Licensed to communicate

Members of the Jerusalem Amateur Radio Society are keeping alive the technology of ham radio.

Eric Guth 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Eric Guth 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
The sky is not the limit for Howard (Haim) Silverwater. The licensed amateur radio operator is aiming higher with the VHF antennas he’s building at his Jerusalem home.
“I’ll be able to reflect a signal off the moon and have a conversation with someone,” he says. “It’s called EME – Earth-Moon-Earth – communication.”
Silverwater is not unaware of simpler ways to keep in touch these days. Being of a technical bent, he and the other 18 or so members of the new Jerusalem Amateur Radio Society probably understand and use those modes – from e-mail to smart phones – better than your average Israeli. “Amateur” doesn’t mean they’re newbies; it just means they don’t use their radios commercially.
But even if conversing with people on different continents no longer requires an antenna and receiver, the amateur (or “ham”) operator is not an extinct breed. There is even something of a renaissance going on in ham radio, whose origins go back to Guglielmo Marconi’s 1890s wireless telegraphy experiments.
“Jerusalem is the city of the resurrection of the dead, and we are resurrecting this hobby here,” jokes Eric Guth, the 54-year-old founder of the new club, which is affiliated with the Tel Aviv-based Israel Amateur Radio Club (IARC).
“Lots of people were involved before the advent of cellular communication because they used amateur radio to call overseas. Obviously, we now live in a generation where the hobby is competing with Internet and Skype and iPhones. We love all this stuff, but we know that in a natural disaster, the iPhone is not going to work.”
Their licenses give amateur radio operators private use of designated radio bands, from low frequencies to microwaves. That has been a lifesaver following hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and major terror attacks. “One of the public mandates we have as hams is being given a lot of spectrum to operate and experiment with, and what we trade for that is public service,” says Guth.
When tornadoes wreaked havoc on Alabama’s communications networks in early April, ham radio operators set up emergency communication infrastructures while repairs were under way. Parts of Japan, Guth reports, were connected only by hams in the first weeks after the tsunami. Immediately following 9/11, with land and wireless networks down, dozens of amateur operators helped emergency services maintain communication in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC.
“When we hear that amateur radio is no longer relevant, that gets our minds going,” Guth says. “Just about every technical innovation in communications, including cell phones, came from amateur radio operators. You have famous hams like David Sarnoff, who received the call from the Titanic and later started the Radio Corporation of America, RCA. Voice over Internet Protocol [VoIP] was invented by an Israeli ham who later founded VocalTec,” he explains.
It’s also a visceral thing. “For me, it’s about seeing what works,” says Guth. “For others, it is about operating – who they can talk to and for how long. Radio was around a long time before cell phones, and it’s still fascinating for us.”
Now partner and general manager at Efrat Networks, a technical service company, Guth discovered his fascination at age 15. “I used to buy radios and fix them,” he says. “Ham radio, for me, made Southern California a smaller place just as the Internet has made the world a smaller place.”
He admits it’s tough to interest Generation Y in amateur radio. Jesse Nowlin, 22, was one of few guys under 50 at the society’s third monthly meeting in April, held at the Jerusalem College of Technology- Machon Lev.
“I always wanted to learn about amateur radio and never had the chance, so when the e-mail went out, I jumped at the opportunity,” says Nowlin. “I hope to learn a new skill and a new hobby.”
He has childhood memories of watching truckers talk on CB radios as he rode with his mother on the highways of New England. Now working in IT support and quality assurance in Jerusalem, he appreciates the potential of radio communication. “When all else fails, if there is no electricity on the grid or something is wrong with the computer or cell phone, you can power these [transmitters] up with a 12-volt or car battery and start communicating.”
Nowlin was attentive during a presentation by Rich Harel entitled “Practical Software-Defined Radio Applications for the Avid DXer.” DX refers to longdistance international communication.
“Software-defined radio is changing everything,” Harel told the group. “The radios we use, the price and features, how often we’re able to purchase these radios and what we’re able to do with them.”
“What they’re doing now,” summarized Nowlin afterward, “is bringing together the old and the new in software- controlled radio. One radio can connect 100 people through the Internet – regulated, real transmissions over the air – and once you have that, you can talk to people all over world on the strength of the signal.”
Guth has loaned Nowlin a Panasonic receiver from the inventory of the IARC. “The tactile sensation of the radio in your hands is unlike a computer keyboard,” says Guth. “There’s nothing like it under your fingertips.”
The Panasonic was among a stash of old ham radio gear that had been displayed by IARC at the Motorola building in Tel Aviv until recently. When it had to be moved, Guth appealed to Machon Lev senior lecturer Azriel Heuman, who heads a master’s program in telecommunication systems engineering. The college’s administration gave a new home to the collection in the lobby of the physics building, agreed to host the monthly meetings and may even start a campus amateur radio station.
“Being a ham myself, but not having much to do with it over the years, I thought it sounded interesting,” says Heuman, “especially since Machon Lev is involved in the telemetry part of the [Google] Lunar X project,” a competition to send a robot to the moon to transmit video, images and data back to Earth.
“Ham radio is getting more involved in data,” he adds. “Communications taking place today are mostly in bits, whether voice or video, so ham is going in that direction. There will likely be a rebirth with more wireless activities going on. I think ham will go through an evolution toward more digital and spaceoriented uses.”
In his move toward EME communication, Silverwater is using a multi-frequency mode called JT65, which identifies weak signals coming in under the noise level. “You can actually hear signals from outer space, and someone realized they could be useful for amateur radio operators to do EME – where you take a signal, bounce it off the moon and receive it back. It’s a new mode of operation for us.”
Silverwater took a decade off from amateur radio while his three boys were young. Now retired from the forensics department of the Israel Police, he makes daily contact with other hams as far away as New Zealand.
“On our initial contact, we introduce ourselves and say how we are receiving each other. Afterwards, we talk about what’s new in the field, our experiences and advancements.”
Their brief conversations can be considered practice for more pressing needs. “If you’re comfortable exchanging these short messages, you can have the ability to do this in a disaster,” Guth points out. “While we could deploy with the army and police and MDA [Magen David Adom] to be ready for emergencies, insurance companies have made it impossible for us to do that because of potential liability issues,” he says. “Maybe with the awareness that we are still a viable hobby, we could play a role in Israeli disaster communications.”
At its core, however, communication is simply about making contact with other human beings. And that is ultimately what brings this group to Machon Lev every fourth Thursday. “Social networking has always been the foundation of amateur radio,” says Guth.
If not for this mutual interest, it’s unlikely that these particular men – no women so far, though Guth says plenty of hams are female – would have occasion to gather in the same room.
Anglos and Sabras, heads covered and bare, members include people like Eli Kovo, who got his ham license in 1958 and installed the first cables for Israeli television; Naftali Heisler, licensed in 1957 while in the IDF Signal Corps; and Yitzhak Schechter, who learned ham radio at age 11 in a youth club in Arad.
Some of the men say they owe their professions and even marriages to the hobby. Harel met his wife while running a radio station at a center for the disabled in Gilo, where they were both volunteering. “That was 24 years ago, and she hasn’t gotten her license yet,” he admits with a smile.
Kalman Eller, a recent immigrant, told the group he’d tried to learn Morse code as a youngster in 1963. “In 1989, while working for a New Jersey municipality that was required to have a licensed ham operator available for back-up emergency communications, I volunteered to get my license at Fort Monmouth Amateur Radio Club, run by the US Army,” he said. “I have a small HF station available now, and I hope to have a high-powered VHF station available to do some DXing. I don’t know if anybody will answer, considering the neighbors, but hopefully some people from across the Mediterranean will come back to me.”