A news item published in The Hindu (Chennai Edition ).
Monday, January 6, 1997
Reaching Out Through The Air
The digital methods and Internet, the state of the air in global communication, have hardly affected the time-tested loyalty of Mr. Dale, a former NASA employee, to radio. At 80, this Bangkok-based American still goes on air every day, as he has been doing for the last 40 years. Sitting in front of his 'radio shack' at his Chennai residence. Dr. Gajapathy Rao, learns from Mr. Dale's crystal clear voice that the atmosphere in Bankok on friday is "quite beautiful".
It is 5 - 30 p.m. Dr. Rao tunes his Yaseu High Frequency (HF) set to 14,32 KHz and it is time to speak to his friends in South East Asia. A Bangladeshi is coordinating the traffic. Like Mr. Dale and thousands the world over, Dr. Rao and his wife, Dr. Surya, are among the hundreds of amateur radio operators, called HAMs (Hertz, Armstrong, Marconi the originators of the hobby) in the city. Starting with jus one Ham in 1958 and increasing to hardly 30-35 during 1970-75, the number of HAM enthusiasts in the city is growing roughly at 10 per cent annually. Now with 1000 old licensed operators, the city is being termed as the HAM capital of India. And recentrly, for the first time in the country, it played host to an international event, the 24th South East Asian Network (SEANET), a network of HAM operators from South East Asia and the rest of the world.
The city also boasts of one of the largest amateur radio societies in the country. The Madras Amateur Radio Society (MARS) has about 450 active members. In simple terms, amateur radio is a hobby of communication among individuals across language and geographic barriers. There is no commercial motive, no thir party communication or subversive intention . It is the pure joy of hearing one another separated by thousands of Kilometres and exploring the world through radio waves that initates one into the hobby. And long before the world realised that it was contracting into a global village through modern communication means, HAMs knew, thanks to Marconi, that it was a small, beautiful world. 'It is an enjoybale hobby,' Mr. Dale says.
Am amateur can start with a HF equipment, either assembled (Called 'home brewing') or imported, says Dr. Rao. The assembled equipment could be as cheap as Rs.5,000/- - 8,000 compared to the branded ones costing Rs. 45,000 to several lakhs. While the former cannot handle more than two bands, the latter has all the seven frequency bands alloted for amateur radio. the extent of communication is restricted in home brewed equpment because of the limited number of bands. The power too is limited from 10-100 watts, while brands like Yaesu, Kenwood and ICOM can be as powerful as 400 Watts which ensure better reach of signals.
A 'full shack,' will have a HF equipment, a VHF/UHF (very high frequency/ultra high frequency)station and handsets. While HF is required for long-distance and overseas communication, the VHF/UHF sets covers short distances. Before the advent of cellular phones, the latter even worked almost like a mobile telephone.
Acquiring equipment is only the second step. Before starting to build up the "shack" , one needs a licence from the Wireless Planning Commission of the Ministry of communication. for the licence, classified as VHF - restricted, grade-I, grade-II and advanced grade, one has to pass some examinations and clear police verification. A licensed operator gets a call sign which he uses for identifying himself whenever he is on air.
Much before the advent of the Internet, the radio operators had formed their own nets. there are networks like SEANET (which meets unfailingly at 5-30 p.m.everyday), GEMNET (General Emergency and Medical Net), Charminar Net (on 7.080 KHz from 7-8 a.m.) and Airnet (on 14.15 khs at 7-30 p.m.). The GEMNET is for medical traffic and Dr. Rao and his wife are active participants in arranging medical help, whether it is medicine and life saving surgery, through the NET. Using a modem, the radio could also be used for data transmission.
It has become a legend of sorts that the hobby comes to the rescue of disaster-stricken people when all conventional communication systems fail. The service of HAMs in organising relief during disasters such as the Morvi dam breach. Latur earthquake, recurring cyclones in Andhra and Bhopal gas tragedy had been invaluable. On several occasions, it becomes the reliable , second line of communication. Though the HAMs rush to the help of the country whenever tit is in trouble, there is hardly and official patronage. The rules are primitive, and the costs exorbitant. Only the commitment of the amateurs keeps it going. "Once you checkin. It is hard to give up."