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Ham Radio - Article at Sarawak Tribune

Sunday, 15th Jume 2003


The antenna goes up at the Club Station


Far from being phased out, ham radio enters new realm 

Amateur radio is a scientific hobby with a strong global fraternity and has often been referred to traditionally as ham radio.

In layman's terms, it is a hobby or, if you like, a past-time dealing with conventional radio communication.

If you've studied radio physics or read books on it, you'd have come across the name Marconi, the inventor of radio communication using valve and discreet components as opposed to surface mount.

This may sound a little technical but what it means basically is discreet components are individually loose components which can either be home-brewed or obtained from local stores. Amateur radio enthusiasts are commonly referred to as hams.

The word ham is derived from the first letter of the names of three Americans - Hyman, Almy and Murry of the Harvard Radio Club - who started it all at the turn of the last century.

It should be quite safe to assume the purpose of the club was to bring together people in the academia with similar interest and to share knowledge and experiences.

Today, such activity has gone worldwide with a total ham population exceeding two million. And it is growing on every continent.

Contrary to what many may think, one needs neither technical nor electronics background to take up this hobby.

I started as a shortwave listener long before the advent of TV and FM radio in Sarawak. It was even before Bernama, the national news agency, was established.

At that time only foreign wire news services were available and transmitted through wireless radio communication onto teleprinters. Part of my job as a young reporter with The Sarawak Tribune then was to monitor the wire services and listen to news leads and breaking news on shortwave radio such as Radio Australia and BBC World Service.

I suppose that little professional interest turned into something more interesting and challenging two decades later when I became, yes, a ham following in the footsteps of the seniors like the doyen Yong Loi (9M8RY, originally VS4RL), Joseph Chang (9M8FC), Festus Havelock (9M8FH), Joseph Siong (9M8ST), Allan Ming (9M8MA), Johnny Tan (9M8DB) Willie Bong (9M8WB) and Belinda Lim (9M8BL). I carry the callsign 9M8SC.

Like collecting stamps, old currency notes, old gramophones, grandfather's clocks, watches, antique books and cars, there's always interest in amateur radio. It grows alongside today's modern tools of communication technology.

Talking to members of the Radio Amateur Club Sarawak (RACS), they're always beaming with enthusiasm when speaking the ham language, inspite of the fact many of them have been pursuing the same interest for two to three decades or even longer.

It is something they find most interesting and useful to occupy their time with after work, during weekends, public holidays or when they have retired.

The QSO (communication) between hams around the world either via the Very High Frequency (VHF) or walkie-talkie or Two Metre operated only on designated frequency or High Frequency (HF) or satellite station is a two-way communication that helps promote universal friendship and understanding, leading to the exchange QSO cards through normal mail (and increasing contacts through e-mail) and also as a source of important knowledge about radio communication.

At a local area, hams get together occasionally, setting up field stations to work the rest of the world on all available modes. One useful and practical knowledge about amateur radio is in the construction of the antenna which forms an indispensable part of amateur radio communication.

You learn to set up your own aerial. So if you talk to RACS president Allan Ming and tell him the ease of communication - that comes with the inexpensive mobile phone and the Internet - could very well represent a threat to amateur radio, he will hardly agree at all.

For one, amateur radio communication technology is not static or stagnant. It moves with time to stay relevant to the needs of the more than two million hams worldwide. How?

"On top of the radio communication wave, we're now adding - more of an optional nature - the personal computer with the appropriate software and modem to establish radio-based computing which has been digitised after graduating from the analogue system," Allan said.

"This is the second generation."

He added: "In other words, it is not true to say amateur radio is becoming irrelevant or obsolete or being phased out in the face of the Internet challenge.

"In fact, amateur radio is as relevant as ever, the reason being radio communication is now also established at another plane, that is, its relationship in the application of computer technology except we are basing it on radio communication rather than telephone line.'

Can you link to the Internet via radio-based communication technology? Yes, according to Allan. How?

The new method works by means of installing proper software and interface which can be linked via Internet to the different servers. In the United Kingdom, there are already available eight servers for this purpose which operate as gateways called either echo-link or i-link.

"Through this echo-link operating system, a VFH can gain access to repeaters in other countries and hence you're able to work domestic stations linked to these repeaters," he explained.

The more serious hams like Allan are always looking for excitement, emerging trends in radio-based communication and new challenges to impart his new knowledge and experience to fellow hams.

Like the satellite link to OSCAR (Orbiting Satellite Communication Amateur Radio), using VHF (hand-held or walkie-talkie) as an uplink through a proper precise design antenna and satellite re-broadcasting to Earth to VHF as a downlink.

The Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) is another dimension in radio communication. The voice signal is transmitted on VHF in the direction of the Moon and the lunar surface is used to reflect the signal back to Earth.

If you're lucky, you can hear your own voice coming back on the same frequency, according to Allan.

There are several factors, including atmospheric conditions and thunderstorms, that can obstruct the way of such signals being bounced back from the surface of the Moon to Earth.

"For amateurs, this is merely an experiment ... whether you can hear your own voice coming back with the signals bouncing off the surface of the moon. Others may even pick it up too in any corner of the world."

Interested in becoming a ham? Basic knowledge required is in radio electronics theory and the understanding of how it works.

This is as far as theory is concerned and will come up in the first part of the examination to qualify for a licensed B operator in Malaysia, as stipulated by the licensing authority, the Multimedia Commission.

In order to graduate for a licence A, it is necessary to pass a Morse Code test (12 words per minute) set by the Multimedia Commission (previously Telekoms Department).

B licence holders can only operate on VHF (Very High Frequency which in layman's terms simply means they can only carry walkie-talkie operated only on designated frequency. This is to avoid interfering with other users on the commercial bands.

A full licence holder can operate on VHF, HF and satellite stations ... which is more on the microwave spectrum.

So if you are interested, contact the RACS president Allan Ming for more details (082-201544 during office hours).

By the way, as a shortwave listener, you can also join the club as an associate member. Presently, RACS has 40 licensed and 20 associate members, including those who are preparing for examinations to take either a B or a full licence.

As a postscript, if the Multimedia Commission will charge less for the annual licence fee (by reducing it from RM36 to say RM20) and also the assignment fee (from RM60 to RM30), it will help to further promote the amateur radio hobby.

© P.F.Borsboom