Ham session: Socialising via airwaves
Hailed as the first true social networking medium, ham radio continues to thrive even in this age of Twitter, Skype, Facebook and smartphones.
It is 9 pm, and Pradeep Kumar has just started conducting, what he calls, the ‘Net’, an on-the-air-meeting. “CQ, CQ, this is Victor Uniform 2 Echo X-ray X-ray calling and standing by. Any station on the frequency?” he speaks into the mike.
Soon, a male voice crackles on the speaker: “This is Victor Uniform 2 Mike Uniform Echo. I could not copy you properly. Can you please repeat your call sign?”
Kumar presses a button to increase the signalling power of the transceiver, and repeats himself.
“I have no problem in copying you now,” says the person on the other side. The two discuss the signal quality, the equipment they are using. There is also a bit of personal conversation, which goes on for about five minutes.
“I am just about to leave my morning QTH. We will catch up later. 73. ” says the other person as he ends the chat.
Kumar is part of Delhi’s small community of amateur radio buffs or ‘hams’, who continue to thrive even in this age of the Internet. While Bangalore is known as India’s capital of ham radio --- hailed as the first true social networking --- Delhi too has hams, who have set up amateur radio stations or ‘shacks’, as they call them, at their homes. They love DXing , homebrewing their equipment and exchanging QSL cards. And what gives these radio hobbyists, aged 20 to 85, the thrill is the ability to communicate without a service provider, through voice and Morse Code, the language of telegraphy.
The unique jargon of hamdom, which believes in the philosophy of ‘One World One Language’, has its own special words, phrases, Q-Codes and numbers. DXing means making a two-way radio contact with distant ham radio stations and QSL cards are like postcards the operators send each other, confirming a two-way contact. It’s a place where 73 means ‘best wishes’, and 88 means ‘love and kisses’.
“It is a world of incidental human interactions. Meeting an unknown person sitting thousands of kilometres away over the radio waves is such a magical and mystifying experience. Unlike Facebook, there are no fake accounts here,” says Kumar, 54, sitting at his radio shack at his house in Vikaspuri, which has several old and new transmitters, receivers, and transceivers.”
The radio friendships
Kumar, a ham for the past 41 years, is also a secretary of DARTS (Delhi Amateur Radio Technical Society), the capital’s most active amateur radio club. It has 40 members from different walks of life, including businessmen, government employees, engineers, students, teachers, advertising professionals.
“They like to connect with each other every day through ham radio, and not through WhatsApp or Facebook. “We have technology-related or personal conversations only; the licensing conditions forbid any politics or business talk,” says Kumar.
Hams will tell you that the ‘high-tech hobby’ gives one an opportunity to talk to and forge friendships with scientists, engineers, pilots, astronauts, big businessmen, and even royals. “You never know who you are going to bump into over the airwaves,” says Rajesh Chandwani, 50, a Gurgaon-based ham, who has one of Delhi-NCR’s biggest shacks at his home, with stacks of transceivers, antenna tuners, power supply, chargers, Morse Keys, hand-held two-way radios, computers, speakers. On the wall is an amateur radio world map with country prefixes; the desk has a ‘Call Book 2018’, which has call signs of all hams in the country.
“I was so thrilled when six years ago I made contact with the captain of a merchant navy ship, located 54 nautical miles south of Colombo, and also with another in the Mediterranean Sea. It gives immense joy when you contact an unknown person somewhere on the earth from a radio shack in Gurgaon,” says Chandwani, a central government employee, who has been a ham since 2005. “One of the skills of a ham radio operator is to be able to decode a signal even in the noisy conditions,” says Rahul Kapoor, 69, one of Delhi’s senior hams. He was only 16 when he got his ham licence. “Hams attach a lot of importance to the weakest signals as it could be someone transmitting from a remote location and needing emergency help. Besides, a rare contact excites us a lot as it could be a royal, astronaut, or any other famous person who transmit occasionally,” says Kumar.
The hobby, Chandwani points out, includes amateur radio contests, homebrew workshops, field days, DX-peditions to islands and hilltops, commemorative events, fox hunting (search for a transmitting wireless radio deliberately hidden somewhere with the help of portable antenna the size of a selfie-stick), winning worldwide competitions, collecting certificates and QSL cards, and chasing amateur radio satellites (yes, some satellites in space for hobby). In December, Bangalore hosted the 27 edition of Hamfest India, where over 1,200 hams from all over the country, including Delhi, participated.
“I have developed and given up several hobbies such as tennis, motorcycles and running, in my life, but the ham radio is the only one that has endured,” says Kapoor, sitting at his shack that has Morse Keys, and new and vintage transceivers of brands such as Kenwood, Yaesu and Icom.
Kapoor got interested in amateur radio in 1963, when a friend of his bought an old crystal set. “We could hear various Delhi stations on it, and I was so fascinated. But a radio was a great luxury those days, cost about a month’s salary,” he says. So, in 1967, he decided to assemble his own radio. He got electronics components from a junk dealer in Meena Bazar, used his aluminium lunch box as a cabinet, and created a Morse Key out of a tin can and toothpaste cap. What helped him, he says, was a magazine called ‘Radio Services’, which carried an article titled ‘Getting into Hamdom.’
“I was literally on cloud nine the first time I made a contact using Morse Code. I felt like what Guglielmo Marconi must have felt like when he first made his radio contact. Morse Code has since been my preferred mode of communication; it consumes very little power and spectrum. The entire process of engaging in conversation through a ham radio is like meditation,” says Kapoor, with the excitement of a teenager. “The sense of mystery associated with establishing contact with remote stations across the world fascinates the hams. At times, it seems you are receiving an alien signal from outer space.”
Ham radio got a boost in India in the 1980s when then PM Rajiv Gandhi, himself a ham, waived off import duties on wireless equipment. It is quite an expensive hobby -- it takes at least ₹1 lakh to set up a basic radio shack. “There are hams in our clubs who have invested nearly ₹20 to 25 lakh on their amateur radio stations,” says Kumar.
The calling of the scientifically inclined
A lot of hams such as Mohammad Sofi, 56, for example, like to homebrew their own equipment. An amateur radio buff for 29 years, he spends two hours -– between 8.30 and 10.30 pm every day -- designing new circuits, testing his homebrewed equipment with other stations for signal and voice quality. “This hobby is also about research and development, and knowledge sharing. A lot of hams try to come up with something new and improve radio technology,” he says.
His radio shack at his house in west Delhi boasts a range of homemade equipment such as receivers, power meters and power supply, among others. Its wooden shelves have dozens of plastic white boxes containing components such as capacitors, diodes, valves and transistors, which he buys from Chandni Chowk’s Bhagirath Palace and Lajpat Rai market, the favourite haunts of hams in the city. Sofi says ham radio is a calling of those who are passionate about electronics and have a scientific bent of mind. “Not that you cannot become a ham without a background in science and electronics; it is just that it takes longer, sometimes years, to learn things,” says Sofi, an electronics engineer with a private company.
Like other passionate hams, Sofi has hundreds of QSL cards received from amateur radio stations all over the world with call sign, date, time, location and signal quality. Some cards have photographs of the senders and their neighbourhoods. “These are among my most prized possessions; the memories, and proofs of the contacts I made with fellow hams around the world,” he says. Over the years, ham radio has evolved in terms of technology. Many hams hook their rigs to personal computers, use digital modes such as PSK31 and PACTOR that enable radio-to-radio emailing, including text and pictures. “But older hams still take pride in using the Morse Code,” says Sofi.
An alterative system of communication
Vigyan Prasar, a Delhi-based autonomous Institute under the Union government’s department of science and technology, organises a range of activities to promote ham radio, including technology demonstration and lectures, and offers study material to aspiring hams to prepare for The Amateur Station Operator’s Certificate (ASOC) licensing examination conducted by the Department of Telecommunications.
“Ham radio is far from dying; in the past few years, there has been a rise in the number of ham meets, festivals and other such events. We get many requests from all over the country for study material on ham radio. We are trying to promote it as an alternative communication system,” says Sandeep Baruah, a scientist and in-charge of the Vigyan Prasar Amateur Radio Club Station in Delhi. “It is a hobby that fosters scientific temperament and empowers you. Disaster communication has been a major contribution of hams.”
Gopal Madhavan, president, the Amateur Radio Society of India (ARSI), the oldest non-profit organisation that works to promote ham radio, says that while the government has eased licensing norms over the years for ham radio, it should take a relook at some of the stringent regulations. “Unlike in most countries, a ham cannot take his transceiver out of his house in India, which is very stifling,” says Madhavan, 82, a senior ham, who still likes to assemble his own antennas. His flat in an apartment complex in Chennai has an elaborate shack with seven radio antennas on the terrace. “While some of my neighbours are fascinated by what I do, others feel I am mad,” says Madhavan.