Thoughts about how a Green Wizard uses Ham Radio
Today’s new Hams are told that they should first get a 2Meter radio of some sort, hand-held or base/mobile radio, and get on the air using a local repeater to learn how to communicate. What does this mean? Does it fit with what the purpose of Ham Radio for Green Wizards who want to preserve reliable ways of communicating?
A 2 Meter radio operates in the VHF band of 144-148 Mhz (Megahertz), where the signals pretty much are line of sight communications. This is similar to FM Broadcast and TV frequencies, but at much lower powers. FM Broadcast and TV use powers of many 10's or 100's of thousands of watts whereas a hand-held radio uses no more than maybe 5 watts and a base radio 20-60 watts. A base or mobile radio has a range of maybe 5-20 miles and a hand-held radio maybe 2-5 miles.
These ranges are approximate and can vary greatly, but will serve to illustrate my point. A Repeater is a higher-powered transmitter hooked to a very good receiver and using a large antenna, usually on a tower or mountaintop, that simultaneously re-transmits (repeats) the signals it hears so as to greatly extend their range. If you can communicate with this repeater that is in an excellent location, you can communicate with anyone else who can communicate with it, even if you can't reach them directly. Since the Repeater has it's antenna in such a good location, you can usually reach it from quite a distance, maybe 20-50 miles, even using just a hand-held radio. This way you can talk to someone else also using a hand-held radio that may be 50, 100, or more miles away.
This is somewhat similar to using the Internet, you're using equipment that someone else operates and has paid for to enable you to communicate. Yes, you can use the hand-held or base/mobile radio to communicate directly, but you can't go nearly as far. A problem comes when that someone won't or can't keep the repeater operating or maybe won't let you use it. Operating a Repeater isn't a cheap operation, there's the electric bill to pay. Often the operator has to pay rent on the space that the equipment is located in and also for the space that the antenna occupies on the tower. The equipment itself isn't cheap.
That said, I operate several repeaters and happen to have them located at my house. I'm located on top of a ridge at 1400 feet altitude north of Eugene, Oregon. I have repeaters on the 6 Meter, 2 Meter and 70 Centimeter bands. I also operate equipment for a Packet Radio Bulletin Board and a WinLink Internet Gateway system. Everything has battery backup that will last nearly a week with careful use and soon will also have Solar Power backup. The photo at the top of this post is of the building and tower for my Repeater equipment.
Compare this with how a new Ham got on the air back in the 1970's and before. You'd either build or buy a simple transmitter and receiver that worked on the HF (High-Frequency) bands between about 15 and 80 Meters (3.5 to 21 Mhz). You'd string up a wire antenna and hook it to the rig (Hams call their radio equipment their rig). Any of these frequencies are capable of communicating worldwide without any repeaters. From communicating across town to communicating with someone halfway around the world, you didn't depend on anyone else except the person you were communicating with.
Now there is a difference, when you're using a 2 Meter radio, the reliability of your communications is quite high. You are using line-of-sight paths and when there's nothing in the way everything works well. HF communications depends on the signal bouncing off the earth and the upper layers of the atmosphere to get from one place top another. Things don't always cooperate, so the reliability is not as good. You have to know what frequencies work best at certain times of the day and certain times of the year. Sometimes nothing works. however HF can communicate over much longer distances.
I guess where I’m heading with this is; as a Green Wizard, how do you want to make use of Ham Radio? If you are interested in participating in the traditional local Public Service, helping out in local activities and getting to know local Emergency Services organizations, the first way is the one for you. Also for local communications using Repeaters or direct simplex, the VHF and UHF radios work well.
If you are interested in keeping alive the knowledge of how to communicate using simple, easy to build from scratch equipment, you might also want to explore the older path I mentioned. You’ll find that nobody builds their own of the type of rigs to use for VHF communications on the local repeaters but there is lots of re-purposing older commercial VHF and UHF equipment for use on the Ham Bands. There are still many who build their own HF equipment, the Ham Radio magazines are still quite full of articles telling how. Often tubes are still used! Transistors can be scrounged from many different pieces of cast off electronics.