New Delhi: Some evenings, after Neeraj Sharma has done dealing with work emails and phone calls, he talks to strangers in Morse code.
Some 175 years after Samuel Morse in New Jersey, US, publicly transmitted an English sentence in dots and dashes through copper wires and heralded the communications age, Sharma is among a limited community in India—of around 5,000 active amateur radio, or ham, enthusiasts—who surf the back alleys of radio spectrum frequencies and keep alive the dying skills of telegraphy as well as amateur or ham radio communication.
Since India is the world’s second largest mobile phone market that hosts more Facebook users than Italy’s population, there is nothing in particular to gain from being a ham operator.
In fact, the hurdles to become one are many. Indian law requires a special licence (for which a person must pass a test and in most cases know Morse code), the person must promise not to use the equipment for commercial gain (such as playing music or advertise services) and spend a whole lot of effort for relatively placid conversation (that ham operators anywhere in the world can tune in to and eavesdrop on any ham radio chat anywhere, meaning there’s nothing like a private conversation).
But the compensations are eclectic. Sharma speaks of an irreplaceable thrill of being able to send and receive messages without depending on a third party and being among a niche set of backups, say during a natural disaster, when all communication links go bust.
The latter trait—that several ham operators say is a big reason why they maintain their transmission equipment and skills—is now being employed by another enthusiast in Gurgaon to set up a test rural communication network in several north-eastern states that can provide gigabyte-level data transmission speeds at a fraction of the costs today and, thus, circumvent the need for traditional telecom service providers.
“I’m very comfortable with Morse code,” said the 49-year-old Sharma, who’s an agricultural economist. “But I mostly communicate by tuning the radio, bumping into fellow operators, exchange a few pleasantries and, of course, collecting QSL cards.”
A QSL card is a ham operator’s visiting card and is a picture postcard that these initiates exchange to acknowledge their serendipitous audio trysts. Typically, these cards carry a ham operator’s call sign (equivalent to chat handles), the time and date of contact, and a short hope-to-see-you-again pleasantry.
With several hundreds of such cards collected—from Moldova to the South Pole—over at least two decades of amateur radio, call sign VU2NTT (Sharma’s calling card) hopes to be lucky enough to one day make contact with the International Space Station. This is feasible provided the ionosphere is favourably disposed, and it’s a good sunspot year with no solar storms. He must time his transmission precisely when the space station hovers over India and hope that his signal or transmission doesn’t get crowded out by competing signals from other operators.
In the evenings, when the sun has set and radio waves are less perturbed by the magnetized ionosphere—a portion of the atmosphere that’s indispensable to smooth radio communication—ham radio operators in India generally flock the radio waves for RadioNet.
“It’s like a chat and there are predetermined frequencies where were transmit messages and it’s the best time to get in touch with international operators,” said Sharma.
While there is sophisticated radio equipment available for enthusiasts, only true ham operators invest time and energy into developing their own antennae. “The antenna is the soul of being a ham. When you make contact with a fellow amateur, the first question is usually on the other person’s equipment,” said Sharma. “The skilful ones are able to transmit far using less power. That’s possible only if you use the right connectors, precise antenna designs, etc.”
Another ham enthusiast, while less kicked about QSL cards but completely wired into the ham operator’s grail of transmitting far on minimal power, has improvised on an emerging class of ham radios —called software defined radio (SDR)—that replaces much of the hardware used in radios with electronic circuitry and software, mostly from open-source platforms such as HPSDR (high-performance, software-defined radio).
“Such a design is critical to achieving efficiency,” said Abhishek Prakash, managing director at the Gurgaon-based Apache Labs. While he exports ham radio sets, Prakash is now involved with the department of science and technology (DST) in projects in Nagaland, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh, where he’s using a radio network of such SDRs for tele-medicine and tele-education.
These radios are solar powered and work in the sparse, unlicensed—and therefore cheap—portions of radio spectrum spanning 2400 megahertz (MHz) to 5800MHz, and yet, claims Prasad, can transmit data at speed of 300 Mbps (megabits per second) “In spirit, these are the ham radio equipment, but depending on what they are used for—to transmit data, or just voice—they are modified accordingly,” he said.
Sanjiv Nair, a principal secretary in Uttar Pradesh who is no amateur radio enthusiast, avers that Prakash’s radio design could play a significant role in several rural communication initiatives in the North-East, where traditional communication networks are quite expensive.
“When I first saw this, it made no sense,” said Nair, “But once Prakash explained the workings, it’s pretty impressive that you can set up simple antennae and communicate data at those speeds.” Nair coordinated Prasad’s project during his tenure as a joint secretary at DST.
Like Sharma, who was part of a ham radio network to coordinate communications during the so-called super cyclone that swept Orissa in 1999, Nair too holds that inexpensive radio networks would be most useful during disasters.
“There has to be a dependable backup that is separate from your traditional service providers,” Nair said. “Hopefully, this one proves to be something on those lines.”