Resilience and Ham Radio

Amanda and I are fiends for resilience. Food, water, shelter, energy, transportation. We’re focused on multiple ways of caring for ourselves and our community. So why are we totally dependent on one Verizon cell phone tower?


When we talk on the phone, we go through that tower. When we check e-mail, we’re using that tower. When I have sessions with clients, I must have that tower. When we update this site, yup, that too. And here’s the kicker: I know it’s somewhere to the south of us, but I don’t even know where that tower is.

That’s just downright scary. Living in the country as we do, we’re not eligible for the cable or DSL service most city dwellers have come to take for granted. We could run cable about 1,000 feet through the trees or through a trench for a land line telephone, but it doesn’t seem to make sense. We could pay more money for an absurdly restricted satellite Internet account, but our funds are limited, and it’s difficult to justify paying so much for so little service. So we stick with our “everything from Verizon” plan, and we worry about what might happen to that tower.

It’s against that backdrop that I have found myself over the last few days boning up on FCC rules, circuit diagrams, and principles of antenna design, some of the many topics that make up the amateur radio license exam. There are three levels of ham radio license: technician, general, and amateur extra. You can’t get started in ham radio without a technician certification, and most of the lower frequency bands with nice long wavelengths are off limits to you without the general license, so those were no-brainers. The extra ticket’s a tad harder to justify: there are just a few frequencies available only to extra ticket holders, so one could easily get by without it. And the extra license exam is longer, harder, and requires more math and science than the other two.

I took the tests on Saturday for technician and general at the Jim Bell Wireless Association Hamfest; tonight, courtesy of the Montgomery Amateur Radio Club, I sat for the extra ticket. I’m happy to report that I passed. In a separate post, I’ll talk about the software and web site that helped me pass the tests in quick succession. For now, I’ll simply say that I know remarkably little about ham radio for someone who has just studied for and passed the three tests that were supposed to demonstrate my knowledge. In taking the tests this way, I got all of it out of the way quickly. In the process, I became one of a fairly small number of Americans who own an amateur extra ticket and have never keyed a mike.

So now the real work begins: with the help of knowledgeable veteran hams (thanks Tom), I will work to assemble a robust (but cost-effective, please!) radio rig that I can rely on as a separate communications channel. I’ll focus on reliable communications with the community close by our farm and also with hams who live near close friends and family members.

Amanda has set aside the summer to pursue her technician license and probably the general too. She hopes to be able to communicate with people in other countries as part of her work in intercultural communication.

In the weeks and years to come, many of the systems we have relied on will reveal themselves to be surprisingly, inexplicably brittle; they will fail when we need them most. Cell phones and the Internet may be among them. Having an amateur radio license gives us a simple but important measure of extra resilience.

Yes, we know that amateur radio runs on electricity and that electricity may not be reliable in the future. We’re working on it; we’re working on it.

AK4IF – clear.

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