Letter Re: More on Survival Communications and Six Meter Propagation Oddities

Howdy Mr. Rawles!
One frequency [band] that I have had good results from has been 6 meters. This frequency is really unique. It may not be suitable for every situation, however its properties can be of use. It has the ability to become a national frequency when the E layer of the atmosphere is active. I have talked to HAMs from Washington state, to San Francisco, California down through Texas, the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Haiti, parts of South America, Vermont and above the Arctic Circle in Canada, [and] among adjacent states. Lets just say I am on the opposite side of the country from Washington State and California. I did these contacts on a wire sloper antenna cut for the mid portion of the 6 meter band. One day I will get my 5-element beam antenna up which should at least triple my [long range propagation] capabilities. Six Meters has the ability to use AM, FM, SSB (upper and lower) and is repeater system capable. I actually talked for thirty minutes to a fellow in Mississippi on the AM side (which I rarely use). I was just goofing around on AM just to see who was transmitting, if anyone, and I heard his CQ. I have collected QSL cards from all the varying points I have made contact. Granted, 6-meters is subject to atmospherics and sun spot cycles, but it does offer a very private local and potential national and international communications capability. I have heard stations from Spain as well as Africa, but I did not have a path back to them. Once I was monitoring 6 meters and heard a conversation from two other HAMs, one located in Texas and another in Cuba! The fellow in Cuba had to have been a higher up in the government as the conversation turned toward atmospheric science. The Cuban mentioned that he was monitoring, yes monitoring, the progression of an E layer cloud that was passing over parts of central Texas. He mentioned that a particular path to South America should open up and the HAM in Texas could make a contact in South America to get a QSL card. It would take the cloud about 20 minutes to move into position. Sure enough about 20 minutes later I started hearing the Texas HAM making CQ calls to a station he could hear in South America. Now the very interesting thing is this. For the Cuban operator, who was doing HAM work while at work, to “see” an E layer cloud over central Texas; he had to be sitting at an over the horizon radar station. Leastwise, this is the only thing I could figure. This means that in all likelihood he was military. So my question has always been, “What else, other than atmospheric research, would Cuba need over the horizon radar for? Makes you go, “Hmmmm.” The six-meter band should be on the list for monitoring of atmospherics at least, and a potential communications band. Other frequencies such as 10 meters are more “stable” in many ways. But what I have noticed is when 6 meters becomes active for distance communication, the other bands ‘open up’ shortly after. If my memory serves me, I think 6 meters can be used for data (NOS or Packet) communications. I don’t have my ARRL Handbook handy to look it up for sure, perhaps someone else knows for sure offhand.

Speaking of Packet and NOS, lets not leave these out also. It could be quite useful to connect computers into a ‘chat’ mode or a BBS as the old original text based BBS were in the early days of computer communications when you had to dial directly into a server to post messages, etc. For those old enough to know about Fido[net] and other BBS Programs, these too would offer a point to point BBS provided the grid is not totally down or has been fried by EMP. Check Hamfests for good used equipment as well as eBay. These “fallback” technologies aren’t as pretty and slick as all the bells and whistles of the Internet today, but they do offer a method of communication that does not have a lot of equipment overhead. Granted they are slower than the Internet today, but so long as the word gets through; that accomplishes the mission. A patchwork quilt approach to communications where one area relays information via Packet or NOS to another area so it can forward that information via voice or morse (yes, MORSE CODE) and back to a different Packet station is what we are looking at. Yes I said that bad word Morse code. It is the only method that you can transmit on 1/10th of a watt on a particular frequency and reach around the world. I had a HAM buddy who was my Elmer (volunteer who helps a new person interested in HAM) sit at my kitchen table with a transmitter he built in a sardine can. He used a short wave radio as the receiver. We sat there and with him using Morse code he ‘talked’ [in manual morse code] to a HAM in Siberia. This was long before the fall of the USSR. The Siberian HAM had built the ‘sardine can transmitter’ on the sly from spare parts that he had scrounged. And since it operated on such low wattage and used Morse code, which takes way less power than voice to travel around the world, it was hard for the ‘authorities’ to find him. Hence information from behind the Iron Curtain could get out regardless of the government’s best efforts to prevent it.

[JWR adds: HF transmissions propagate with near vertical incidence skywaves, which are nearly impossible to locate via traditional radio direction finding.  Yes, there is my old favorite, the Track Wolf HF-DF system, but that requires a much longer tale that I’ll reserve for a subsequent blog post. And the full story will have to wait for declassification, probably sometime late in the century.]

Mobility may also be most valuable. Having a HF rig in a mobile platform (car, boat, etc.) makes it difficult to locate. During the invasion into Kuwait by Iraq, a HAM in a van managed to get information out to the rest of the world while constantly moving and keeping messages short. Basically he followed the snipers rule. One shot, then he moves to another location, and takes another shot or transmission in his case. You can get devious about things also. With the data capability why not integrate the use of PGP or other encryption software along with packet, a Network Operating System (NOS), or even over voice. So long as the person you intend to transmit to has the encryption key to decrepit the message. That person passes information along to another node in the net under his or her own unique key. No one could decode it. But you would have to remember about RDF (radio direction finding) if things were real hot. Follow the sniper’s rules.

If you are new to HAM Radio or want to start, then find the ‘old heads’ who have a very broad knowledge of radios. Even tube radio repair will be a useful skill to learn (tube radios aren’t subject to EMP as long as they don’t have any integrated circuits, but they will suck power like there is no tomorrow.) Also check out an ARRL Handbook and look into the Amateur Satellite Radio aspect. The problem is with EMP, but I have no idea how EMP would affect the satellites themselves. But Sats can also be utilized for particular situations. Amateur Television can be utilized to monitor your property or remote areas, but there again EMP is your enemy. And if properly put together they can be run off Solar Panels with battery backups.

Explore the totality of HAM, it offers a lot. If you are an ‘old head’ in HAM, become an Elmer. [A mentor to beginners.] If you want to learn more about the capabilities of HAM, check the ARRL website for ARRL clubs listed near you http://www.arrl.org/. Most HAMs are geared toward disaster communications instead of “rachetjawing” all day. When there is a disaster, you will find a HAM trying to get the information out. OBTW, Another interesting technology that was pioneered by HAMs is communication via laser for point to point communications. There was a club out west that was experimenting with utilizing laser communications between two distant mountains or mesas. This area would be ideal for such communications because of the lack of humidity and pollutants in the air. Dust may be a problem but I never heard of any. I don’t remember the name of the club but will try to find out through my HAM buddies. The use of IR laser would make it invisible except for NVGs.

Going on the concept of ‘burst’ communications may provide another mode for communications in some areas. From what my Elmer told me about 20 years ago, they were having some pretty darn good reliability. So with today’s technology it should draw much less power and be viable. Granted, it won’t be for every sector of the country but may become part of the patchwork quilt communications we have to rely on.
73s, – The Rabid One

JWR Replies:  Remember that we are presently on the down slope of the 11 year solar cycle, so don’t depend on reliable 6 meter propagation via the sporadic E-layer skip.