Electronic Design

In Katrina's Wake, Ham Radio Triumphs

By David Maliniak, AD2A

A few months ago, NBC's Tonight Show staged a race between a pair of ham-radio operators with Morse-code keys and a couple of kids with text-messaging cellphones to see who could communicate faster. The hams won hands down, proving, in the minds of some, that old technology could hold its own against new. In recent days, ham radio was put to the test again by Hurricane Katrina. This time, however, lives were at stake.

In the world of design engineers and electronics in general, change is essential. Designers work diligently to make the fruits of their labors obsolete almost before they see daylight. The turnover in technology is sometimes like a flood, with old being washed away by new over and over. Often, the new beats the heck out of the old. But there are times when old isn't necessarily bad; in fact, sometimes old works when new doesn't. And then we're glad that old is still around, or at least we should be.

Wireless technology, while relatively new to many consumers, is of course not new at all. A few (very) old-timers remember the original "wireless" of radio. The revolution wrought by the pioneers of wireless changed the world then, and the technology behind that revolution has been re-invented and re-applied time and again. Its pre-eminent incarnation today is our near-ubiquitous wireless communications infrastructure, which has freed us from the shackles of landlines and made our mobile lifestyles possible. Technology truly is great stuff.

Until, of course, a monster hurricane comes along to render it nearly useless. Here we see a scenario in which a flood literally swept away the new. As Hurricane Katrina's fury hammered the Gulf states on August 29, the communications infrastructure took a devastating hit. Telephone service, including wireless, became at first intermittent and then unusable in many localities. Where there was phone service, 911 switchboards were often unreachable due to the massive volume of calls. The response of local authorities, now termed "confused" by deposed FEMA chief Michael Brown, wasn't helping much. The Gulf Coast was about to descend into darkness, chaos, and, worst of all for many, silence.

But proponents of the old were at the ready. The "old," in this case, is ham radio. In the eyes of the "man on the street," ham radio has a pretty stodgy reputation. Aren't hams still using Morse code? Don't some of them use radios with tubes, for goodness sake? What the "man in the street" probably doesn't know is that it was amateurs who advanced the radio arts early in the 20th century. Down through the decades, amateurs have embraced (and often driven) all of the innovations in wireless technology, up to and including all digital modes and the Internet. But many have stayed in touch with their roots, which is good old-fashioned analog HF operation. And while amateurs have a longstanding tradition as innovators and experimenters, they also have a mandate that comes with their licenses: to be ready, willing, and able to provide emergency communications whenever and wherever they're needed.

As Katrina bore down on the Gulf region, amateur radio operators, under the aegis of the American Radio Relay League's (ARRL's) Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), prepared to swing into action with emergency networks that would run health-and-welfare traffic into and out of the disaster zone. As early as the Monday following the storm, hams throughout the hurricane zone were putting emergency stations on the air. In one instance, hams were instrumental in the rescue of 15 people clinging for life to a New Orleans rooftop. Meanwhile, in Alabama, amateur SKYWARN weather nets kept the National Weather Service apprised of conditions throughout the state. In hard-hit sections of Mississippi, hams running off generators and with makeshift antennas were the only means of communication, getting word to out-of-state friends and relatives concerning their loved ones.

There were numerous other instances of hams helping those who were not simply inconvenienced by the storm, but whose lives were in imminent danger. Now that things have calmed down in the Gulf region, many of the emergency nets have stood down. But hams continue to serve the public in the many areas that are still without power or phone service.

As our nation collects itself in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster, President Bush has promised federal reviews of what went right and what went wrong. One of the findings of those inquiries should be that the federally-instituted Amateur Radio Service, which functions under the licensing authority of the FCC, stood tall when the country needed it.

Amateur radio currently faces various threats to its existence. Chief among those is the advent of broadband-over-powerline (BPL) technology, which, if broadly adopted, has the potential to cause widespread interference to HF communications, not just for amateurs but for other services that use the HF spectrum.

Amateurs and the ARRL have made a lot of noise about BPL, asserting that it could seriously hamper their efforts and those of relief agencies such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army, in the event of a disaster such as Katrina. It's rumored, though, that the same FCC commissioners who have given their blessing to BPL field trials will now take a much harder look at the technical issues concerning BPL and its interference potential in the HF spectrum. Let's face it: The federal government didn't handle the emergency in the Gulf very well; it'd be prudent for it not to sanction a technology that could impede one of the few things that actually worked.

Many readers of this newsletter are amateur radio enthusiasts. If you are, and if you haven't already done so, consider writing your congressman to express your concern about the future of the Amateur Radio Service, especially in light of its outstanding efforts in recent days. Remind your elected representatives that a vibrant and unimpeded Amateur service can and will be a lifesaver when disaster strikes. Also, consider how you yourself might help. What if a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake ravages your area? Are you prepared to get on the air without relying on the mains to handle emergency traffic? Get in touch with your local amateur-radio club and find out how you can pitch in.

Your cell phones and wireless routers are indeed great stuff, but so is a good old HF transceiver. We shouldn't always be in such a hurry to let the flood of new technology wash away the old. The geek down the block with all the antennas on his property could turn out to be your best friend someday. Because sometimes, old trumps new.

You can e-mail David Maliniak at [email protected].

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