Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Handiham World for 27 January 2010

Welcome to Handiham World!

Drawing of guy in hardhat climbing ladder

Heard on the air this morning:

"Nothing like an emergency to find out what works and what doesn't."

I had turned on my 2 meter rig, which was tuned to my club's repeater, and I soon learned that a widespread data outage had occurred in northeastern Minnesota when a fiber optic line was damaged. A bit of web research filled in the story a bit more. The outage began yesterday, January 26, when Qwest fiber optic cables were damaged at a site outside Duluth, Minnesota. A steam pipe in a manhole burst, and the hot gas damaged the fiber optic line. The stations I heard on the repeater were being ported into the Twin Cities via Echolink, thanks to our repeater's continuous connection to a wide area repeater network serving the area around western Lake Superior, the LSAC, or Lake Superior Amateur Coalition, system of linked repeaters. The stations were discussing what areas might still not have data service, even though it was now Wednesday, January 27. Of course a data outage meant that internet and 9-11 phone service were down. What was the response of a local TV station in the area? Why, to proudly announce that they posted outages and service status reports... on the internet!

By gluing my ear to the radio, I learned from the repeater conversation that the LSAC repeaters kept working throughout the emergency. A fire at an auto body shop happened during the outage, but had been put out safely.

Well, all of this puts me in mind of some basic truths about emergencies:

  1. You never know when they will happen. They are by their nature unexpected in a given moment, even though we understand intellectually that emergencies will happen.
  2. You never know what kind of damage may result or what other problems may be set in motion because of the original failure. There is often collateral damage extending outward along unpredictable paths.
  3. You never know exactly where they will happen. Oh, we may be able to say with some feeling of confidence that our basement ham shack will not flood from a burst dam, because we are on a hill and there is no dam for hundreds of miles, but just as we turn the key in the lock and leave for a week's vacation a water pipe bursts and we come home to a flood of our own.
  4. The media may not report the incident correctly.

The point is that we just never know. Understanding this does require some knowledge of probabilities, and that in turn helps us to manage the risk.

Take this communications outage, for example. Looking at the three basic truths, we see that it was completely unexpected, happening at a rather inconvenient time. It was the result of another infrastructure problem altogether, since the fiber optic cables would have been just fine if a steam pipe hadn't burst nearby. Thus, the steam pipe failure constituted the first emergency, and collateral damage to wide area communications quickly followed. There are steam pipes and cables running underground all around the world. Since the underground conduits place these two systems together, and probably also close to high voltage electrical distribution wiring, you can see that a catastrophic failure might well spread to other systems.

Who knew that a steam pipe failure would kill the internet? And 9-11 emergency service? And who could predict exactly where the conjunction of these various types of infrastructure would experience the failure?

Then there is the media. How many times have you listened to a story that has turned out ultimately to have been reported incorrectly? We know when the weatherman is wrong because we can tell when the rain falls and the sun shines, but what about when the media say things that are just not true? The reporters are well-meaning but often no not understand the technology or infrastructure that they are reporting about. This can lead to some rather silly stories making it out onto the air.

Where does amateur radio fit into the picture?

It is obvious to those of us in amateur radio: We provide a communications system that is redundant and separated from other communications infrastructure. There is nothing like redundancy to overcome the first three basic truths of when and where emergencies will happen and what collateral damage may result. Repeater systems can be located at different sites with overlapping coverage. The failure of internet connectivity will not bring down any individual repeater. A repeater that does go down will leave the others up and running. Individual operators will still have their own mobile and fixed stations. Compare that to a system where stream pipes, high voltage power lines, and fiber optic data cables all run in close proximity!

One problem area remains media coverage and perception of amateur radio. In story after story, I keep reading about the "old technology" of amateur radio being pressed into service in one emergency or another. To me, this is like saying that the telephone is old technology. Everyone knows that the phone system incorporates new, cutting-edge technology. The same is true of amateur radio, but somehow the media never seem to understand this. Furthermore, once a perception gets out there, it is hard to erase it. We know that amateur radio is cutting-edge in its new technology, and incorporates digital systems throughout. My suggestion is that you never miss an opportunity to let people know how modern and up to date ham radio is. We have to chip away at the perception that our activity is old-fashioned, a pastime of yesteryear.

Even so, we will be out there - waiting and ready for the next communications emergency.

For Handiham World, I'm...

Patrick Tice,

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Handiham World for 20 January 2010

Welcome to Handiham World!

Net or not?

TS-2000 HF station

We have been urging our readers and listeners to monitor 14.305 MHz for activity before we begin a new Handiham HF net on that frequency. I have heard some stations on 14.305 in the early afternoon Minnesota time. Lyle, K0LR, suggests that an afternoon time might find the band conditions being "short", meaning that we could possibly get more stations checking in from the United States. If we were to look at evenings, I think the band has been dead as often as not, so we cannot wait until it is too late in the day. During the morning hours the band is open, but the skip is longer. As I write this at 09:30 local time, I hear a Spanish-speaking station on 14.305.

As important as band conditions is the question of when our members can get on board with the net! It does not matter if conditions are perfect if everyone is working at their jobs or otherwise busy and can't get on the air. The original net schedule was set up for 9:30 in the morning Minnesota time, but most of us are busy at that hour. I'm not saying that we should keep the morning hour schedule, but nothing kills a net like bad timing! Before we decide to just keep the 9:30 morning hour but shift frequency from 14.265 to 14.305, let me know your thoughts. One successful Friday evening schedule we used to keep was on 17 meters, and I can't call it a net, because the informal gathering started by Alan, K2WS, was a "non-net get together", as Alan always reminded us. After all, the unofficial rule is that nets do not belong on 17 meters, at least not formal nets.

20 meters is different and nets are all right, even scheduled formal nets. Can we narrow it down to daytime or evening? And what day? Monday? Friday? Saturday or Sunday? Remember, we want to pull in working folks, so scheduling it in the middle of the work day may not be the best idea.

One of our repeater hosts, Chris, KG0BP, mused that we might not really need a daily Echolink net if net control stations are too hard to find. So what about that? Do we add a few HF nets and pare down the daily Echolink schedule?

Also at this time we are asking for HF net control volunteers. You will need at least a General Class license and an HF station with a 20 meter antenna.

George, N0SBU, has pointed out that once nets are suspended for the summer as many clubs do with their nets, it is usually pretty difficult to get those nets going again. The lesson to be learned from that is to keep your nets running! Taking time off or reducing your net schedule means that you may never get those times and frequencies back again. George would also like to see the Wednesday night Echolink net be used more often for training purposes, maybe every Wednesday night.

A couple of you thought that having the Echolink nets every other day, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, then on Saturday would be enough activity to keep things running.

Every net needs to have a critical mass of users. This is a basic truth: If you don't have enough regular participants checking in, you will not keep your net running. That means paying attention to having the net on at a time when you can get people away from whatever they are doing and to the radio. Band conditions, in the case of HF at least, have to be suitable. If band conditions are not right, you may have few check-ins no matter how convenient you make the time and day.

Another concern is that we have competent net control stations. Every time a net is poorly run, we lose some stations who either give up while waiting to check in or simply get annoyed by the poor operating practices they encounter on the net. Every net has this challenge, too, not just ours. I have heard some terrible operating on HF nets whose participants were long-time license holders and whose net control station held a higher class of license.

As we continue with our planning for nets, keep these handy net control practices in mind:

  • Begin your net with a preamble explaining the purpose of the net, who may check in, and anything else about how the net will be conducted. This is the time to tell participants if the net is formal or informal and whether you need to be a net member to check in. The end of the preamble is the place to tell stations how to check in, namely, "Check in with your callsign only", or other appropriate instructions.
  • Call for stations in this order:
    • Stations with emergency or priority traffic
    • Mobile stations
    • Portable stations
    • Stations on "short time"
    • Stations with announcements of interest to the net
    • General check-ins (and limit the crowd by geography, type of technology used to check in, callsign area, or whatever.) Example: "I will now take check-ins from stations outside North America." or "I will now take check-ins from repeaters only."
  • Be sure you have firm control of the net. Do not allow stations to simply give their callsigns and then start rambling on about the weather, their computer problems, and how their dog has fleas. Make it clear that stations checking in must give their callsigns and be recognized before the net control allows them to have their say! Do not let stations grab the air and take over. Net control stations should do the controlling.
  • You can make the net more interesting if you have a net topic. Sometimes the net will enjoy discussing a topic introduced by one of the stations checking in.
  • Don't forget to call often for stations throughout the net time. Always allow enough time for emergency check ins to get your attention. You never know when the system may need to pass emergency traffic.
  • Be patient but firm, and always polite. Insist that everyone use their callsigns. This will help everyone keep track of who is on the air.
  • When the net winds down, thank the participants and the repeater and system owners, and mention when the net will be on again, then sign off.

For Handiham World, I'm...

Patrick Tice,

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Handiham World for 13 January 2010

Welcome to Handiham World!

Sadly, the big news today is the earthquake disaster in Haiti. I wanted to get this right up front, as the Salvation Army net is active on 14.265 MHz, which is the regular Handiham 20 meter net frequency. As always, all Handiham activity on the frequency will cease whenever the Salvation Army is running emergency nets. We will soon be choosing a new 20 meter net frequency and time anyway, so that we will not run into any conflicts with the Salvation Army net. More about new net frequency proposals later.

The earthquake disaster in Haiti is unparalleled in our lifetime. We are told from the news reports that nothing of this magnitude has occurred on the island since the 1770s. I will be providing you with some amateur radio links later on in this edition, because amateur radio is often the most reliable form of communication at times when widespread disaster causes communications infrastructure failure. Unfortunately, this earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince, the largest city in Haiti and one with a very high population density. Many of the buildings in Haiti are constructed of concrete that is not reinforced in the way modern building codes would require in first world countries. Haiti, the poorest Third World country in the Western Hemisphere, already suffers from poor utility services and overcrowding. You can imagine the effect of a magnitude 7 earthquake in such a place. Unreinforced concrete buildings came tumbling down, trapping people. Because the earthquake came late in the afternoon on a winter day, there would be little daylight remaining to assess the disaster and begin recovery efforts. Because of this, it is expected that much more information will be available now that the sun has risen on a new day in Port-au-Prince.

It was in the mid-1970s that my friend Don Newcomb, W0DN, and I decided on the spur of the moment to take a short trip to Haiti, a place that I had never been. I was living in the Caribbean at the time, and Don was visiting me. Since I was teaching school and had a break, the short trip to Port-au-Prince would be fun. Also, Don could speak French. That would certainly prove to be valuable in French speaking Haiti. A year later, Don and I would form the antenna company known as Butternut Electronics, but of course that is another story!

Even the plane ride to a Third World country can be memorable. The old airplane that carried us to Port-au-Prince leaked oil from the engines, and I remember watching the streaks of oil trail across the wing that I could see through the window. As is traditional, everyone cheered and clapped when we landed safely. Neither of us brought along any ham radio equipment on the trip, as we didn't want to deal with import or customs problems.

Our short visit was mainly in Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area. I do still remember the concrete buildings, most of which do not exceed three or four stories in height. Nonetheless, I am glad that I did not know about the unreinforced construction and the possibility of earthquakes while I was visiting. Had I known, I guess I would have been pretty nervous! In fact, we had a wonderful short visit, typical tourist stuff, and I bought an oil painting showing a Haitian market scene from a street vendor. I still have that painting on my wall today. Of course as a tourist I had to see the presidential palace. This morning, watching the scene of devastation on television, the collapsed presidential palace brought back that same sick feeling that I recall watching the video of the World Trade Center towers falling on 9/11. I had seen both places and was struck by how fragile even seemingly iconic buildings can be, toppled by disasters that we seem unprepared to deal with and that are more or less unpredictable. My heart goes out to the people of Haiti.

That is why as amateur radio operators we should always be ready for an emergency. Monday morning quarterbacking does no good when communications infrastructure fails and we need to make way for emergency communications traffic. The next emergency could come anywhere at any time. Will you be ready?

For Handiham World, I'm...

Patrick Tice,

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Handiham World for 6 January 2010

Welcome to Handiham World!

Pat, WA0TDA, with handiham coffee mug.

This week is a busy one with back to back meetings all day Wednesday and Thursday, so that accounts for this late (and shorter) edition of your weekly Handiham World. I hope you all had a pleasant holiday season and are ready to get back into the routine of getting on the air every day.

I did want to let you know that Santa was good to me this year, because a brand-new Icom IC-7200 was under the tree on Christmas morning. I plan to learn a bit more about the 7200, then I'll write a more thorough review from the our particular Handiham perspective. The best points about the rig so far:

  • Front-firing speaker
  • Easy to use numeric keypad
  • Built-in speech for blind users, no extra module needed
  • USB interface on the back panel
  • Easy to read display
  • Great receiver

So how's that for starters? I'll put together some more detailed thoughts later on, but I have to say that the new IC-7200 is really a step up from the IC-706 Mark 2 G that I had been using for HF. And I'm thrilled that manufacturers are finally including voice frequency readout that doesn't cost extra!

Now, stay tuned for two new year's resolutions. That means you!

For Handiham World, I'm...

Patrick Tice,