Sunday, April 5, 2020

Social Isolation at the Speed of Light - Ham Radio Operators Undeterred During Spring Contests

After weeks of news media frenzy on the Covid-19 epidemic we’re all weary of the social isolation imposed on friends and families. Many stay connected via television, and social media but another social network remains unseen to most. Amateur radio operators (known colloquially as ham operators) populate their FCC licensed radio spectrum sandwiched between commercial radio and TV channels. There are over 730,000 federally licensed hams in the US, with several million internationally. In spite of Covid-19, the global ham radio community remains actively social, communicating long distance wirelessly.

By day I’m an investor, writer and technology consultant. After hours the large computer screen on my desk becomes an SDR display for my amateur radio station (SDR is Software Defined Radio). Last night I tuned in to monitor several ham radio contest events. The month of April features many Spring season “QSO parties”. A QSO party is a contest in which hams make radio contact with as many other stations as possible in a predetermined time period (usually a day or two). WA7BNM (Bruce Horn) publishes a comprehensive list of ham radio contest schedules with eight events scheduled this April. [1] Thanks Bruce for a great resource.  

As a hobby, amateur radio has evolved to a new level of sophistication. SDR is Software Defined Radio. Recent adaption of FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays, a specialized ASIC device technology, (Application Specific Integrated Circuits) found in communications electronics now provide a graphic view of the RF spectrum and its radio signal inhabitants. Utilizing “direct RF (Radio Frequency) sampling” techniques, ASIC technology extracts a radio’s received spectral data and displays it on a computer screen much as an integer number line, or in this case a spectral line extending above and below the zero point frequency (with zero referencing the radio’s tuning dial pointer). SDR graphic displays have revealed that as ham radio operators, we also comprise a real life “Matrix”. Hams populating their FCC allocated radio spectrum can be seen as individual signal traces along the spectral line. The signal traces scroll over time on a “water fall” display leaving after image “foot prints” behind. Run the embedded YouTube video I’ve prepared and you can see the spectral display I’ve described (approx 2 minutes run time). [2] The signals you can hear are captured by the tuner centered on the spectral display. Switching display modes can also provide an oscilloscope view of the signal’s audio envelope. In the past, radio receiver display technology was little more than a box with an inscribed tuning dial. SDR technology was first seen in military applications but now enabling ASIC device technology is also utilized in many automotive and consumer products. The display images in my video were taken from my Icom IC-7610 transceiver. Icom’s first SDR radio the IC-7300 features an Altera EP4CE55F23I7N Cyclone IV E running at 200MHz) which facilitates simultaneous audio processing and graphic display of this information. Advanced specifications aside, SDR has helped enhance the “social” aspect of our hobby. At a glance hams can “see” live radio spectrum to quickly identify lone signals or clustered contest/network activity. Tuning the radio is simplified. Point at a signal trace on the graphic display and a mouse click will tune there instantly, minimal dial tweaking necessary.

Ham radio contest enthusiasts empowered by SDR have infused the community with new interest. Many of these social contest events feature highly coveted award certificates. A few examples are: The DX Century Club award, (DX meaning distance) is presented to operators confirming contact with one hundred international stations. Similarly there’s a Worked All Countries award, Worked All States award and Worked All Counties Award (challenging as you must confirm radio contact with hams populating every state county in the US). 
In spite of the Covid-19 epidemic amateur radio remains a vibrant, socially active hobby connecting hams globally. In times of emergency, natural disasters, or communications outages, hams provide a volunteer base of highly skilled communications operators with global reach. Although there’s been no call for ham radio communications during the current Covid-19 epidemic, a valuable volunteer resource stands ready. In the interim, social distancing at light speed is great fun. Dropping out of warp now. See you on the web.

For additional background on SDR technology see my March 2017 article “New Trends in The Field Programmable Gate Array Market - Software Defined Radio”.  [3]

For additional information on Amateur Radio see the American Radio Relay League web site. [4] 

Stay safe out there.   

Regards to all,
Thomas D. Jay

Semiconductor Industry Consultant
Thomas D. Jay YouTube Channel

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References and acknowledgements:

[1] WA7BNM, Bruce Horn web site.  

[2] Thomas D. Jay, YouTube Channel Video

[3] Thomas D. Jay, Blog article, New Trends in Field Programmable Gate Arrays 

[4] American Radio Relay League web site