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Hamming it up: Old technology still popular, especially in trouble times. (R & R life outside the office).

WHAT'S THE FREQUENCY?: When Bob Ideker, section manager for the state under the Amateur Radio Relay League, became a ham radio operator in 1963, the Internet wasn't part of the process.

HAM RADIO IS A NEW old hobby that includes doctors, businessmen, construction workers and teachers among the 6,976 Arkansans who are licensed to practice, according to the Amateur Radio Relay League.

Behind the microphone of the amateur radio, there is no distinction by education, profession or income. It's practically anonymous, which is part of the appeal to some hams.

Others become licensed ham radio operators because they enjoy the thrill of contacting other hams across the globe. The adrenaline rushes every time the radio squawks -- because the person on the other end may be an astronaut or a country music star such as Patti Loveless. And until his death in 1999, King Hussein of Jordan was a prize contact for hams around the world.

Some hams are drawn to the opportunity to help communities get the aid they need, when conventional means of communication are brought down by natural disasters. Hams even help spot tornadoes and hurricanes while working as volunteers for Skywarn, a division of the National Weather Service.

Hams were activated immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Long before the the twin towers crumbled, telephone lines were jammed and cell-phone systems were overloaded, leaving virtually no way to relay information to emergency workers and relatives. Hams were there to bridge the communication gap.

Hams, who receive special license plates bearing their call signs, also have fun practicing their hobby. Contests sponsored by local amateur radio clubs encourage operators to contact as many other hams as possible on a certain frequency during a given period of time. This information must be logged to show proof of contact.

Hams in Arkansas

Ham radio operators can be heard from the hilltops of the Ozarks to the Mississippi Valley; call signs and Morse code bounce through the ionosphere while satellites and antennae wait to relay new messages.

Arkansans wait also.

Gil Colaianni, general manager of Colaianni Piano & Organ Co. in Little Rock, received his novice license to operate amateur radio in 1963 because he "always had a fascination with electronics and electronic components," he said. Colaianni was 12 when his earned his first call sign -- WN5LFB -- which he goes by today.

Since then, he has contacted hams in the former Soviet Union and in France. But because Colaianni now lives in a condominium in Little 'Rock and can't install a 30-foot antenna on the roof of the complex, he is limited to calls to and from North America.

Like many hams, Colaianni took a break from amateur radio. He returned, and gained, a new call sign, which he had for several years. But recently, the Federal Communications Commission, which governs the amateur radio band, has allowed hams to purchase " vanity", call signs. These call signs can be customized to fit the operator's name, or they can be the call sign of a deceased operator. Previously, all call signs were generated randomly, he said.

For Colaianni, operating an amateur radio is challenging. He must adjust dials and signal strength quickly to compensate for changes in atmospheric conditions, which may distort messages. Also, the international Morse code he uses to send and receive clearer messages is rarely used outside the ham arena. Otherwise, he said, Morse code would have died long ago.

When Colaianni contacts another operator, he immediately begins "talking" in code, questioning the ham about his name, signal strength, location, weather, type of equipment and wattage. As the operator relays this basic information, Colaianni jots it down in his log book to chart places he's contacted. (The operators may later exchange highly personalized postcards called QSLs to confirm their contact.)

After the formalities are out of the way, the two hams can begin a conversation.

Sometimes, Colaianni said, hams even meet in "nets" on certain frequencies at predetermined times, similar to Internet chat rooms, to discuss their hobby. The 40-50 hams, or stations, that check in also are used during emergency situations. The net control center sends out important information to the stations, which then relay the messages to other hams in the area who are willing to help.

These networks are more important than ever, Colaianni said, because of the current situation the United States faces.

"It's up to ham radio operators in times of emergency," he said.

Colaianni said the nets in Arkansas train for earthquake and tornado emergencies, while working in tandem with local authorities. He said he considers it a service to the community.

Bob Ideker, section manager for the state under the ARRL, agrees.

Ideker said people become hams either because they are interested in the hobby itself or because they want to be of service during an emergency. These people join a net and practice emergency communications during simulated emergency training, drills. Ideker said he most recently helped establish communication during the ice storms of December 2000.

"We practice what we hope we never use," said Ideker, who has been a ham for 38 years.

In the event that they do have to use their skills, hams want to be prepared, and that means constantly upgrading equipment to keep up with advancing technology.

Although a simple, handheld, two-way radio often will suffice, hams look for new and innovative equipment. Because there aren't many dealers in Arkansas, most hams purchase their equipment through the Internet or at various "Hamfests" held across the state. Hamfests are like flea markets where radio operators bring their old equipment hoping to trade and upgrade. Sometimes, new equipment is available, Ideker said. Typically, five or six Hamfests are held in Arkansas each year. The first one of 2002 is scheduled for February in Russellville.

Ideker began operating in 1963; when he was a high school junior. He used his skills as a ham when he was a counselor at the local Boy Scout camp where he taught First Class Signaling using Morse code.

He later served 14 years in the Army Reserves, where his skills helped him become a radio operator in a communications company and signal corps.

Being a Ham

Ham operators receive their licenses from the FCC after taking a qualifying test. There are three classes of amateur radio and the particular class license limits the bandwidth and frequencies on which hams can operate.

The technician class exam requires operators to pass a test with 35 multiple choice questions. Until recently, the technician class was tested on Morse code knowledge and usage. Those in this class can "even make international radio contacts via satellites, using relatively simple equipment," according to the ARRL Web site.

"Wherever there's a ham radio on the other end, I'm sure someone has made contact," said Jennifer Hagy, spokeswoman for the ARRL in Newington, Conn.

Hams also may take a test for the general and extra classes.

People interested in becoming a ham are welcome to attend club meetings to learn how and where to test for their license. Club members will be eager to share their hobby and include more people in their "fellowship," Hagy said.

For most people, getting started in amateur radio is not expensive, said Hagy, whose call sign is N1TDY. Many hams begin their hobby with used handheld radios purchased for $150 or about $300 for new handheld equipment.

On the other end of the spectrum, some hams spend "tens of thousands of dollars," she said.

"There are people who really enjoy talking around the world, and they have more sophisticated set-ups," she said.

A survey sponsored by the ARRL in 2000 showed 40 percent of 148,192 members questioned had invested between $2,000-$4,900 in their equipment, and 34 percent of its members who responded said they earn $75,000 a year or more.

For many, operating an amateur radio minimizes differences between people; it's like a fraternity where everyone is equal.

"A lot of attention has been paid to how Americans deal with other cultures, and ham radio really bridges that because they're in contact with other countries," Hagy said. "People don't have so many differences when they're friends on the radio."

Since its beginning in the early 20th century, amateur radio has undergone many changes, including the addition of the Internet, which some worried might weaken the appeal of Morse code and voice contact.

There hasn't been any need to worry, Hagy said. The Internet has become a supplement to the amateur radio, not a hindrance. A digital mode of communication was activated in 1997 and sends digitally transmitted waves, much like current cellular phone systems today.

Another mode, called TNC, replaces computer modems and allows hams to send messages from their keyboards across the airwaves for computer-to-computer contact much like current e-mail systems, except the receiver hears the words spoken by a computer-generated voice.

Even with the rise in technology, old ways of amateur radio have not died.

"[Hams] enjoy the challenge of the whole thing -- the magic of radio, hearing someone's voice rather than typing an e-mail and pressing send," Hagy said. d
Ham Demographics

Income Percentage

$75,000 or more 34%
$50,000-$74,000 23%
Under $50,000 29%
No answer 14%

65 or older 32%
45-64 52%
25-44 15%
Under 25 1%

Post-graduate degree(s) 17%
Past graduate study 9%
College Graduate (4 year degree) 22%
College graduate (2 year degree) 33%
Vocational education 5%
High School graduate 11%
Some high school 2%
No answer 1%

Cost of Equipment
$10,000 or more 14%
$5,000-$9,000 18%
$2,000-$4,999 40%
$1,000-$1,999 15%
$500-$999 8%
Under $500 3%

Years as Ham Operator
40 or more 23%
30-39 15%
20-29 15%
10-19 17%
5-9 18%
Less than 5 12%

Source: QST Magazine, a publication for amateur radio operators.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Journal Publishing, Inc.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Comment:Hamming it up: Old technology still popular, especially in trouble times. (R & R life outside the office).
Author:Smith, Alicia H.
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Nov 19, 2001
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