A Different Kind of Wireless
Updated: Nov 28, 2020
A joke my wife likes to make about me is that I tend to collect hobbies. There's been photography, SCUBA, homebrewing, off-roading, Search and Rescue, boardgames, and the list goes on. But one of my earliest hobbies was Amateur Radio, or Ham Radio as it's often called. In fact, in many ways my interest in radio has some very common roots to my interest in computer technology.
My Elmers (That's Ham Speak for Mentor)
I was a pretty geeky kid growing up. My mother, while in her final year of college earning a degree in elementary education, knew that computer technology was going to be a big deal, especially for education. In fact, I can remember classrooms with a variety of computers including a few Macintosh IIs, at least one Commodore 64, and some of those huge 8-inch floppy disks. In 1989 Radio Shack introduced the Tandy 1000SL for $899 and despite the expense of putting herself through school while raising a young boy, she knew this was an important investment. I can still remember how this thing smelled (yeah, old computers smelled funny ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) and how it inspired an interest in computers for me at a very young age; something less common in rural Arkansas in the late '80's. Soon after, I got online with Prodigy and the world was never the same. Despite not being a technologist herself, my mom understood the important role computers were beginning to play. We learned together, and she became my first tech mentor.
Around 7 years later I was introduced to another teacher who would inspire me. Joe Green was the science teacher at the High School in Rison Arkansas. Rison is a very small town so "science teacher" meant all disciplines of science (he even ran the school's computer network) and High School meant grades 7 thru 12. I had always been fascinated with chemistry and because of my early influence computers, so Joe's knowledge, experience, and eagerness to share those passions drew me in. In addition to his regular teaching duties, he also started the school chess club (almost every member taught by him). He also had a collection of odd and fascinating artifacts in his classroom, including what I would eventually learn was his Ham Radio station. It was at about 9th grade that I needed to pick an area of study as part of the GT program and Joe had a suggestion. He offered to work with me on learning radio theory and operating practices with the ultimate goal of passing the FCC examination required to earn my Amateur Radio license. With Joe's guidance, in 1998 I passed that exam and was granted the FCC license KD5DMQ.
The Tandy Returns
I had some fun chatting on the local repeater, but there weren't a lot of other folks my age on the air back then in my area. I also only had a Technician license and no HF radio so my communications were pretty limited. I really enjoyed learning the theory and tinkering with my radio, but I needed a way to make the actual operation more fun. That's when I started to think about how I could bring together my radio and computers. What I eventually discovered, is that there was an entire community of folks who were doing exactly that. They used devices called Terminal Node Controllers (TNCs) that translated digital signals from a computer into sounds that could be transmitted over radio waves and vice versa (similar to dial-up phone modems). Furthermore, these nodes actually worked together in a network so that even if your signal could only reach one other station, that station could relay your message to the next. This meant that now from my little station in rural Arkansas I could tap into a worldwide network. This was just what I needed to keep things interesting, but there was a problem. I needed a computer and computers were still very expensive. I had a laptop by then, but for this to work my station needed to be running most of the time and it didn't make sense to dedicate my laptop to that purpose. Fortunately, the software that runs the TNC was pretty minimal so I dusted off the Tandy and gave it new life as my first digital radio station. I had successfully brought together two of my passions in a new way and for the second time in my life that old Tandy PC had connected me to the world beyond my reach.
Just one year later in 1999 I headed off to the University of Arkansas. While I did manage to get a mobile antenna propped up outside of my dormitory window, the responsibilities and distractions of college life meant my radio would end up going silent for several years. Even after school, my first few years were spent in apartment buildings that were equally hostile to having a decent antenna setup. Angela and I were also married soon after college and it wasn't long before we moved across the country to Seattle. Despite all of these changes, radio was always still in the back of my mind so when we finally decided to buy a house, one of the requirements was that there could be no CCRs that restricted me from putting up an antenna. So eventually it was that we moved into our first home and out came the radio. In the intervening years the FCC had also continued to relax and ultimately did away with the Morse code requirement for higher level licenses so; I bought a couple of study guides and quickly upgraded to Amateur Extra. I now had full access to all of the privileges and frequencies of any radio amateur with a new call sign to boot; N8JD.
Radio With a Purpose
Now that I was back up and running with a new rig, a new license, and a renewed interest in the hobby I began to look for new ways to put it to use. I eventually stumbled across the Seattle ACS, an organization committed to using their skills to support our community in times of need. I had a blast working with this team, and even learned some new skills along the way.
In 2010 I earned my DHS Communications Unit Technician (COMT) qualification and then the very next year advanced to Communications Unit Leader (COML). The most important connection I made however was a friendship I developed with another Ham and ACS volunteer Garth Brown. Garth recognized my dedication (or maybe addiction) to volunteering and it wasn't long before he convinced me to join another service oriented group, King County 4x4 Search and Rescue. KC 4x4 SAR is primarily dedicated to Search and Rescue operations, however given the remote locations that they are often called to operate in it's a natural fit for "off the grid" communication tools like Ham radio. I continued to volunteer with SAR for several years, joining sister organizations King County ESAR and KCSARA. Through these organizations I met many other great Hams, and had many adventures. The one constant in life however is change, and when Angela and I moved away from Seattle to the city of Lake Forest Park, I began to drift away from SAR and Ham radio. My career was really starting to take off, and my family was growing with the birth of our daughter. Late night pager calls to drive up to Cougar Mountain to rescue lost hikers was becoming an adventure for younger folks. Once again, my radio went silent.
What's Old is New Again
About a year ago I spent a weekend cleaning out my shop and stumbled across an old G5RV wire antenna that I had purchased years prior but never put up. This rekindled my interest in Ham radio, and so I called up a local friend who I knew was pretty active. He brought over his homemade tennis ball launcher and together we managed to get that wire antenna strung up at an impressive height. He also introduced me to the latest digital mode, FT8. This was yet another game changer for me. I was able to get everything set up to run worldwide digital HF communications from a laptop that I could connect to remotely from anywhere. So here I am today thinking back to that old Tandy and the first Packet Radio setup I had back in high school. It's in some ways a huge evolution, yet in other ways comfortingly similar to my first experience connecting a computer to my 2 meter Kenwood mobile radio. This has been a rather long post for me, and I won't blame you if you gave up a while back. Perhaps this one was my own personal little memoir of my journey with one of my favorite hobbies. If you did stick with me however, allow me to share my current setup.
While the Tandy has been permanently retired and you won't find any tubes, some of this gear is still down right vintage. I still run my very first HF rig, a Yaesu FT-450. It's not the latest "D" model, but I did upgrade it with the new tuning knob. I have a SignaLink USB sound card to manage the audio interface between the radio and computer which is an original Microsoft Surface Pro. It's not the fastest tablet on the market, but it runs Ham Radio Deluxe and WSJT-X with no problems at all. To smooth out the G5RV wire antenna strung high above my roof, I've added an AT-200ProII autotuner. The nice thing about this tuner is that it will automatically search for a match if it detects a high SWR, perfect fo remote operation.
Despite enjoying this hobby off and on for over 20 years, I still feel like an amateur in the truest sense of the word. And in the era of high powered 5G iPhones and Nintendo Switches, I understand that some can view this hobby as archaic. For me though it's still a thrill every time I make a new contact with someone across the globe with nothing but my radio and a bit of copper wire strung between two trees. I'm not sure what the future holds for Amateur Radio now that commercial communication tools are becoming so advanced. For me though, I still find joy in stepping away from my day job in enterprise tech to call back to something still very geeky, but a little slower paced. Maybe one day soon I'll finally realize my goal of learning morse code too... the earliest of digital communication modes.
73 and thanks for reading,