Foundations of Amateur Radio #201:
April 13, 2019
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Fragility of Communication
Our day to day life is full of communication.
We listen, although less and less, to the
radio for news and entertainment, sometimes
mixed together as food and games for the
We can communicate with family, friends and
the rest of the global population using a
telephone. With the internet as a
transmission medium, we exchange text, sound
and vision with impunity to anyone who
stumbles across it on a mind boggling
collection of outlets, websites, social
media, email, streaming services to name a
The vast majority of this kind of
communication is a commodity, that means that
with little or no training most of the
population has access to this.
Another aspect of this commodification is
that it's reliable. It works most of the
time, it's generally good quality, with
little or no loss, as in, you speak into your
phone and there's an extremely high chance
for the other party to hear your voice. While
there are occasions that calls drop out, or
the audio is chopped up, it's more an
exception rather than a regular occurrence.
In stark contrast, amateur radio is none of
those things. It's not a commodity, it's not
reliable, it's a poor man's version of the
ubiquitous mobile phone.
As amateurs we know why it's not the same,
for starters, to make contact between say
Perth and Bermuda using amateur radio
requires exactly two pieces of equipment.
Your radio and theirs. Making this contact
with a mobile requires that both ends have a
phone. They'll also need a way to connect to
the phone network, either a local base
station or a telephone exchange, those in
turn connect via many different ways to each
other, including repeaters, relays, perhaps a
satellite, a fibre optic cable or three, too
many devices to count today. Extreme level of
I'm mentioning this because it's simple to
conclude that amateur radio is obsolete, but
its just not true.
With the lack of reliability associated with
an amateur radio connection comes something
that is unique to society today. Thanks to
reliable communication, we have come to
expect that all communication is reliable,
even our experimental hobby, but if you spend
any time on air at all you'll quickly realise
that for amateur radio, we need to conduct
ourselves with protocol, using specific
procedures, phonetics, structured phrases,
callsigns and the like to overcome some of
the aspects of unreliability.
Talking on the local repeater looks and
smells like a mobile phone chat room, but
it's not. It relies entirely on the
participants collaborating to ensure reliable
Similarly, calling CQ on HF, requires that
you understand that the other station isn't
on the end of a telephone connection and that
parts of what you're saying are going to be
missing at the other end. Using phonetics,
speaking slower, waiting longer and
monitoring, all assist with making contact.
If you're unsure about this, just listen in
on a local net for regular confusion, or use
an online receiver like WebSDR to hear what
you sound like at the other end.
To make things a little more interesting,
every amateur band has a different failure
mode. On 20m from one breath to the next, the
path might close, on 80m you might get
overwhelmed by noise, on 40m you might find
yourself all of a sudden sharing the
frequency with another station, both of you
blissfully unaware of the other's existence.
Communication in amateur radio is
collaborative and there are common courtesy
behaviours. If you're working a rare DX
station, that's not a personal friend, don't
start a whole conversation about your dogs,
your medical issues, or the level of
amazingness of your station. You're not alone
in attempting to make the contact and they're
not there for your personal enjoyment.
Hogging the frequency is a sure fired way to
acquire the ire of your fellow amateurs,
especially in marginal conditions, where band
conditions are rapidly changing.
There is nothing like getting your feet wet
by actually getting on air and making noise,
but when you do, remind yourself that this is
not a telephone and it's not perfect. Be
mindful of your on-air conduct and you'll
find a globe full of friends.
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
TL;DR This is the transcript of the weekly
'Foundations of Amateur Radio' podcast - for
other episodes, see http://vk6flab.com/
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