Over the dozen or so years that I have been studying and applying sustainable design principles, I have observed that one of the permaculture community’s weakest areas of focus is in the realm of developing resilient communications systems. Here in the relatively affluent western world, we take it for granted that telephone landline, cell phone and internet service is available 24/7/365, all of which is possible due to the readily accessible and affordable energy that is currently at hand. But what is the likelihood that these convenient communications channels will be available in a world of increasing energy access constraints? Will the server farms and cell towers continue to function? Besides the energy issue and fear of a potential ‘Zombie Apocalypse’, how can we stay in touch with our friends and family while also keeping important information flowing when natural disasters such as earthquakes, wildfires and other catastrophies occur at the local and regional level?
Building redundancy into our systems is a key part of permaculture design. When one or two elements fail, fall-back strategies help keep the overall system functioning. This I believe, is why amateur radio is so important and should be adopted as an integral part of everyones’ overall design system, both at the home and community level.
I personally caught the radio bug at a young age. My father, who was an immigrant from Eastern Europe, brought his console radio with him when he moved to the United States. Included in the cabinet was not only a turntable and standard AM/FM broadcast receiver, but also a shortwave receiver with a graphical display of all the frequencies that could be tuned to in order to receive broadcasts from around the world. I was fascinated by the notion that it was possible to hear stations from Mexico, Canada and Europe and I’d listen to them whenever the ionospheric conditions allowed these long-distance transmissions to be heard. In all likelihood, it was this early exposure to radio that motivated me to become a radio broadcaster at KZSC 88.1 FM during my college days. After college, I purchased a shortwave radio of my own and challenged myself to hear DX (long-distance) broadcasts from around the world, I got to guest DJ for a neighbor at Burning Man who was operating a 1-watt FM “pirate” radio station, and later, I toyed around with CB radios, only to find the 40 channels there polluted with cussing loud-mouths using modified rigs and 100 watt linear amplifiers which prevented anyone else from getting a word in edgewise. It was impossible to cut through all the noise and have an intelligent conversation. Then I discovered the amateur radio service!
At first, the notion that I had to take a technically-oriented test in order to get my entry-level ham “ticket” was off-putting, but I eventually put my mental block aside after I realized that hams take the art and science of radio much more seriously than do the jabber jaws of the CB band, and not only that, knowledge of morse code was no longer required! If passing a simple 35 question multiple choice test (the FCC makes the question pool and all the answers available to you in advance) to get a Technician’s license was the only thing getting between me and a free, decentralized, wireless communications system, I eventually had to ask myself, “What the heck am I waiting for?”.
So I ordered a copy of the ARRL’s Ham Radio License Manual and began devouring the info. The great thing about this book is that as you read about licensing regulations, radio theory, safety and good operating practices, you are referred to the relevant test questions that appear in the appendix at the back of the book. To my relief, I discovered that there really isn’t all that much math or knowledge of electronics involved. It took me about one month of on-and-off studying to get through, and at the end, I loaded the book’s software CD onto my laptop so that I could take randomized practice exams. By the 5th or 6th try, I was aceing them and fully confident that I would do just fine on the actual test day. I contacted my local club, the Nevada County Amateur Radio Club, to let them know I planned to attend their next test session and showed up on the day of the test with money, pencil, and photo ID in hand. The club’s Volunteer Examining Committee (VEC) charged me just $15 to protor the test, grade it and submit my test results and license application to the FCC. The license itself doesn’t cost a penny and it lasts for 10 years, at which time you must renew it through the FCC for another decade. The room was quite full, with both aspiring hams going for the entry-level Technician class license, and those who were testing to upgrade to either a General or Amateur Extra License Class which would give them additional operating privileges on the HF (high-frequency) bands. My studying paid off! I scored 35/35 on the Technician exam and was given the option to test for the General license, which I took them up on at no extra charge. Without even studying, I scored 20/35 — not quite enough to qualify, but not too shabby considering that I hadn’t even read up on the General class info. Once all my paperwork was submitted by the VEC, I waited 6 days and my new call sign was posted on the FCC’s amateur radio license database: KJ6UPR. Now I could finally start operating!
So what are you waiting for? Cultivating communications resilience is easy and it doesn’t take a big investment in gear. In my next entry, I’ll detail my particular choice of gear, where I got it, and how I plan to use it for communications beyond voice: file sharing, text messaging, email and even internet access!
For more information on amateur radio please visit:
The Amateur Radio Relay League: The national association for amateur radio
Amateur Radio at Wikipedia