Four Letters Re: Long Haul Voice and Data Communications in a Post-Collapse Environment

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Mr. Rawles.
Regarding long range communications: If any SurvivalBlog readers are already ham operators they can join their county Radio Emergency Service (ARES) network.It already well established throughout the US. There are county emergency coordinators who have Same Time "meetings" on a regular basis. You might even become an Emergency Coordinator for your County.

I would strongly recommend that our fellow readers get their ham Operator License no matter what. There is no longer a Morse Code requirement [for the Technician license] and the test in relatively simple . Then you can legally buy equipment, legally use it, as well as join the ARES community based organization, You will be privy to what's going on locally from a much larger perspective. If you choose, you can become FEMA certified and you will gain access to a nearly endless and very informative set of FEMA online communications. Believe me when I say the communications coming out of FEMA can be eye openers.

I would also recommend that you set up an emergency backup power system to a 12 volt "base station" in your radio "shack". The 12 Volt radios use about 1 or 2 watts and a battery backup from a deep cycle battery that is solar charged will last a very very long time. I also have an older CB system in my Shack, just in case. There are still truckers that use CB radios. - Carl In Wisconsin

 

Hello again, Mr. Rawles,
I am still doing the "Ten Cent Challenge" (about a year) and I read the blog everyday. Since I last wrote to you that I was improving my Rifleman skills but I have also been working on my radio skills. I decided that getting a Ham radio license would be beneficial to me and my family and community, so I made a goal to get knowledgeable, equipped, and licensed. Before starting I hardly knew the difference between AC and DC power so I first got the Boy Scout Merit Badge books on Electricity, Electronics, and Radio. Then I picked up a manual from the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) and started learning about radio. I thought your readers might be interested in knowing some details about amateur radio and it’s advantages in difficult times.

The FCC issues three licenses for amateur radio: Technician, General, and Extra. Pretty much anyone can become licensed. There is no age limit. All you have to do is pass the written test for the license level you want to obtain. There is no Morse Code test anymore. The cost is $14 per test and you can check on the ARRL web site for a test site and time that is convenient for you.

Just like with firearms and other tools, different radios and different frequencies and different transmission modes are good for some things but not for others. With a Technician license, you can transmit on certain frequency ranges (called “bands”) that are said to be in the Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) ranges. These frequencies really only work with line-of-site so they are good for local communications, like with search-and-rescue or talking to your buddies around town. With General and Extra licenses you can transmit on lower frequencies in what’s called the High Frequency (HF) bands. These frequencies are better for farther-than-line-of-site communications because the signals in these frequencies bounce off the atmosphere and can go quite long distances, hundreds and even thousands of miles, particularly at night.

There are several modes of radio transmissions, each having advantages. Voice communication of course is the most natural mode but it also uses the most bandwidth and requires a pretty clear signal for intelligibility. Continuous Wave (CW), the mode used for Morse Code, uses a tiny amount of bandwidth and sometimes is the only way to communicate at some distances and ionospheric conditions. Morse Code is not a quaint old mode that geezers continue to do for fun. It sometimes is the only way to make contact, and it is used very frequently for long distance communication. And finally there is Digital communications which also use little bandwidth but which does require the use of some sort of computer to process the signals. There of course are many flavors of each mode and there are other lesser-used modes, like video, image, and satellite communications, but those are probably less useful in a survival situation. But they are all open to amateur radio operators.

For my equipment, I opted for the most portable configurations available. VHF\UHF radios are readily available both in mobile configuration (meaning they are in a vehicle) and in portable configuration (meaning something you carry). For HF portable configurations, there are not as many options. The two leading portable HF radios are the Yaesu FT-817 and the Icom 703. I went with the Icom 703 and got all the necessary accessories to use it in the backpack configuration. So now I can walk around and make contact with people hundreds of miles away.

Power is always an important consideration for radios, especially portable radios. Mobile radios can be powered by the car battery. It seems that each radio has it’s own power connector and I wanted to create some sort of standard power connector that I could use to plug everything into. It turns out that the Amateur Radio community has been dealing with the exact problem and they came up with the Andersen Powerpole connector [JWR recommended!] for DC-powered devices. They wanted a connector that was gender-less, did not require tools to connect or disconnect, and that could handle fairly high levels of amperage. I put an extremely short Powerpole line with fuses on the car battery, then connected a long Powerpole wire from this wire to the inside of the cab of my truck, and then put a four-way Powerpole splitter on the end of it all. Then each device has a Powerpole adapter with fuses than I can plug into the splitter in the cab (or any other Powerpole connector). This has worked out really well and is very modular. I have an adapter to plug any DC device into any DC power supply I know of.

Since ham radios need a decent amount of power to transmit, portable radios usually need a fairly large battery pack, and often require Lithium-ion batteries. Portable power is a concern because lugging around a car battery would totally defeat the purpose of having a portable radio. When the radio receives signals it doesn’t require much power, only when it transmits. I got an Icom T90A VHF transceiver which comes with one Lithium-ion battery pack. Extra battery packs are quit expensive. What I found out is that there is an battery pack adapter that lets you put in 2 size AA batteries inside it, and it is in the exact same form as the Lithium-ion battery pack. The downside is that the voltage in this configuration only has about 2.5 V versus the 7.3 V of the supplied Lithium-ion battery pack, which also means that you can’t transmit on high power. But, it turns out that there are Lithium-ion batteries that have the same dimensions as AA batteries (but without the knob on the positive end) called “14500” batteries. They are 3.6V each so two of them together would be 7.4 V which is very close to the supplied Lithium-ion battery pack. Actually it turns out that all that’s in the supplied Lithium-ion battery pack is a couple of 14500 batteries. So rather than pay $50 for an extra battery pack, I paid about $7.50 for a couple of 14500 Lithium ion batteries. I bought a total of 20 “14500” batteries for the equivalent of 10 battery packs for about $75 rather than $500 for replaced Icom battery packs. Incidentally, almost all laptop batteries just have a similar type of battery in them called “18500.” So if you wanted to replace your laptop battery you could just carefully open the battery case and re-solder new 18500 batteries inside. They are about $4 a piece and there probably are only a few (4-6) of them in any given laptop battery. Note that Lithium-ion batteries need to be charged in a charger specifically designed for Lithium-ion batteries. And because the voltage of Lithium-ion batteries is about 3 times greater than AA batteries, you shouldn’t try to use Lithium-ion batteries in devices that only take regular AA batteries or you will probably fry something.

It can take a lot of time and effort (and money) to learn how to effectively communicate using amateur radios, so why bother? I think the advantages are that you have means to communicate that do not rely on any system at all. There is no central radio system and you supply your own power so you don’t even need the power grid. You are essentially using the electromagnetic spectrum itself as the communication medium. You don’t need any other equipment besides two radios to communicate. Short distance radios like the Family Band radios you can buy at Wal-mart are good for very short distances, like just outside shouting range. They are good for around the ranch, on patrol, and in a convey. And you probably don’t really want outsiders eavesdropping on your communications. For communicating over a few to several miles, VHF radios work well. For across-town communication, city-to-neighboring-city, and rugged terrain operation, VHF is the way to go. And if there is a repeater close by, you can communicate with anyone else as long as you both can communicate with the repeater. This is why repeaters are often on mountaintops, so that people on opposite sides of the mountain can communicate. I bought a book of all the repeater locations and frequencies in the nation and I keep this with my VHF transceiver.

But if you want to talk to some across the state, in the next state, or even in another country, you would need an HF radio. In the television show Jericho, the townspeople are just dying to know what’s going on outside their town. They don’t know what the governor is doing, let alone the President. They don’t know if the National Guard is coming. They don’t know what cities got hit by the bombs. They don’t know who did it. They basically had no information. If someone had an HF radio they could get all sorts of information. They could also transmit to others what they know. They could even contact family and friends to tell them that they were all right, and could find out if those family members and friends were all right, too. Shortwave receivers are better than nothing, but you are limited to only receiving information, and usually just from voice modes (no Morse Code, digital, or even some types of voice modes) from commercial and government broadcasts. You can’t ask questions. You are still largely relying on the “communication systems.” But with an HF radio, you don’t need any system at all to communicate long distance.

Sometimes you want private communications and sometimes you want to be able to communicate with lots of people. Use short-distance Family Radio Service (FRS) radios for more private communications. When you want to receive news and to give out news, you want to be talking on frequencies and modes that everyone else is. This is when you’d want to use amateur radios, particular on the HF bands. Besides amateur radios, Citizen Band (CB) radios also can help with getting and giving news. I got a CB radio for $26 on Amazon and a $35 antenna from Radio Shack. This radio plugs can plug right into the cigarette lighter of the car and the antenna is just about 2 feet tall and sticks to the roof of the car with a strong magnet. No difficult installation required. No license is required to use it and there are plenty of people on the CB bands. There’s even a dedicated “emergency channel,” channel 9, that is only supposed to be used when someone has an emergency and is probably monitored more than any other channel. You get a lot of the advantages of amateur radio (like no “system” required to use it, people are already listening on it, it is highly mobile and\or portable) but for a fraction of the cost and effort. I think this is a cost-effective solution for listening to what people are saying, being able to communicate to others with no reliance on any system, and being able to call for help if needed. All for about $60 that you can even just keep in the trunk of your car if you’d rather not have it out all the time.

In my last email to you, I reviewed the .22 caliber adapter for the HK91 and how I was a “Rifleman In Training.” I am still am in training, but I am going to Front Sight in a few weeks and I plan on going to an Appledseed Project Boot Camp in the spring. I am committed to do it now, whereas before I just thought it would be a good idea. I keep on trying to improve my skills and have some other things I am going to be learning which perhaps I’ll detail in future emails. I try to keep things simple and try not to get to clever with preparedness. Sometimes you just gotta walk into the trade school and ask to talk to a counselor, or buy that radio book, or sign up for a class even though you really don’t know anyone and you don’t really know what you doing. To me, it is my duty as a father and member of my community to consistently do all I can to improve my skills to help out whenever trouble strikes.- Still A Rifleman in Training

Jim,
I am sending you this message via my VHF ham radio sitting in my ham shack using only battery power and my laptop to reply. The connection from my radio via airwaves into the Internet is via what is called a gateway. I could also do this from my car, or on a mountain top using only batteries and a portable antenna. I could also do it via HF or UHF.
I could use a mode called PSK31, and if you had a ham radio I could send it to you in this same format peer to peer with no internet connection needed. So, my point is that anyone with just a ["No Code"] Technicians license can do this. The license is $15, and a simple 35 question test. I hold what is called an Extra class license AD7VV and so can use more advanced modes to communicate.

I have many friends who are doing what the writer of that letter suggested, but it takes practice. God bless you, and have a blessed Christmas season.- Michael H.

 

Mr. Rawles,
In light of yesterday's mention of ham Radio, I thought I might offer a little more information on how my fellow ready can get involved and equipped, and why. It bears mentioning up front that in most countries, Amateur Radio ("ham") is subject to some government licensure and regulation. For instance, in the US, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) creates the laws and issues you the right to use Ham frequencies. In the US, it is illegal to transmit on the Ham bands without an FCC issued license and call sign. So follow the rules, and get licensed. It really is easy, I did it with my dad's help when I was ten years old. Now the good stuff:

Ham radio is indeed a fairly robust form of communication (even capable of running off of small solar panels in the case of handheld radios), and for the most part, the Ham Radio community itself is very emergency preparedness oriented. There are numerous Ham groups across the US with the sole purpose of maintaining and practicing communication under disaster conditions, and most local area clubs participate regularly in related drills, classes, and actual disaster coordination.

Becoming a "ham" involves learning some of the technical aspects of radio and electronics, and for good reason. You don't want to be without those skills, because Amateur Radio is a very do-it-yourself hobby. You have to hook up your equipment and know how to operate it. You have to understand the basics of RF theory so you can buy (or build) the right equipment.You are responsible for safety in your gear and the way you use it. But that makes it a very rewarding and open-ended hobby. It may sound daunting, but like I said, it's easy enough for kids to grasp. And the things you learn in the process are invaluable steps toward greater self-sufficiency in many other areas.

Now, in the US, the FCC requires that you pass a test to be licensed as a Ham Radio operator. Learning and studying for this test is the only real effort required to become a ham. The good news is you can study much of the material for free, the testing is often free, and there is only a nominal fee for getting a license. Here are some great resources online:

QRZ.com's How To - More information for those interested in pursuing a license in the US.
ARRL's Exam Site Index - Find the exam site nearest you.
QRZ.com Site Map - Find practice exams and lots of other information from active hams, including forum.
FCC Ham Site - Information on licenses, processes, etc.
Thanks, - Little Bird

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This page contains a single entry by Jim Rawles published on December 24, 2008 9:34 PM.

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