Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Handiham World for 08 February 2012

Welcome to Handiham World.
cartoon radio tower
Are you a news junkie? I guess I might consider myself one. Every day I use Google News, which can be customized by the user to reflect certain preferences. For example, I am not a sports fan, so I can set the preferences to give me few or no sports stories. On the other hand, I am interested in science and technology and can get more of those stories. One of my preferences is to get stories about ham radio. Google almost always finds several stories about amateur radio in the news every day.

A few days ago I spotted a story in a small town newspaper that turned out to be a letter to the editor. It was written by an amateur radio operator who was admonishing his fellow amateur radio operators to please monitor their local repeaters in case there would be an emergency. He had an example of an actual emergency when a call was sent out via a repeater but there were no responses.

I have lost count of the number of times I have driven cross country myself, monitoring the various repeaters along the way and throwing my call sign out here and there, but getting nothing but silence in return. Others have mentioned this phenomenon as well. Amateur radio repeaters are very, very, VERY quiet these days. I often wonder if any of them get used more than a few times a week.

Conventional wisdom about repeaters used to be that you wanted them to be available during the "drive time" rush hour traffic in case they might be needed to report some kind of emergency. These days, it is a rare motorist indeed who does not travel with a cell phone. The cell phone is much more likely to be a more efficient way to reach emergency service personnel quickly than the local amateur radio repeater system. Yes, it is nice to have the repeater system as a backup because cellular service as not always available and is prone to overloading and failure during emergencies. But on a typical day cell phones work as expected and do absolutely everything they are needed to do. In fact, I suspect that most amateur radio operators use their cell phones more regularly than VHF mobile radios.

While there may be exceptions to the quiet repeater phenomenon in a few areas, I have heard nothing in the past few years to change my belief that most amateur radio repeater systems in large metropolitan areas are grossly underutilized. As I have said in the past, if a repeater system is to remain healthy (an actively used system) it requires a critical mass of regular users. One or two voices crying in the wilderness is not enough to save a repeater system from oblivion. Successful repeater systems host scheduled net activities, have a cadre of informal users who meet on the frequency regularly, and are maintained to high engineering standards so that the user base can enjoy reasonable reliability.

One thing that a repeater owner can do to make sure that the system is used often and doesn't fade into obscurity is to connect it to a VoIP system like EchoLink, IRLP, WIRES, or Allstar Link Network. Unfortunately, there are amateur radio operators out there who don't understand this technology and fear that it will somehow ruin the repeater system or dominate it to the point that the repeater will be unavailable for local users.

This, my friends, is nonsense. All you have to do is listen on a connected repeater system on a regular basis and you will find out that the repeater is used much more often than an unconnected repeater system but not to the point of overuse.  I have virtually abandoned repeater systems that are not VoIP connected because they have no activity.  They sound exactly the same whether the radio is turned on or turned off!  If your club's repeater system is one of these dead zones, I urge you to bring up the possibility of connecting it to the world via VoIP.  There may be a few old fogies who will fulminate and fuss, but unless they are regulars on your local repeater all day long and are leaders in keeping the system maintained and active, I think you can safely call their bluff.  
Getting back to that guy who wrote to his local paper, I guess I would have to say that one would have a far better chance of gaining assistance in an emergency if someone on a VoIP repeater heard a call for help.  The reason?  There are actual listeners on an active system.  Even a listener located in a different state would be able to set the ball rolling to get emergency assistance.  On the other hand, a call for help on a "quiet" repeater system is likely to result in nothing more than the wind whistling by and crickets chirping. 

For Handiham World, I'm...
Patrick Tice,
Handiham Manager