A news item published in Hindustan Times

October 04, 2003

HAM strung -2

Can you imagine chatting for hours with a German student whom you have never met and probably never will, over a radio link, swapping information on the latest courses available in his university, admission procedure, visa formalities —- all free-of-cost? The communication will take place not over an ISD line, which can cost you the moon but, a wireless link established over the amateur radio bandwidth.

All this and more is possible, if you are a member of the world’s most fun loving, scientific club of three million licensed ‘HAM’ operators. Unfortunately, in India, their strength is only 20,000. In fact, few Indian students know that establishing radio links is so cost-effective (except for the payment of a one-time license fee of Rs.100 to the Ministry of Communications and the tariff for some minor power consumption) that student HAMs abroad often install wireless equipment inside their vehicles to establish radio contact with other HAMs anytime, anywhere in the world. The links include voice data exchanges, computer networking, Morse code (telegraph) links etc.

Currently, there are around 40 earth satellites (all set up by HAM clubs abroad) for establishing radio contacts, even exchanging postcards and snapshots over TV screens! Some HAMs use hand-held radios that can be slipped into the pocket, while others like to build their own electronic circuit radios and antennae. There have also been HAM astronauts on space shuttle missions and those sent on expeditions to Antarctica. The most committed are the Japanese and the Americans, who have already honed their skills over a wide spectrum of communication links: HF/ VHF, amateur satellite communication, TV broadcasting, Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) links. The current boom in digital technologies has only fired their appetite more.

In India, the awareness came pretty late, that too, primarily due to the personal initiative of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (then an MP and a licensed HAM operator) who persuaded the government to set aside Rs 95 lakh to establish a National Institute of Amateur Radio (NIAR) in Hyderabad. It’s still the country’s nodal training institute for HAM operators.

Today, although very few are aware of this, MPs get a special budget to establish HAM clubs in schools as a portion of their constituency development funds, while recently, JNU students petitioned their VC to allow them to establish a HAM club so they could resource study material and apply to foreign universities free-of-cost over the radio link. The CBSE has also issued a circular to all schools asking them to develop HAM clubs at their level.

A perfectly legal hobby, since the time of Marconi and J. C. Bose, HAMs have been busy evolving their own ethical code; a language of 30 abbreviated Q codes: a unique mode of greeting (they exchange QSL cards, acknowledging the time and frequency of establishing radio contact). In fact, everything that builds strong camaraderie between a ‘community of communicators’. To attract more members, HAM clubs routinely organise awards and expeditions to far-off, exotic lands as part of their efforts at increasing interest in this amateur radio activity.

For instance, there’s a HAM doctor’s association that meets every morning at 7 p.m. at 14.150 MHz to swap information on the latest medical breakthroughs; then there’s an NRI Club, the Charminar Net (for south Indian buddies) all legitimate platforms to exchange greetings with friends and families — free-of-cost! HAM operators’ best contribution, however, has been as goodwill ambassadors between countries (even at the height of the cold war era) and as crisis managers during natural disasters. Hyderabad-based HAMs, for instance, were among the first to re-establish radio contact with the villages of quake-ravaged Gujarat. Earlier, Indian HAMs rendered yeoman’s service during the Orissa super cyclone; Bihar, Uttarkashi and Latur earthquakes; landslides; rail, road and air accidents, cyclones and floods.

Who can become a HAM?
In India, anyone above 12 years of age and with a scientific temperament can apply for a HAM license from the Officer-in-charge, Wireless Planning and Co-ordination Wing, Ministry of Communications. This is issued only after he or she clears the Amateur Station Operator License (ASOL) examination conducted by the Ministry. The ASOL tests the applicant’s proficiency in Morse code (speed 5 words/ min for Grade-II and 12 words/ min for Grade-I) besides testing him/ her on the principles of radio communications procedures and regulation. The examination fee is Rs. 10 and the license comes for Rs. 100 more, which is valid for five years, before it comes up for renewal.

The training is available at any NIAR-recognised centre. In Delhi, well-known HAM operator, D. Bharati, runs a two months course (two hours per day) at 12 G, CPWD Quarters, Vasant Vihar (Tel: 011-26142405). The fee for this is Rs. 1,000.

HAM clubs in schools
NIAR helps schools obtain a HAM club license, after which the schools can impart their own training, oversee suitable power supply (220 VAC) and regular maintenance and repair of equipment. (For more information contact NIAR, Raj Bhavan road, Somajiguada, Hyderabad-82; e-mail: niarinida@ hotmail.com).

The cost
Compared to other communication tools, the HAM equipment comes almost dirt-cheap. A branded, imported set can cost Rs. 50,000-60,000, while the self-assembling of a 10-watt circuit set, limited to 1-2 frequencies can amount to anything between Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 10,000.


Author-Radhika Sachdev
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