Every weekend, my dad makes his way to the basement and takes a seat at a desk tucked away in the corner. Flipping on switches and a light, he prepares to talk to strangers around the world.
Ron DeFeo, known as WA2BSW to some, is an amateur radio enthusiast and whenever possible, he makes contact with fellow operators around the world. He's been a ham n that's amateur radio operator n for 46 years now, and the walls around his radio "shack" are filled with QSL (contact) cards from places far and near, some more exotic than others.
"A friend and I just heard about how you could talk to people over the radio," my dad said of how he became interested in the hobby. "It's just fascinating. It's fascinating still to this day n you can go down in a little room without any wires and without any commercial interests and talk to people around the world."
Like people's desire to fly, ham radio is intriguing, my dad says. There's a world out there to explore, and it's very likely some people won't have done that without ham radio. From the most remote locations on Earth to highly populated cities, ham radio can be found. In an age before the Internet and satellite phones, ham radio was the best way to keep in contact with the rest of the world.
"It's that love of communicating with different people with a common thread," my dad explains. "It's that common thread that draws you together, even though you're from different walks of life."
In the early 1980s, my dad spent nights in front of the radio listening to the unrest in Grenada. More recently, it was the spate of hurricanes where ham radio proved its worth in emergency situations when other forms of communication fail. But, it's not just the natural disasters that bring out ham radio operators. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, ham radio operators volunteered to help.
Volunteers receive training for emergency events and the ARRL, the amateur radio organization, receives federal grants to support volunteer programs. "Ham radio will certainly be part of the fabric of homeland defense and amateur radio operators have always been of the mindset that they want to do something for their country," ARRL president Jim Haynie said.
But just as the world is changing, hams are continually adjusting to keep up with technology as it becomes available. And interestingly, it has actually benefited the hobby.
"Hams adapt, modify and expand on technologies," said Allen Pitts, ARRL's media and public relations manager. "The latest computers share the desk with Morse code keys. We even have our own satellites. While the Internet was supposed to ?kill ham radio,' what we actually find is that there are almost five times more licensed hams in the country now than there (were) in the 1950s. We are creating ways to integrate VHF communications with the Internet to provide full emergency Internet service even when there are no servers, electrical power or cables left standing."
But, just as technology has helped better ham radio, the changing times are also posing challenges. One of the biggest threatening the hobby is sending broadband over power lines, approved this month by the Federal Communications Commission.
"Using plain electric wires to send radio frequency transmissions and not expecting they will radiate and pollute the regions around them is just ignoring simple physics," Pitts, W1AGP, said. "The F.C.C. has come up with new rules about this problem ? We need to be sure that the F.C.C. enforces these rules."
But with all the technology in the world, ham radio comes down to a simple concept: casual conversation between two people with a love for their radios. And it's simple to start the hobby n all one needs is a transceiver (that's a transmitter and a receiver), an antenna and a license.
"It always goes back to that common thread," says my dad, whose love of the radio sparked his father's interest in the hobby. "Ham radio can be enjoyed by all people n young and old."
Todd DeFeo is the education reporter for the Daily Herald. His column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .