Ham Radio and Remote Work

Ham Radio and Remote Work

How amateur radio helped me with remote work.

My trip into amateur radio world coincided with the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic. I decided to learn about amateur radio after participating in a radio communication exercise with my local CERT team.

It sparked my interest and for the next half a year I was learning about antennas and transmitters. It turned out I found something useful in amateur radio for my daily remote work. Let me share what it was.

Phonetic Alphabet

I realized the value of phonetic alphabet when I spent three years as an openstack operations engineer. Being with customers on the phone required me to spell certain names and terms. Phonetic alphabet turned out to be an answer to my issues with letters b and v, t and d, etc. Being a amateur radio operator requires you to learn phonetic alphabet at least in order to spell your call sign.

Every amateur radio operator is encouraged to use the standardized NATO phonetic alphabet. The standardized alphabet instead of an ad-hoc alphabet can be easily understood by everyone.

Here it is:

a - alpha
b - bravo
c - charlie
d - delta
e - echo
f - foxtrot
g - golf
h - hotel
i - india
j - juliet
k - kilo
l - lima
m - mike
n - november
o - oscar
p - papa
q - quebec
r - romeo
s - sierra
t - tango
u - uniform
v - victor
w - wiskey
x - xray
y - yankee
z - zulu

In the era of universal remote work and phone communications this alphabet is invaluable when you need to spell an unknown word.

Voice Procedures

A good follow up on phonetic alphabet is the voice procedures that amateur radio operators use for passing messages. Some of amateur radio operators train for organizing communications in emergencies. As part of emergency communications amateur radio operators have procedures for passing emergency traffic - messages between first responders.

In order to pass those messages in an orderly manner they have some procedural signs.

Everyone is probably familiar with the sign over. This sign means that I’m done talking and waiting for your response. There is a lesser known pro sign - out. Pro sign out means that I’m done talking and I’m not expecting any response. Another alternative to over is go ahead.

Pro word roger means that you understood what you heard. There is an interesting story about this pro sign. Originally this pro sign appeared in morse code(or cw in amateur radio lingo) procedures.

In morse code operators use abbreviations in order to speed up the communications. The abbreviation for I understood you was letter r. At that time in phonetic alphabet r was pronounced as roger. When it migrated to voice procedures it stayed roger.

Pro word I spell is pronounced after you said a word that you are going to spell. After that you are spelling the word using phonetic alphabet.

Pro word figures is used before a group of digits. Instead of pronouncing a number radio operators pronounce numbers as a series of digits following the proword figures.

Here is the phonetic alphabet for pronouncing digits:

1 - one
2 - two
3 - tree
4 - four
5 - fife
6 - six
7 - seven
9 - niner
0 - zero

Pay attention to the unusual pronunciation of digits 3, 5, and 9.

Communication over zoom or webex is somewhat reminiscent of that on radio. Of course any online conferencing tool is way superior - you have duplex instead of simplex. Several people can talk at the same time. However it doesn’t really help. When even two people talk at the same time nobody can understand anything. You need to decide who is supposed to talk now. Following radio procedures eliminates this issue completely.

You are probably wondering if you need to use the exact words used by radio amateurs. The words sound artificial. Of course you don’t need to say exactly these words. However finding phrases that serve the same purpose may dramatically accelerate your conference calls and avoid congestion.

Some of you may find it entertaining to employ the exact pro words for your conference calls.

Radio Net

You may have heard about phonetic alphabet. You’ve seen how military personnel are using roger pro words in movies. The next thing came as a complete discovery to me in the world of amateur radio. This concept is called radio nets.

I explained earlier that conference calls are superior to radio communications. When two people are talking at the same time on radio neither one hears anything. Moreover when several people use the same frequency to communicate and two of those people happened to start talking at the same time. Those who don’t talk still don’t hear anything. They hear horrible buzz because two signals have collided. At best they hear only the strongest station. It’s called capture effect on FM modulation.

Even though tele conferences don’t have this artifact it’s still not very productive to talk at the same time.

Amateur radio operators came up with a procedure to organize this process. They have a role of net control for congested nets. I encourage your to listen to 9am talk net on N6NFI repeater at 9am pacific time. This web page has a link to the broadcastify stream: http://9amtalk.net/

Nets with a net control are called directed nets. All members of a directed net should pass it back to the net control. Net control decides who is talking next. There is another approach - round table. When everyone is passing his turn to a predefined station. This way they ensure that everyone had a chance to talk.

I’m pretty sure you can easily remember situations when some people end up staying silent during calls. It happens because they might be uncomfortable to squeeze in between other members of the call.

In a directed net every station first checks in with their call sign. Net control keeps a list of all members and ensures that every one has a chance to talk. If someone wants to say something they quickly say comment in between other peoples’ remarks. Net control makes and note that there is a comment and when it’s appropriate passes the turn to the station that has a comment.

Again, I understand that introducing the procedures as they are used in a radio net would probably be an overkill. What I do is I follow the conversation along and when it starts being congested or some of the members are not given a chance to talk I interject with a suggestion to listen to those missed people.

If I’m the focal point of the conversation then I just serve as a net control without announcing it. I notice people who were interrupted by someone and make sure they have a chance to speak after the that person is done talking.

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