‘Home, but never alone’: Amateur radio during the pandemic

April 26, 2021 — by Jeanette Zhou (KN6DAD)
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ICOM 7300 shortwave radio detecting signal from South America during December 2020 eclipse.

Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. is best known for winning the Nobel Prize in physics in 1993 with his student Russell Alan Hulse for the discovery of the first binary pulsar, an advance that provided support for Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

But to the amateur radio community, the retired 80-year-old astrophysicist is better known by his callsign, K1JT, under which he has developed several digital modes — weak signal modes that use computer software — including FT8, WSPR and JT65 — as well as the WSJT software — used by ham radio operators to quickly receive, decode and transmit weak signals.

After it was popularized at the turn of the 20th century, amateur radio, colloquially known as ham radio, has grown a dedicated community of engineers, scientists and hobbyists across the globe. 

Unlike users of citizen band (CB) radio — 40 channels between 26.965 MHz and 27.405 MHz offered to the general public for short-distance communication — Federal Communications Commision (FCC) licensed amateur radio operators are allowed to use more frequencies at higher power,  allowing them to communicate over much greater distances and to have the freedom to build radio transmitters. 

With three levels of license classes that can be earned with tests of increasing difficulty — the Technician license, General license and the highest level amateur Extra license, hams (ham radio operators) can make contacts with people across the country, around the world and even into space through voice message, Morse code or text and images with newer computer interfaced radios.

There is a wide variety of radio set-ups, ranging from USB memory stick sized Software Defined Radios (SDR) to handheld digital mobile receivers (DMR) to entire rooms full of equipment. Nowadays, many operators have shortwave radios like the ICOM 7300, which they use to make contacts on high frequency (HF).

Ham radio operators are often relied upon during natural disasters, as they can communicate wirelessly without a cellular network or internet connection. Groups, such as the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), have been called upon to provide communication in disasters like the California wildfires.

In addition to providing a crucial voluntary emergency service, amateur radio operators have developed a close-knit community and passionate hobbyist culture, with some operators’ interest in science and engineering leading to extraordinary developments in their fields. In fact, the second radio astronomer, Grote Reber, who built the first dish radio telescope in 1937, was a ham radio operator.


Radio science and reanalyzing the stars

Taylor told The Falcon in an email interview that he has been interested in radios since he was young, building simple radio receivers, crystal sets and one-tube radios, with his older brother before they qualified for their first amateur radio licenses. Taylor was 13 at the time and his brother Harold was 15.

“My brother and I built our equipment together — receivers, transmitters, antennas, whatever we needed,” Taylor said. “One of our antennas was erected on a pole firmly attached to the main chimney of the house.  A few weeks after its installation, a strong wind destroyed the antenna — and much more serious, broke off the chimney, flush with the roof. Soon afterward, my father gave the two of us boys a lesson in brick-laying, while helping us to rebuild the chimney.”

 This fascination with radios and electronics led Taylor to form a ham radio club with a few other licensed amateurs. Although the club was small, by his senior year, the eight club members made up more than 15 percent of his graduating class.

His early interest in radio technology led him to major in physics at Haverford College, a small, liberal arts Quaker school located outside of Philadelphia.

“I was attracted to radio and electronics because circuits follow established and readily understandable rules,” Taylor said. “I could study a handbook and learn enough to design a working radio by myself, and build it from parts scrounged from discarded old radios or television sets. Moreover, much of radio and electronics was very new — the technology was advancing rapidly.”

After receiving the Nobel Prize in physics in 1993 and later retiring as the Dean of Faculty at Princeton University, Taylor continued his passion for radio. After creating widely used FT8 and WSPR modes with his expertise in weak signal analysis, he continued to give presentations and speeches to the amateur radio community.


Senior ham radio enthusiast to carry on passion at MIT

While Taylor’s passion for amateur radio and electronics led him to the field of radio astronomy, senior Karen Lei (KN6NAN) has seen her passion for astronomy lead her to pursue radio science.

Lei, the president of the school’s astronomy club, built a radio telescope in her junior year, earning NASA’s Search for Extraterrestrial Life (SETI) Institute’s first annual award for an exceptional contribution to the search for life in the universe. 

“Developing this project really showed me the inner workings of radio astronomy and also electrical engineering,” Lei said. “Tying all of these concepts together was definitely very interesting. Radio astronomy is definitely not the most popular subject, but you'd be surprised to see how many people are so interested in this across the world.”

After her work with the radio telescope, Lei was inspired to continue working with radios, resulting in her getting her technician’s license this spring; she said her previous experience with building the radio telescope made it easier for her to pass the exam, as many of the underlying concepts were the same.

Lei also wants to continue working with radio science at MIT, where she plans on majoring in physics. She will join the college’s amateur radio club in the fall.

For his part, Taylor believes radio science and amateur radio are still relevant fields.

“Today the details are different, but the relevant technology is still exciting and advances rapidly,” Taylor said. “Amateur radio remains a superb training ground for interested and self-motivated high school students.”


Quarantine changes affect interest in ham radio 

Class of 2019 alumnus Ali Lichtenberg (KM6OKT) received his technician’s license in 2017, while preparing to go backpacking. In the summer of his senior year, Lichtenberg went on another backpacking trip with his brother Zack and fellow Class of 2019 alumni Miguel Tenant de la Tour and Evan Liebo, and was able to use his Yaesu FT2D transceiver with a Diamond SRH77CA antenna.

“I was able to make contact with a guy who had a log cabin in the area,” Lichtenberg said. “I thought that it was pretty cool that, even over a hundred miles into the backcountry, I could still get a signal out with my handheld.”

 Lichtenberg later joined the amateur radio club (W2SZ) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., a month into his freshman year. The club focused on making contacts and participating in radio contests, including ones that involved mobile rover stations, RTTY Roundups and more; however, club activities were paused due to the pandemic.

“I, unfortunately, did not have the opportunity to join the club in any contests before in-person instruction was canceled,” Lichtenberg said. “I hadn’t made any contacts with the club’s equipment as I was still in the process of getting checked out to use it.”

While Litchtenberg uses his license to talk to people over his local repeater, without his club members and with a more difficult course load, he has not gone on air much recently.

Even as college radio clubs have had to stop their activities during the pandemic, there has been a general increase in interest in obtaining amateur radio licenses. According to hamradioprep.com, March 5-13 in 2020 showed an increase of more than 706 percent in the number of people signing up for amateur radio license courses compared to the same days in 2019.

While interest was soaring, radio testing centers were being shut down in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions. In response, many volunteer examiners began preparations to move the test online, including Morris Jones, head of the Silicon Valley Volunteer Examiner Group.

“Trying to be a semi-good citizen when the county locked everything down and threw away the key, all the testing had to stop,” Jones said. “So last summer, I didn't go anywhere and I just wrote 26,000 lines of Google Go Code. We developed a system for administering the ham radio exams online; a number of people made software at about the same time, but we understand ours and it works most of the time.”

In a public notice, the FCC approved online remote license testing on April 30, 2020, which allowed people to test with groups across the country. Jones said each testing group is fully booked and made up of a “mishmash” of people from across the country. 

While he isn’t sure if this increase in test takers is a result of the pandemic, he believes that the pandemic and quarantine have given people more time to focus on preparing for the exam.

“Instead of watching videos of Russian cars smashing into each other on icy roads or cats jumping up and down on furniture, they've been studying for the exam,” Jones said. “We see a lot of people who are very well prepared and they tell me ‘oh, yeah, I've been studying for a month,’ and I think for some people it's been something they always wanted to do.”

In addition to crossing off an item in their bucket list, operators have many practical reasons for getting their licenses.

Jones, who served in the Civil Air Patrol in Utah as a young man, found it easy to get a license to operate the airplane radios after getting his ham radio license. This allowed him to often ride in planes as the communicator during search missions. 

Jones knows people from his service and his involvement with an emergency services communication organization who have continued to participate in radio nets— regularly-held meetings on the same frequency. Jones participates in and often acts as the net control operator in the weekly Saratoga Amateur Radio Association (K6SA) net held every Sunday night at 9 p.m.

While there are many pragmatic reasons for people to get their licenses, ham radio operators say they gain something much more personal: a community.

“One of the concerns I have about COVID is a lot of young people, especially students who’ve just come to college, all of a sudden don't have a community,” Jones said. “You develop a community in your classes, walking around campus and doing all these things, but they're stuck at home or in a dorm. But I think there's a message that humans are very resilient and if we look, we can find a way to cope with these problems; people who have amateur radio can cope with it, because you simply get on the radio and start talking to people.”


A generation gap

While there are 105,994 licensed amateur radio operators in California, more than any other state, hams only account for about 0.2 percent of the U.S. population. In addition, the majority of operators are in their 60s or 70s, which has prompted many organizations to attempt to bridge the generation gap to prevent amateur radio from dying out.

For context, the “Golden Age of Radio” lasted from the 1920s to the 1930s, ending with the development of television. 

Even after the end of the golden age, there were still many enthusiasts, especially in California, whose own Silicon Valley has roots in the amateur radio community.

Throughout the 20th century, many people, like both Taylor and Jones, built radios out of scrap material they found. 

“My mom said that I broke everything that was fixed and fixed everything that was broken as a kid,” Jones said. “In the ‘60s, most people had to build their own radios. There wasn't a lot of stuff you could buy or I could afford to buy, and I was a poor kid. As people were throwing away TVs and radios, I would take them home, take them apart and get all the parts to organize them in boxes until I had enough stuff to build something. I got into it mostly because I liked building things, and that really appealed to me. You see a lot of that today in youth who really are into being makers, whether it's 3D printing or something like that.”

Around age 12, Jones joined a group of amateur radio operators in Utah, and he was able to experiment under the watch of an elmer, or more experienced mentor operator.

Although Jones did not have a large amateur radio community growing up, he appreciated the guidance, support and encouragement he received from his mentors.

“If I built something and plugged it in and it sparked, exploded and caught fire, there was somebody I could talk to and figure out what I had done wrong,” Jones said. “It was really nice having, if you will, a surrogate parent: somebody who's not going to judge you or worry about you setting the house on fire or something.”

Now, Jones is the adviser to the San Jose State Ham Radio Club (W6YL), a club that dates back to the 1920s. The club has “a room full of radio junk” and allows students to “play with it and break it,” which Jones believes is “what it should be about.”  While activities have been currently halted, Jones expects the club to come back after the pandemic.

That spirit of building is also present in many amateur radio events focused on experimentation.

Kristen McIntyre (K6WX), the Pacific Division Director of the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), also known as the National Association for Amateur Radio, participated in AMTech Day, a monthly event that has been canceled since 2011 after losing its location at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) National Accelerator Observatory. 

“I really miss it because it was all about experimentation,” McIntyre said. “So you’d bring the latest crazy thing you'd built, and you would just go play with it there and it was an all day event.”

McIntyre, a senior software engineer at Apple, has also attempted to bridge the gap between generations through other means. 

One idea McIntyre thought of was to gamify radio communication. The ARRL, which provides support for amateur radio operators and represents them with the government, holds contests for radio operators in which people compete by making contacts. However, these contests lack the same instant gratification that many other games may provide.

“We have plans, but success is difficult,” McIntyre said. “My own son who's now 28 was licensed when he was 11, and I can probably count on two hands the number of times he's actively been on the air.”

Another event targeted at recruiting younger hams is the annual Jamboree On The Air, which has been held since 1958.

Dr. Nathaniel Frissell, the Lead Organizer of the Ham Radio Citizen Investigation (HamSCI), a group that connects amateur radio enthusiasts and professional space science research communities, got involved with amateur radio after attending a Jamboree On the Air in middle school.

“It was in 7th or 8th grade when I went on a Boy Scout campout one rainy October weekend,” Frissell said. “It turned out to be Jamboree On The Air; N2BSA had a portable station set up in a cabin in the woods. I went inside and heard him working DX [distant reception] stations from around the world. It totally captivated me, and I was hooked.”

A few years after the event, Frissell got his license and became more interested in amateur radio. 

His interest has impacted both his personal and professional life: It led him to pursue a Ph.D. in ionospheric physics at Virginia Tech, where he met his wife; travel to many places around the world including Svalbard, Adak Island, Shanghai and Antarctica; interact with “the most fascinating and engaging people,” including accomplished scientists and engineers; and led him to his current position as assistant professor at the University of Scranton’s Department of Physics and Electrical Engineering in the fall of 2019, where he has hosted HamSCI workshops with university students presenting.

Although there are difficulties faced in gaining the support of younger generations, those who are involved with amateur radio are a dedicated, albeit small, community. An example of this passion was this year’s World Amateur Radio Day with the theme of “Amateur Radio: Home but Never Alone,” held recently on April 18, during which hams celebrated amateur radio by getting on the air; some hams participated in contests, like the Rookie Roundup, while many others simply made contacts.

“Anything you can do to keep our hobby strong in the future is what we need, because we don't want it to fade away,” said McIntyre, the Apple engineer. “A lot of people say, ‘well, why would I bother talking on this crazy radio stuff when I can walk around at Safeway and talk to somebody in Japan on the internet,’ but to me it's like magic. For HF, you have this wire up there somewhere in the air, and you wiggle electrons on one end and they wiggle halfway around the globe; they're so weak, but somebody picks them up and understands what you said. Even the fickleness, the fact that you can't always communicate makes it more magical. It's the greatest hobby in the world.”