Hi all …. just reporting in on my latest adventure ….
Those of you who know me will know I have had a long interest in radio … sparked in the 70’s by the CB revolution, which followed the ‘Smokey and the bandit’ series of movies. At that time you must remember – there were no mobile phones …. so the idea of ‘wireless communication’ was the strict reserve of the Military, the Fire Brigade and the Police. Also, it belonged to an exclusive group of radio hams, who insisted on the requirement of learning Morse code, and passing a relatively complex exam, if you wanted to join their ranks. …. Very few did, and as such, when CB (Citizen’s Band) radios first appeared … every 18 to 35 year old with a car bought one and installed it, and that’s how a significant number of the present generation of Hams were introduced to the world of radio.
My first radio was the Realistic TRC-422 …. and I’ll never forget how exciting it was to be able to talk from my car, to my friends in their cars up to five miles away – much further if I was on top of a hill. Again, reader, you have to understand – in a world yet to invent mobile phones – this was more than a novelty!
There were other avenues of entry to the hobby (pastime?) of course … SWL’s (Shortwave Listeners) for example were radio enthusiasts who bought a ‘receive-only’ shortwave radios (wireless) and spent many happy hours looking for ever more distant and exotic commercial broadcast stations. It was somewhat demanding at the time, because there was no internet. So when you heard someone speaking Chinese, or Russian or Swahili, you had to rely on your instincts and education to figure out what you were listening to …. Nowadays, when you find something interesting, you just key the frequency from your radio into any one of many Shortwave Radio websites – and it tells you where the signal is coming from, what language it is, how far it is from where you are, what compass heading it is – and, what else in happening on that frequency in the world at that particular moment in time. This actually makes the pastime even more interesting and enables you to aim your antennae at whatever it is that catches your interest. Whoever said the internet would kill radio?
Meantime, back to ‘two-way-radio’. Shortly after installing a CB in the car, I and many like me, became interested in why with only 12 watts, we found that we could, at certain times of the day, talk to people thousands of miles away, or even on the other side of the world… it just didn’t make sense with that tiny amount of power. It didn’t make sense until you discovered that what you were actually doing – which was bouncing your signal off the ionosphere, and the guy you were talking to was bouncing it back to you! That in turn led some to putting a ‘better’ radio in the the car, or, in the house (base) and a much better antenna on the roof – to see what exotic places you could ‘bounce’ into. My second radio was the Super Star 360.
This had 120 channels instead of 40, side band modes, and an option for “CW”. I discovered that CW was in fact Morse code capability – and so began a whole journey of discovery …… I have attached a few photos of the various radios and antennae I used along the way for information, but right now, I just want to record my adventure through the last 30 years, before it escapes my memory :-).
There are other aspects to the Radio hobby too. The official ‘Hams’ have developed many different ways of communicating over the air, AM, FM, SSB, Morse code, RTTY, encoded computer messages, etc. etc. There are many different frequencies available to Hams too, unlike CB’ers – who are (loosely) confined to 27mHz. Each different frequency segment, (referred to as bands), has its own individual characteristics, which creates interesting options. You can even talk to astronauts – while they are in the International Space Station (ISS) on the 2m band if you are lucky… that’s because most astronauts are also radio hams, and as there is no night and day up there – they have lots of time on their hands and they like nothing more that to have a quick chat with a radio Ham while they are passing overhead at thousands of miles per hour!
Before I go on, I should explain something that is a bit less than positive. There is, and always has been an elephant in the room between Hams and CB’ers …. More often than not, hams resented the ability of ‘ordinary people’ to just buy a radio and an antenna and start talking on the air the next day. There is some justifiable cause for this resentment too … CB operators usually started out with little or no technical knowledge and even less training and it caused problems in their immediate environment, such as interference with televisions, phones and other devices. They were often unaware they were causing problems – until an angry neighbor came banging on the door! However, this sometimes reverberated on hams, because suddenly, with the explosion of CB, and to some extent – human nature (if you don’t understand it – it must be bad), the whole world and it’s mother thought that if there is an antenna on your house – you must be responsible for every electrical failure within a radius on ten miles!
On the other hand, Hams were their own worst enemies in this, because they made entry into ‘their’ hobby a difficult, unwelcoming and time consuming process. To be fair to them, at the beginning, Hams were not only proficient in the use of radios, they had to build them as well – because there weren’t any to buy! …. People with these highly technical aptitudes are not always the most gregarious person at the ball. By the time they realized this – and dropped the requirement for proficiency at Morse code and made the entrance exams more ‘people friendly’, it was too late, CB had exploded onto the scene. Subsequently, very few had even the slightest interest in becoming a ham – two-way radio was readily available. However, I’m glad to say, that has all changed now … you don’t need to learn Morse code anymore, there is an entry-level license which gives you access to some of the Ham frequencies after a modest bit of operational and theory training (and a still an exam though), without being a rocket scientist.
A few short years after the CB explosion, someone invented mobile phones – and that immediately caused a mass exodus from the ranks of ‘CB’ers’, just as dramatic as the influx when CB’s came on the mass market. There are two ironies to this story …. one is that now that hams are not forced to learn Morse code, interest in it is reviving. The second is that many of those still remaining in CB are those that are genuinely interested in radios – and they have become more organized and efficient as a consequence, even running their own DX (long distance communications) clubs and competitions. Therefore, there really isn’t a significant problem anymore – except for a few diehards with long memories. “It’s an ill wind that blows no good”. 🙂
Personally, I had always intended to do my Ham exams, I just never got around to it, between day to day commitments and life in general I couldn’t, or just didn’t fit it in. I never lost my interest in radios though. I kept my equipment, despite several house moves over the years and eventually I purchased an ICOM IC-R7000 communications receiver
in the early 1980’s and this was my first ‘professional’ communications device. It could listen to any kind of radio signal between 25 mHz and something over 1000 mHz and I got a kick out of that, tuning into everything in those days was easy as there was no digital or encryptipon of any kind. Police, Emergency services, Marine Bands, Aviation bands, Radio Hams, even the first generation mobile phones were analog in those days …. so I put up a Discone (wide band) antenna on my house in Dun Laoghaire on the east coast of Ireland
That ICOM communications receiver made me aware of the difference between CB equipment and proper professional communications equipment … much more expensive of course, but worlds apart. And now I wanted more …. So I bought the best radio I could afford at the time, which was my Yaesu FT-990 transceiver, modified so that it would transmit on the CB band as well as all the Ham bands. This was a new level of experience altogether and I have spoken to people all over the world with that radio over the last 25 years … it has given me endless hours of fun and it too, is still going strong today. It is in fact still the equal of many of the top transceivers of the modern day, such was its build quality. I could use it to listen to hams on their own bands and for shortwave commercial broadcast stations around the world, and I could also talk to all my worldwide friends on 11 meters (the CB Bands). It still has a place of pride in my radio shack today.
Now I live in Paraguay, and I am at a stage of my life where I have the opportunity to do the Ham qualification exams. I wish I had done it before, because now I have to do it in Spanish, but I know most of the technical and operational stuff so how hard can it be – right? (Hope that doesn’t come back to bite me). This will open opportunities to me in radio that I have yet to explore and enjoy …. some bands are good at night, others during the day. Some are good for long distance ground signals and others for ‘skip’ (using the ionosphere to bounce your signals very long distances) … The VHF and UHF bands are lively at nights and weekends with many people with the same interests chatting about their experiences. When the competitive mood takes me, I can enter competitions almost any weekend of the year …. The possibilities are seemingly endless. So in anticipation of my new status as Aficionado de Radio de Paraguay, I have treated myself to a couple of new radios over the past year and am ready to enjoy every possibility and experiment with the best of them – which is what Radio Ham is all about.
My new station:
So here we are then – mid 2015, Asuncion city, capital of Paraguay – far from the green shores of Ireland and talking a different language. I used whatever local contacts I had to find a way into the radio community and – like I imagine it is in pretty much every other country, I was warmly welcomed and encouraged in – thank you Milhen (ZP5 ZDM).
The Paraguayans are really very like the Irish in more ways than one. The radio community here is not very big numerically speaking, and so there was a bit of a wait until they could round up sufficient ‘newbies’ to form a class, and prepare them for the CONATEL (state communications authority) exam. Also, Paraguay is a relatively big country – not in South American terms, but its still about six times bigger than Ireland. There are vast areas, particularly in the Chaco (sometimes referred to as “el infierno verde” – the green hell in the North where temperatures can often top 50C) . There are large ‘estancias’ there – cattle ranches which sprawl over many many Hectares, with little or no population density. In those areas, radio was the only means of communication and so there were many forms of radios (i.e. Ham radios and modified Ham radios) used for daily communication, and there still are. Because of that, some of those operators ‘accidentally’ became interested in the radio itself, and that, combined with the CB revolution I mentioned above, spawned the current generation of ‘Aficionados de radio’ (Hams) in Paraguay.
I should also explain, that worldwide, much of the regulation of Hams, and indeed procedures for radio spectrum usage, has been delegated by the relevant communications authorities in each country, to the Hams themselves. And much, if not all of the associated legislation has been written by the Hams. This system works very well – effectively we have laws made by end users. Maybe there is a lesson here for other walks of life and not least – governments!
‘In nanyways’ as they say in Dublin, I was brought to my first radio class by my new radio friend, Danny (ZP5 DBC), which was in the house of Roberto (ZP6 DYA) in San Lorenzo, just north of Asuncion, where I met my fellow students for the first time. “The Class of 2015? After a few moments wondering where this lily-skinned Paddy with a strange accent came from, we all settled down to the task of learning how to use our radios without driving anybody else demented. The initial classes were old ground to me, but it was worth every minute to hear the terminology in Spanish, and so have some chance of at least understanding the forthcoming exam questions. In the the following weeks, we all went to the house of Jorge (ZP6 KA), Jorge is a lawyer, and he took us through all the related legislation that we have to understand and be aware of.
Now we were getting into the theory of radio and a few basics like Ohm’s law etc … which I loved and I will keep updating the blog as we go along. 🙂
Classes finished … exam time – right? …. Wrong. In Paraguay, they have the unusual system that ‘aspirantes’ for a ham license must serve 10 hours in ‘practica operativa’ under the supervision of a licensed ham, demonstrating correct and proficient use of the radio on various frequencies, in various modes, before they can put themselves forward for the exam. At first I baulked at this idea – thinking up excuses such as “you can’t broadcast if you don’t have a licence / I know what to do already” etc etc … but on mature reflection, (as Irish Politicians are famed for saying after they have said something that rapidly needs to be unsaid), I came to realize that this innovation is extremely useful. It not only starts the prospective new hams out with a good set of basics, it also familiarizes them with the local hams and serves as a very friendly introduction. Other countries please take note!
So. Off I went to Danny’s (ZP5DBC) house in the hills outside Asuncion, where he has the luxury of a hilltop environment, in the countryside where there is no electrical noise, and three 30 metre towers for his antennae! There over the following few weekends, we spoke to other ZP (Paraguayan) stations on 2m and 70cm FM, we DX’d (long distance communication) to over 50 countries on HF in SSB, we decoded some digital signals and also did a little CW (Morse Code). On this latter point, when Morse Code was a mandatory requirement – I hated the idea and it turned me away from the radio ham alternative. Now that it is not mandatory, I find it interesting and I’m already enthusiastically learning it! …. Maybe that says more about me that the hobby. 🙂
Anyway, Classes – check. Practica Operativa – check. Exam – check! The people from Conatel came with their exam papers and the ‘class of 2015’ was put to the test … and I am happy to report that we all passed with flying colors. It takes a while to process the applications and deal with the administration though, so we won’t have our certificates until probably early November 2015. I was asked what callsign I would like to have (I don’t think you can do that in other countries), and I requested ZP5BVK. ZP5 is not optional because ZP signifies Paraguay and 5 signifies Asuncion city where I live. The suffix though – BVK was my choice and I chose that because it was the suffix of the first plane I ever piloted in Dublin – a little Piper Tomahawk – EI-BVK. I always had good luck with that plane – so I hope it carries 🙂 .
So now I am ZP5BVK … and I’m getting the hang of my new radios … namely a Kenwood TS-990S, a Yaesu FT-991 and an Elecraft KX3. Each one is more or less the latest ‘all-singing, all dancing’ radio in its category and all are heavily ‘computerized’ for want of a better description. That is to say, that they have a lot of controls that are in the form of menu select-able options to control and change the way you set up the radio. Gone are the days where all the controls were buttons and knobs on the front of the radio 🙂 However, this means that there is a big learning curve for each individual radio, and the more you familiarize yourself with these options and controls, the more you can do with the radio. It is a very interesting and gratifying process.
And the evolution continues …. Feb 20th 2016 …. the new ACOM amplifier and the Optibeam 5/11 antenna have arrived 🙂