a 2 meter band repeater in Rockville, MD (frequency 146.955 MHz) when someone by the name of Fred (callsign K3CSX) broke in at the end of the conversation and said he had a radiogram for KB3QNZ, aka me. He proceeded to read off a message, which I copied. Here it is:

Greetings via amateur radio. Congratulations on your new callsign, a most worthy and deserved achievement. Welcome to the amateur radio world. We are glad to have you with us and hope you will enjoy the fun and fellowship of the organization.

The message came from Gil (callsign W1GMF) out of Massachusetts. Of course, I immediately had some questions, such as: What is a radiogram? Who is Gil? How did this message get to me from Massachusetts? Luckily, Fred stuck around long enough to answer my questions.

My radiogram was transmitted using the National Traffic System, a nationwide, hierarchical message-passing system relying solely on amateur radio links, and thus not dependent on the phone system, the Internet, or any other communications infrastructure. The nodes in the traffic net have backup generators for use in emergencies, so the National Traffic System isn’t even dependent on the power grid. If everything else goes down, it will still be there. Think of it as a safety net for society, silently chugging away unnoticed in the background of everyday life, ready and waiting for a mega-disaster to spring into action at full speed and save many lives when all other means of transmitting emergency communications go down.

However, the NTS just isn’t used all that much in non-emergency situations (it used to be, but then email came along), so people like Gil routinely put messages into the system just to keep everyone in practice. And what better messages to send than greetings to new hams? He tracks down the new hams to send messages to by looking for recently published callsigns in the FCC’s database of licensed ham radio operators.

I just can’t get over how unbelievably neat and efficient this all is. Gil relayed his message to a section traffic net in Massachusetts, then it was relayed again to the region traffic net, and then it was relayed via Morse Code on High Frequency bands to the region traffic net in Maryland, and then all the way back down the levels of the hierarchy again until it found itself in the hands of Fred, who monitors local frequencies for callsigns that he has messages for. I had no idea this nationwide organization existed until last night, but I now have proof of its existence in the form of the message that was delivered to me using it!

The idea of a message relaying system that relies on nothing more than relatively simple technology and human routing seems very romantic to me. It’s very Victorian, with a good measure of Steampunk. It reminds me of the fantasy-ish novel Going Postal by Terry Pratchett, in which a continent-wide network of wind-powered “clacks” towers relays messages using human operators and mechanical devices that implement a visual semaphore. In Going Postal, each clacks tower is manned full time by dedicated operators.

Luckily, the NTS doesn’t require nearly as much infrastructure (human or machine) as a clacks network. It uses volunteers to transmit its messages, the most dedicated of which operate the area traffic nets and send an average of a few hundred messages per month. The NTS also benefits from the use of radio technology. An HF radio signal can easily travel for thousands of miles; in the novel, the maximum distance between clacks towers was ten miles because of the limitations of human vision. But the skills of the operators are the same for either: being able to accurately copy an incoming message and then retransmit it quickly.

If you happen to be interested in human-powered networks like the National Traffic System, then ham radio is definitely for you.

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3 Responses to “We get signal. Main transceiver turn on”

  1. William (green) Says:

    It may eventually be worthwhile to add a “HAM” or “amateur radio” section in the categories. This seems like it might be easier to implement early on.

  2. Kelly Martin Says:

    I passed all three practice tests tonight. Another week and I suspect I’ll be ready to “enter at Extra”. Beat that with a sock!

  3. Murray Says:

    I see you talked to Fred K3CSX he is a good guy I use to chat alot with when I lived in Frederick. Have you uploaded echolink yet? http://www.synergenics.com/ you might have fun with that its lets you talk through the internet to a repeater site thats online anywhere in the world. Its no DX but it gives you a change to meet new people from around the world.