December 17, 2016

Everyone needs communications, but does everyone need a Ham Radio?

Here is a preview of an article that will appear in the next issue (January, 2017 - #6) of Signal-3.  Click here to subscribe.

Before you can answer the question, you need to look at what Amateur Radio (ham radio) is about. The FCC defines the Amateur Radio Service as “A radiocommunication service for the purpose of self-training, intercommunication and technical investigations carried out by amateurs, that is, duly authorized persons interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest.”1 Furthermore, the FCC defines the basis and purpose of the Amateur Radio Service as follows:
(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.
(b) Continuation and extension of the amateur's proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.
(c) Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communication and technical phases of the art.
(d) Expansion of the existing reservoir within the amateur radio service of trained operators, technicians, and electronics experts.
(e) Continuation and extension of the amateur's unique ability to enhance international goodwill.2
With that information in mind, if the above definition, basis and purpose isn't your thing, then don't get your ham license, and don't bother with ham radio gear. It's that simple. There is probably one or two members of your group who are into the technical side of things, and can get into amateur radio. If you are looking for a technical hobby where there is a lot of interesting stuff to learn about, then amateur radio is for you. Amateur Radio is a technical hobby, and from a survivalist standpoint, you'll need to learn the technical side of things to keep your radios up and running down-grid, which means you need to learn which gear is easiest to maintain and repair down-grid.

However, as the title says, everyone needs communications. In the military, every trainee learned some communications common tasks regardless of their eventual specialty. PRC-77s were as easy as a CB to operate, and everyone in basic training learned how to properly use one. Field phones were even easier, and everyone in basic training learned how to properly use one. Proper voice communications technique for clarity and brevity was also something everyone in basic training learned how to do.

For civilians who need communications capability without technical complexity, there are some services and systems available, along with their nominal planning ranges. They are:
  • Family Radio Service (FRS) – intra-group
  • Citizens Band (CB) – local
  • Multiple Use Radio Service (MURS) – intra-group
  • GMRS – General Mobile Radio Service – local - Nominal license required.
  • Part 15 devices – (Motorola DTR) – intra-group
  • Field Phones – on-site
  • Optical Communications – line-of-sight range
  • "Lo-Tek”
All of these services and systems, with the exception of GMRS, are license-free. They will provide the average group/tribe member the capability to communicate with each other over local distances, which is all that's needed for intra-group communications. Furthermore, the cost of most of this level of equipment is affordable to everyone.

Starting with the most secure resources available, we have certain optical communications systems, field phones, the ever popular Motorola DTR series handhelds that operate via Part 15 on 902-928 MHz. spread spectrum, and the “Lo-Tek” standbys. Groups/tribes desiring the most amount of security for their communications (short of custom-made devices) will want to consider these options.

Motorola DTRs have an honest 2-mile planning range, which puts them right on the verge of intra-group to local communications capable. Motorola DTRs are the most expensive option available for non-amateur radio wireless communications, but they are immune from hobbyist-level interception (not detection). They do have a built-in vulnerability when being used on the default “public” channels/talkgroups. An individual with a Motorola DTR-650 in administrator mode will be able to “stun” radios, rendering them unusable until you can reactivate them. While merely an annoyance in peacetime, such an occurrence during more critical occasions could be disastrous. Now that you are aware, the solution to this vulnerability is simple. You just program all your radios to private channels/talkgroups. Now you can use the stun mode to eliminate any radio that gets lost or taken/stolen from a member of your group as soon as you detect any unauthorized usage. Another neat feature of the DTRs is the ability of an administrator radio to remotely key up and “hot mic” a radio, enabling the administrator to hear audio within the range of the radio's microphone sensitivity. All things considered, they're a pretty good piece of kit, and cost about as much as a high-end ham HT. If your group/tribe wanted “private” radios, this is as good as you're going to get, and 2 miles is plenty of range for intra-group communications. An interesting side note is that 902-928 MHz. is also allocated to amateur radio use, where it is known as the 33cm band. Many hams have been modifying Part-15 902-928 MHz. communications equipment for higher power and operating them under Part 97 (Amateur Radio).

Optical communications links using lasers are inherently secure because most interception attempts will break the connection. IR LED-based systems are less secure since they can easily be detected with CCD camera devices or NODs, and then intercepted with easily-built equipment. The solution is to implement encryption. There are several commercial off-the-shelf devices and beginner-level schematics available for groups wishing to pursue this approach. I recommend starting with the Forrest Mim's Engineer's Mini-Notebook on Science and Communications Circuits & Projects (Volume II).3 Optical communications systems are strictly line of sight, so your mileage will really vary depending on the terrain.

The planning range on field phones can reach 22 miles when using the popular US TA-312 phones, but requires you to have wire in place, and should only be used in secured areas of operation. However in rural areas where there is an abundance of livestock fencing that can be easily used to set up a landline communications network, not to mention existing telco outside plant infrastructure that might be able to be utilized post-TEOTWAWKI. The first of a series of articles on survivalist telecommunications appeared in Issue #1 of Signal-3, and will be continued in future issues.