The Top Ten Reasons Why Hackers Should Get a HAM Radio License

author: Christopher Grimsley, AB3YS

First appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of "2600: The Hacker Quarterly"

K1TTT Multi-Multi contest station. The owner, David Robbins,
is standing. Oct 2017, CQWW contest. Photo by Ed Kritsky, NT2X.
Many hackers, technology focused hobbyists, GNU/Linux users, computer programmers, and others are already aware of some of the really neat things that can be done with radio, and probably take many of them for granted.

Take Wi-Fi, for example - the use of small radios that allow our computers and laptops to access a local network or the Internet without having to plug in. My first real introduction to the world of radio came when I built a cantenna in order to extend the range of my wireless network, and to be able to connect the free university Wi-Fi which was just out of range of the stock antenna on my wireless card. There are, of course, more ways to use radio than just Wi-Fi.

Users of GNU/Linux and other FLOSS (free and open-source software) may be familiar with GNU radio and other software defined radio (SDR) applications available in the free software world. With a $10 RTL-SDR dongle, it is possible to listen to the countless VHF and UHF radio transmissions that are flying through the air right now, virtually unnoticed by most.

As a hacker, one of the things that draws me to the world of ham radio the most is the fact that it sort of reveals an otherwise hidden world. Wherever you are, there is almost certainly an invisible conversation happening right around you. It's invisible because it's happening through the use of radio waves, but it can be heard if you know how to listen, and you can even participate if you have a license.

Amateur Extra HAM radio license
In the U.S. there are three classes of HAM radio licenses: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. Each class gets more privileges, but each requires a more challenging test (though none of them are really all that difficult). For the purpose of this article, I am going to address only the privileges for Technician class operators.

The Technician test is 35 questions (multiple choice) and the entire question pool is public. I studied for it for four days and passed with 100 percent. I do not have any formal education in math, physics, or electrical engineering. I used the free study materials provided by HamStudy.

Though I meet and converse with many hackers, I am disappointed by how few of them are licensed HAMs. It is my intention, by writing this article, to help hackers to discover the potential of HAM radio, and to go get licensed. What follows are the ten best reasons for hackers to start exploring the world of HAM radio.


10 - Repeaters

Image: AMT Solution
Some handheld HAM radios can be found for very little money, and they work really well within a range of about 10 to 30 miles line of sight. The problem is that most of the time, the person using the radio isn't on top of a mountain, which is really the only place that will give you line of sight for the maximum range of the radio.

Luckily, we have repeaters. A repeater is a radio that is left in a good location, like the top of a mountain. It listens for specially coded radio signals, and when it hears them, it sends them out again from a much better location, giving the operator of a small handheld radio an enormous boost to their range.

Using a repeater will allow someone who only has a small, low-power handheld radio to communicate with other HAMs that are, in some cases, hundreds of miles away.

Most of the time repeaters have open access policies, and they are free to use. Some repeaters are linked together, so if you can hit one of them, the others will be able to hear you as well. Near my home there is a repeater system that covers most of an adjoining state. I can hit the closest repeater, and because it is linked with the other repeaters in the system, I can use it to talk to HAMs well over 200 miles away.

I'll admit that this first point isn't necessarily directly applicable to hackers, but keep in mind as you read the remaining nine points that most of the things I'll discuss can be done with $25 radio, sometimes aided by the use of a repeater.

9 - EchoLink

With an amateur radio callsign, you can download and use the EchoLink app for tablets and smart phones: http://www.echolink.org/. This app gives you access, over the Internet, to hundreds of repeaters across the world. You can use them to talk to HAM radio operators in other states or countries, even on other continents.

The HAMs you contact over EchoLink might not be using EchoLink themselves - I talked to people on mobile radios in rural areas of states like Minnesota or Colorado as they drive to and from work listening to their local repeater. Many of the people I've talked to over EchoLink are surprised to hear someone from so far away.*

EchoLink could be especially useful if you have a friend in another city who is a HAM. You could talk to them for free over the radio even if they happen to be in an area with poor or no cell phone coverage.

The hacker spirit is about making things work even when conditions conspire against you, and to make use of all available tools. While it's possible to use 100 percent HAM radio equipment to make connections to other HAMs, we must recognize how powerful the Internet can be, and EchoLink combines the power of HAM radio with the power of the Internet.

8 - SSTV

Slow Scan Television (SSTV) allows HAM radio operators to send images over the radio. It converts pictures to sound, which can be transmitted and received, then converted back into images by the recipient. 

Most SSTV activity takes place on HF, which will require a license upgrade to use, but it can be done on VHF and UHF as well.

7 - Emergency Preparedness

When the power grid fails, how will you communicate? Do you plan to try to use your cell phone? 
What if the power is out at the cell tower too? What if the cell network can't handle the large volume of calls that almost always happens during the emergency? How will you contact emergency services? How will you contact friends and loved ones in other states? 

With HAM radio, it is possible to communicate with emergency services and with other HAMs using only the equipment you have in your own home. The radios that HAMs use can be powered entirely with batteries, and they don't even draw that much power. 

There are HAM radio groups that focus on emergency communications - groups like ARES, and RACES - but when the shit really hits the fan, and you're the only one you can rely on, you can be sure that HAM radio will get the job done when nothing else will. This sort of self-reliance is an essential part of what it means to be a hacker.

6 - FSTV (and FPV Drones!)

If you thought SSTV sounded cool, wait until you realize that it's not just pictures that can be sent over the radio, but video too. For years, amateur radio operators have used Amateur Television (ATV), also called Fast Scan Television (FSTV), to send video to one another. This practice goes back to the very early days of broadcast television, but with the technological developments we're seeing now, the practical applications of FSTV/ATV are really exciting.

There is an emerging sub-hobby in drone flying: First Person View Drone racing. FPV drones send video back to the pilot, sometimes to goggles that the pilot wears. This allows very fast flying and tight maneuvering, which has allowed for the development of organized drone racing. The video that gets sent back to the pilot is FSTV or ATV, and it requires a license to use.

5 - APRS

The Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) allows the automated transmission of data about an amateur radio station to those monitoring it. Used in conjunction with GPS, APRS can automatically report the position of the station. 

This could be used to send live location data from an all terrain vehicle to a map on the Internet so that you can report your location as you drive through the woods. It could also be used to collect and transmit other types of data including altitude, temperature, speed, or pretty much anything else you can think to measure.

4 - You Can Talk to the International Space Station

KR1ST archive
The ISS has an amateur radio station on board, and when it passes over your location, you can use your HAM radio to talk to the astronauts on board, but only if you have a license.

3 - Digital Modes

HAM radio isn't just about talking. The transmission of data is very common among HAMs. There are dozens of digital modes, most notably PSK31 and JT-65, that allow HAMs to communicate with text. 

Digital modes require the use of a computer to convert text into sound, but they require very little power from the radio, and the signals can often be decoded even with a lot of noise, making digital modes ideal for long distance, low power communication. 

Using only Technician class privileges on ten meters, my battery powered laptop, and an HF radio, I have communicated over PSK31 with other stations in South America and Europe on only five watts. That's less power than is used by the light bulb in my refrigerator.

2 - Packer Radio, AX25, and Mesh Networking

We're all familiar with TCP/IP, but what you may not be familiar with is the AX25 protocol. AX25 is a data link layer protocol, and support for it is already in the Linux kernel (and has been for a long time).

Using AX25 and a HAM radio, it is possible to have traditional computer networks without any wired connections. All the network connections could take place over the air.

Using AX25 to facilitate the communication of a mobile station with a base station that has an 
Internet connection, a HAM radio operator in the middle of nowhere, possibly without anything but a laptop and a battery powered radio, could get on the Internet. 

The possibilities of AX25 are really only limited to your imagination - which is something that should make hackers everywhere smile.

1 - Taking Control of Your Own Communications

Isn't this what being a hacker is all about? HAM radio, like hacking, is about using technology to do what you want, and making technology work the way that you want it to so that you can accomplish whatever goals you have.

Technology is a fantastic tool, but all too often technology is used as a form of control rather than as a tool of liberation. Getting stuck in the prefabricated world of locked down operating systems and the restrictive ecosystems that often accompany them has been devastating for innovation. Increasingly, the same can be said of the way we use technology to communicate.

As hackers, we must recognize the importance of breaking out of this restrictive way of thinking. While cell phones and the Internet have been some of the most important technological developments in human history, they are increasingly being used to guide the thought process of those who use them. We should never turn our backs on these enormously powerful methods of communication, but we must recognize their limitations, and we must recognize that the relative ease of their use comes at a profound cost.

Hackers must always strive to look under the hood, to discover how things work, and to make modifications and improvements as they see fit. HAM radio, in a world of constant connection, is exactly the opportunity that we seek. I encourage all of you to get licensed and get on the air.

73! AB3YS
* - the author's location is Frostburg, MD, U.S.A..
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jail-QSO #383 - DXpedition RK3DZJ/1 on Kil'din Island.

Team: RW3FB, RW3FS, RZ3DJ, RZ3FW, RA3DMY, RW3ATL и Kseniya-YL.

Kil'din island. Photo by Mihail Feduk, 2005. http://www.kildin.ru/iasev.html

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Transfer to FCI Williamsburg prison

After three months (from December 2015 till March 2016) in SHU (disciplinary segregation), Romeo was moved from McRae Correctional Institution to United States Penitentiary Atlanta, located in Atlanta, Georgia, and then he was moved to his current "residence" in FCI Williamsburg (as of May 2016), a "medium" federal correctional institution in Salters, South Carolina. 

There are about 1400 inmates housed in the prison, consisting of three buildings with 4 units each. 

A majority (approximately 1000 inmates) are African-Americans (as the black population in the U.S. likes to be called), also there are roughly 200 white inmates as well as 200 Latinos with a light dusting of a few American Indians. 

Most inmates are from neighboring states, such as both of the Carolinas, Florida, Virginia, Georgia, and a very few are from states that are farther away. There is no Russians of any kind, except Romeo.

Also there is a very few foreigners from other countries: one Canadian citizen, and less than a dozen holders of Mexican, Honduran and Haitian citizenship. The rest of the population are American citizens, including Puerto-Ricans.

Majority of the local inmates are from small towns, and they rarely ventured outside of these small town country roots, prior of being incarcerated. Most of these country boys have never experienced neither Russians nor any outside foreigners in their life time, before being in prison. 

So it seems that Romeo is a "one man army", so far, even though he said that he's all right over there. 

So it goes. 

There are more detailed articles written by Romeo in Russian on this and previous prisons, as well as on other roundabouts, that could be found on website Зазеркалья.

Romeo could be contacted directly through snail mail at the address below:

Roman Vega
# 59198-004
FCI Williamsburg
P.O. Box 340
Salters, SC 29590

This is the place to send your QSL as well. How to fill out a QSL is described here.

Jailpedition crew

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Transfer to McRae prison

April - May 2015

From mid-April of 2015, Romeo was moved from FCI Lompoc prison in northern California to USP Victorville, a United States penitentiary in the Mojave desert.

Then he was moved to FTC (Federal Transfer Center) Oklahoma-city.

Then he was moved to United States Penitentiary Atlanta located in Atlanta, Georgia.

Then he was moved to Clayton County Prison, also in Georgia.

Finally he was moved to his current "residence" (as for July 2015) in McRae Correctional Institution, 170 miles south of Atlanta.

McRae CI is a private prison (2400 inmates), managed by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and is different from any Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities where he spent time before. There are no US citizens there, only aliens (mostly Mexicans & other Latinos), who after they complete sentences are quickly (or not so) deported through ICE-managed immigration jails.

So it goes.

Jailpedition crew

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