Still Gaga Over Radio

Despite ever more sophisticated technology, amateur radio operators are still here, still sending call signals out into the darkness, and proud that much of the chirping on the Internet was made possible thanks to their developments. All that's lacking is a major earthquake, to prove to all of us how essential the hams still are. Way before Facebook and Twitter linked people very far away from each other, there were those for whom a conversation with someone on the other side of the globe was a routine thing. They were the ham radio operators, who had home radio stations full of equipment with which they talked to enthusiasts like themselves all over the world. From time to time they cropped up in movies and popular culture, and always had an air about them of being masters of the mysteries of technology.

Today, however, when there are so many ways to communicate with everyone, is there any reason to maintain this veteran, if not to say ancient, technology? A visit to a meeting of the Israel Amateur Radio Club in a space donated by the Motorola company might initially reinforce such doubts. The front room looks like any standard office lobby. Dalmatian files adorn the shelves in the corner of the room and on the wall hang plaques commemorating various events. Only upon closer look can one discern the collection of Morse keys in a glass case and the details of the events imprinted on the plaques.

A first glance at the participants would also cause one to wonder if this isn't really a gathering of the last knights of radio. There is maybe one person there not anywhere near the age of 60. Even the sight of three members sitting on a bench in the club rooms and arguing, or maybe agreeing - the sort of argument one can easily find among, say, computer or motorcycle amateurs - could in fact look like a skit from the satirical show "Zehu Zeh."

"The best receivers are Icoms," says one of them.

"You think I don't know that? I've been with Icom since 1956," says another.

"Nu, so you know everything," replies the first. "You can't be taught anything."

But it would be a grave mistake to depict amateur radio people as dinosaurs clinging to a vanished past. Though they were real geeks way before anyone had ever coined the term - "were" is actually superfluous here. They live and breathe the technology and continuously refine and test the equipment. If you were only to ask, they would be happy to tell you how some of the technologies that powered the Internet began on the worktable of some radio amateur or other. ICQ is just one of the examples they offer. "CQ" is in fact a call taken from ham radio.

Srulik (Yisrael) Haramati (call number 4Z4JT) relates that even VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) started on his table near the communications equipment. It is not surprising that Haramati's son, Lior Haramati, along with Alon Cohen, founded VocalTec Communications - the pioneer in the field of telephony over the Internet.

When we move into the small meeting room, at the beginning of the conversation Yisrael Haramati and Moshe Inger (call number 4ZIPF0) are present and gradually the rest of the members trickle in. Inger explains that the group's aim is mainly to conduct experiments in communications. If they succeed, they move on. "Sometimes people ask me why this is needed today. There are mobile phones, there is the Internet," related Michael Barak (4X4KF), the editor of the Israel Amateur Radio Club bulletin. "Anyone who asks that question doesn't understand what amateur radio is. He thinks it's just talk. But the talk and the connecting are just to prove to you that what you have one and what you have built and what you have learned and all your knowledge about wave diffusion and electronics - hey, it works." "Young people today prefer immediate satisfaction," says Inger, and relates that in order to earn an amateur radio operator's license you have to pass a Communications Ministry exam. By comparison, what is easier than buying a computer and within minutes surfing on the Internet?

"It has buried us," comes a voice from the back of the room. Inger hastens to reply: "It hasn't buried us. We use the Internet as a mediator for purposes of our connections and developments."

But Barak, too, says that the Internet has not entirely been a blessing. "Amateur radio has shrunk all over the world - there is no doubt about that," he says, adding bitterly, "The public in the world has become lazier."

Inger does not place the blame on the Internet. According to him, "The basic problem in this whole issue begins with the inadequate education in this country. All the vocational schools where they taught something about technical things - all of them have disappeared. There is no vocational education these days. It is hard for us to [introduce] ourselves to an audience that [isn't exposed to] us." But today, too, there is a large group of people who love technology - for example programming, Linux or tinkering with hardware. "How did they get to that? How were they exposed to that?" demands Inger. "From computer games, from that same Inter, Inter, Inter. They would have been exposed to amateur radio had they attended a vocational school. But they are not exposed to these things nowadays. The Israel Defense Forces has a big problem - it doesn't have professionals."

When Inger talks about the adoption of the Internet as a tool for amateur radio people, this is not idle talk. In the corner of the room devoted to the broadcast station laden with equipment sits a server - which creates an interface between the station and the Internet - and thus the broadcast bounces back and forth between radio and the Web. Of course there are also various forums and means of communication, but it doesn't end there. There are a number of sites that enable registered amateurs to make radio contact via the Internet (for example QsoNet:

Inger relates that the amateur community is very varied. "It ranges from professional technical people all the way to barons and kings," he says. "King Hussein of Jordan was a good friend of amateur radio. We were invited there, we set up stations and we set up competitions from there."

As for the costs, the amateurs explain there is no need to take out a mortgage for their hobby. It is possible to set up a station for $400 or $500. However, this is just the beginning. Recently an Israeli amateur radio operator, an 80-year-old kibbutznik, bought equipment costing $32,000.

The aforementioned competitions include everything - from going out on field days with their families to events where participants demonstrate their latest experiments to international competitions at which Twitter and Facebook novices could feel at home. At some of these events it's necessary to connect with a certain number of people from a given country or region, with each participant aiming to accumulate as many contacts as possible.

These contacts, which transcend borders and oceans, also succeeded in days gone by in penetrating even the Cold War Iron Curtain, says Marek Stern (4x4ky), who immigrated to Israel from Lithuania at the start of the 1970s. According to him, after the Six-Day War a boycott was imposed on Israeli ham radio operators by operators in the Communist bloc and some people who nevertheless tried to connect were cut off. Still, he continued to broadcast and the risky hobby helped him stay in touch with relatives in Israel. When he dismantled his station prior to immigrating, his relatives worried that something had happened to him; the next time they spoke to him he had already appeared on their doorstep. Twenty years later, Stern helped absorb the radio hams who arrived here from the former Soviet Union in the big wave of immigration at the beginning of the 1990s.

Simon Klein (4X6XN) relates that during the various stages of the fall of the Iron Curtain, ham radio operators helped to make contact - for example, with Israeli students studying in Romania and with whom communications had been cut off during the revolt against the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. A connection with Arab countries also exists, although in many cases it is difficult to get an answer from hams in the Arab world. Nonetheless, when delegations from Arab countries came and asked for help so they could enter the West Bank or the Gaza Strip and broadcast from there, the amateur operators in Israel pitched in unhesitatingly.

They are also always happy to help the Israel Defense Forces or the Magen David Adom medical rescue service and have many stories about connecting under difficult conditions - from the Yom Kippur War to the tsunami that slammed Asia. "Wherever there is an amateur radio operator, there's a connection, always," says Haramati.

And here the advantage of this seemingly obsolete technology becomes clear, an advantage not lost on rescue organizations and security forces. Ohad Shaked, head of the earthquake unit at Magen David Adom, explains that amateur radio as a means of communication has the highest survival rate and in may cases hams get the information about disasters, in other countries as well, before the governments understand what has happened.

Shaked relates that not long ago he made contact with the hams and together they came up with a plan for spreading amateur radio people around the country in the event of an emergency, for example an earthquake. "We know that in the first days there will be no communications," says Shaked. "We need them in order to get a picture of the situation and that way as an organization we will know where the gravest problems are."

Apart from that, the amateur radio operators will have to continue to help making alternative contact when the land line and mobile telephone systems break down, whether because of direct hits or because of overload. "They are amateurs but not amateurish, as one of them said to me," notes Shaked. "These are very serious guys. They are very highly motivated to help in times of emergency as well as ordinary times. I get the impression that they understand what their purpose is."