By Tina Snell, Staff Writer
The Digital Amateur Radio Club (DARC), with members in St. Cloud, Freeport, Little Falls, Randall and Upsala, received its operating license Oct. 5, 2013.
Since it is so new, it is looking for other hams, both experienced and novices, to join DARC and share in the fun and conversation.
The local club is affiliated with the American Radio Relay League, the national organization which works closely with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), establishing rules and procedures and overseeing exams for ham operators.
What is a ham operator? He or she is someone who operates an amateur radio station to engage in two-way communications with other amateur operators on assigned radio frequencies.
Worldwide, it is estimated there are 3 million hams.
“We started the club because there isn’t one in Little Falls,” said ham Rick Vinje, a member of DARC. “The closest is Brainerd and St. Cloud. We also started it to help with community service work, support for events and disaster relief if needed. If all other communications fail, ham radio support is still viable.”
Tom Kilian, another member of DARC, said that during an emergency when the ham radios are the only mode of communications, all the operators can be on the same frequency and everyone will hear what’s going on.
“We are an extension of the eyes and ears for law enforcement,” said Kilian. “When all else fails, ham radios will go on. They don’t need infrastructure such as the Internet or phone lines.”
With a basic antenna, a ham radio operator is able to talk worldwide.
The premise of ham operation is simple, yet complicated. The radio waves coming off the transmitter go out in a straight line. When they encounter the upper atmosphere, they bounce back to earth. Then the waves bounce back to the upper atmosphere. Up and down they go, reaching out around the earth. If someone is on the same frequency, the message is heard.
“Radio stations, television stations, law enforcement are the same, they just use different frequencies than other operators so there is no interruption in communication,” said Vinje.
Kilian, who has been a ham since 1963, said there are billions of frequencies out there and they are everywhere. Segments of those frequencies are designated to different purposes such as the military, law enforcement, television and ham operators, to name a few.
It is illegal to broadcast outside of one’s designated frequency. The FCC will step in when someone violates the rules.
For example, Kilian said he heard of someone who maliciously operated outside of his frequency and interfered with other bands. Fellow hams reported him to the FCC and he was fined $10,000. The person also lost his license to operate.
Kilian said most ham operators speak English, but that accents may inhibit complete understanding of the conversation.
“In 1963, we used either our voice or Morse code to communicate,” he said. “Now a computer and keyboard can be added.”
Vinje said that the extra equipment is not required, but useful in many instances.
“Keyboards eliminate the accent issues,” he said.
With the computer’s digital mode, ham operators are able to reach further distances with their communications.
Tom’s wife, Jan, got her license two years ago. She said she did it because Tom had his license and the whole idea intrigued her.
“I got into it because it’s so enjoyable,” she said. “I love talking to others in different countries. And, it doesn’t cost me a thing.”
Vinje is one of the newest operators in the club. He received his license in May 2013.
“I have been interested since I was a kid,” he said. “My dad had a citizens band radio.”
Vinje now has two hand-held radios, an older two-meter radio which broadcasts on one band of frequency and another older radio with high frequency capabilities.
Equipment costs can be minimal, or they can be daunting. A hand-held radio can be found from $40 to $1,000. Desktop units can cost up to $10,000.
“A new operator can start out economically,” said Kilian. “But, a ham also needs an antenna. That can be made from a piece of wire.”
Some ham operators are in it to be able to talk to people all over the world. They keep lists of how many countries they have reached. Others want to experience building their own radio. Even others want to build the best antenna.
Kilian said half the fun of his experience was building his own antenna, a loop that covers much of his property.
“There are many facets to being a ham,” said Kilian. “Join the club and find out all about them.”