Connecting with strangers through ham radio erased the parasites from my family
We are not alone.
The global pandemic has sparked renewed interest in amateur, or “amateur,” radio, a nostalgic pastime long eclipsed by the internet, social media and cellphones. Longtime enthusiasts and newbies like David flocked to their radios for news about the community, the fun and a vital pandemic.
“We have noticed that general and event activity is both on the rise,” says Bob Inderbitzen, spokesperson for the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association for amateur radio in the United States. Its belonging to Licensed amateur radio operators number 779,531 – a total that is growing by more than 30,000 per year. “More and more people are turning to amateur radio to vary their communication with the world,” says Inderbitzen, whose call sign is NQ1R. March 2021 saw the largest monthly cohort of new licensees in the past decade – 4,397 – and licenses increased 35% this year compared to 2019.
Amateur radio offers something particularly appealing in the era of COVID-19 isolation: the ability to connect in real time with strangers around the world while honing a technical skill that is practical during global health crises and natural disasters.
In many ways, fits are what ham was built for. The Federal Communications Commission grants amateur radio operators in the United States special access to airwaves that can also be used for emergency response. Radio can save lives in areas prone to natural disasters, such as Florida, Puerto Rico and Indonesia. During times of pandemic lockdown, England’s National Health Service has partnered with the Radio Society of Great Britain to broadcast public safety messages and promote welfare checks on hams, many of which are older.
ARRL’s Inderbitzen Says Amateur Radio Has has historically attracted two types of people: those with an affinity for electronics and gadgets, and those seeking public service and community development opportunities. David falls somewhere in between.
Before the pandemic, he relied on hobbies that involved risk – riding motorcycles in the deserts, crossing the Atlantic in a sailboat, driving cars on the tracks – to challenge himself and make new ones. friends. The storm, more than the port, has always been the place to find refuge in times of crisis – flirting with danger helps it to de-stress. During the pandemic, however, David struggled in the privileged monotony of isolation at home as a new father and computer programmer. With no travel or creative outlet, and as the hours online and the time caring for our baby blurred together, he retreated from our cramped and noisy quarters to our dark, unfinished basement and worked. longer than ever. He was exhausted and more and more disconnected from our little family.
David accidentally discovered ham on YouTube at the start of the pandemic. His many new digital applications, such as the one called “moonbounce,” which enables radio transmissions from Earth to Moon and back to Earth, intrinsically appealed to the adventurer in him. He couldn’t cross a desert on a motorcycle, but he could travel in a whole new way.
It wasn’t long before a massive copy of the Practical Antenna Handbook replaced the travel journals on David’s nightstand. There were frequent late night trips to Home Depot. Coils of copper wire twinkled around the house. He started using the NATO alphabet to spell things for our little one – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie. . . . David had embarked on what Inderbitzen calls “the voyage of discovery”.
“It’s about learning radio communications, improving your station and your technical skills, and pushing those boundaries to be heard further,” says Inderbitzen, who discovered ham in college before making one. career.
In a twist to traditionally analog medium, the pandemic has brought online licensing testing. After weeks of study, David passed his general class operator exam – there are three license levels, successively providing better access to the airwaves. He did this on Zoom from our bathroom, the only room small enough to show he was alone at all times and therefore couldn’t cheat.
The increased availability of cheap equipment has also made ham more accessible – a modest portable station can be created with a laptop and less than $ 50 of additional equipment.
David spent weekends designing new antennas for our “docking station” – her new name for the once dreary basement – and modeled them for our delighted daughter, a fan of all things remote. “robot”. In order to secure the antenna that would improve the station’s signal in a dense city plagued by interference, we took turns tossing a coaxial cable into the trees above our house with a slingshot. The antennas also reinforced another connection: that with our family life. David loved having a stimulating hobby that he could share with us at home.
Ham even scratches David’s competitive itch: he discovered “competition”, when amateur radio stations try to contact and exchange information with as many stations as possible in a given period of time.
In the age of machine-to-machine connectivity, David found the thrill of a new discovery, technical challenge, and global escape he dreamed of. It is linked to hams in almost every state and in dozens of countries, including Ghana, Ukraine, Kuwait, and Panama. And now, without leaving Boston, we’ve collected QSL cards – written or scanned confirmations of two-way communication, often crafted around the operator’s single call number – from other hams around the world.
Ultimately, it’s not the next big tech or ham’s increasingly popular digital fashions, but old-school analog radio – the unfiltered voices of real humans crackling somewhere in the distance – that have helped David find his way back to us in the storm. Talking to strangers also improved our communication between us.
And now, as the prospect of real travel looms, we have new friends to meet all over the world.
Gabriella Gage is a writer in Somerville. Follow her on Twitter @somervilletales.