Tuesday, September 6, 2005

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The revenge of ham radio

Among those debating the relative influence of the blogosphere in American politics, the facile question has always een whether blogs will become "talk radio or ham radio?" The obvious implication is that talk radio is now a permanent feature of the media ecosystem that covers politics, while ham radio was a fad that remains sustained only be true enthusiasts. Blog enthusiasts tend to favor the former comparison over the latter.

After reading this Wall Street Journal story by Christopher Rhoads on what ham radio has done in the wake of Katrina, perhaps the blogosphere should become more comfortable with the latter comparison as well:

With Hurricane Katrina having knocked out nearly all the high-end emergency communications gear, 911 centers, cellphone towers and normal fixed phone lines in its path, ham-radio operators have begun to fill the information vacuum. "Right now, 99.9% of normal communications in the affected region is nonexistent," says David Gore, the man operating the ham radio in the Monroe shelter. "That's where we come in."

In an age of high-tech, real-time gadgetry, it's the decidedly unsexy ham radio -- whose technology has changed little since World War II -- that is in high demand in ravaged New Orleans and environs. The Red Cross issued a request for about 500 amateur radio operators -- known as "hams" -- for the 260 shelters it is erecting in the area. The American Radio Relay League, a national association of ham-radio operators, has been deluged with requests to find people in the region. The U.S. Coast Guard is looking for hams to help with its relief efforts.

Ham radios, battery operated, work well when others don't in part because they are simple. Each operator acts as his own base station, requiring only his radio and about 50 feet of fence wire to transmit messages thousands of miles. Ham radios can send messages on multiple channels and in myriad ways, including Morse code, microwave frequencies and even email.

Then there are the ham-radio operators themselves, a band of radio enthusiasts who spend hours jabbering with each other even during normal times. They are often the first to get messages in and out of disaster areas, in part because they are everywhere. (The ARRL estimates there are 250,000 licensed hams in the U.S.) Sometimes they are the only source of information in the first hours following a disaster. "No matter how good the homeland-security system is, it will be overwhelmed," says Thomas Leggett, a retired mill worker manning a ham radio in the operations center here. "You don't hear about us, but we are there."

posted by Dan on 09.06.05 at 10:48 AM