Saturday, April 11, 2009

VA7LWE calling...

Here's a blog on the subject of Amateur Radio and my experiences getting back into the hobby after some years... mmm, OK about 14 years!

First a retrospective about how I got into the hobby in the first place.

I was about 12 when my family returned to the UK from living abroad for a number of years. These are formative years, but I already knew that I was hooked on science and particularly technology at that point. I read and re-read my encyclopaedias and poured over copies and 'annuals' of the children's science magazines that my parents bought for me. I sat glued to the BBC TV programme "Tomorrow's World" each week to revel in how quickly the world was changing with the apparent unlimited opportunities that new technology would bring. It was a brave new decade (the 80's!) and I was part of a new wave - microcomputers, Prestel and dial-up information systems, video recorders, microwaves and CB! If it was technological and it offered me ways to do new things that the previous generation had only dreamed of - then I wanted to be a part of it!

My father would occasionally bring home cool 'toys' that had become defunct at work - mechanical adding machines, calculators with neon orange gas discharge displays, and from business trips to Japan came other bounty - sleek PLL tuned scanner radios and other electronic toys. All of these paled compared to the microcomputer revolution that broke in the UK at this time, and it wasn't long until I persuaded my parents to loan me the money to buy my first computer, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

While getting hooked on computing, from which I would forge a career, I was also fascinated by communications technology. The simplest way to experience 2-way radio as a teenager in 1981 was to join all the excitement around the newly legalised CB radio. Somehow I acquired a rig and to begin with set up a mobile antenna on an upside-down biscuit tin on a flat roof beneath my bedroom window! CB offered only limited satisfaction in terms of learning the technical aspects of radio - though the fact that the UK offered both a HF and UHF band for CB introduced some interest as these frequencies had noticeably different characteristics.

My CB went with me into student digs when I moved out, though it had become rather unused due in equal measure to my focus on computing and also the fact that the average quality of CB operators had really taken a nosedive. Radio dropped off the list of interests for a while, until one of my house mates revealed that he had obtained his UK Class B license and was running a packet radio station. For me, the demo was electric. It combined the heady mix of technologies that we now take for granted - the computer as a communication device and information terminal; a gateway to the world. This was well before the web of course. The internet was largely available only in academic environments and even dial-up access to information services like AOL was brand new (old-style BBS' were still in abundance). Suddenly, here was an 'always on' digital communication system that allowed its users to exchange mail and other data country-wide (and even further abroad with various tricks). In short... I had to have me one!

I took my City and Guilds Radio Amateur's Exam (RAE) in 1990, and was licensed with my own Class B call sign (G7JIB) within days of receiving my certificate in the mail. While having a good chat on the radio was an occasional pleasure, my passion was digital comms, and that meant I was almost exclusively interested in packet on VHF. At the time, a Class A license was only attainable with a morse qualification, and while I perceived this as an interesting challenge (and the prize of HF was somewhat alluring) it paled compared to the draw of packet.

As the nineties rolled by, we moved house, my career took off (with attendant international travel), and my family 'grew'.
Playing radio dropped off the agenda in the maelstrom of activity. My PC also grew new powers, thanks to the arrival of channel bundled ISDN. Email as we know it appeared, and the web was born. Computers were becoming 'always connected' and were implicitly communications devices, in the same way that had grabbed my interest years before with packet radio.

Wind the clock forward to 2009, and its almost 10 ten years since we moved to Vancouver Canada. I had moved here because of my job, and everyone knows that many qualifications are going to be unrecognised whenever relocating internationally. Thus, I retook my driving test - but my ham license just wasn't in the category of priority things to 'convert' to Canadian 'currency' (and besides I was a little narked at having to do this at all!). However, with a little more time on my hands I was going through some old equipment and found an old radio: a Yaesu VX-1 miniature handheld transceiver. I turned it on and heard some interesting local chatter on a 2m repeater, but it occurred to me that I had no right to join in! That simple thought, perhaps indignation(!), ignited a desire to get relicensed and led to a weekend of research into the Canadian rules and exams. Industry Canada provide a rather nice downloadable test application that allow you to test your mettle against 'real' exams (the questions all being drawn from a standard published pool).

A few runs through the exam provided sufficient confidence that the Canadian qualification was attainable with a bit of technical polish here and there, plus some reading up on the local regulations. The question of how to sit the exams was answered quickly by the outgoing BC and Yukon regional director of RAC, Ed Frazer. The local club (North Shore Amateur Radio Club) had two accredited examiners and one of them Adam Farsen replied to my email within minutes. Thanks to Adam, I was at his home taking my exams within a few days, and my new Canadian call sign VA7LWE was issued a week later.

So, I'm back in the saddle. I can already see the hobby has changed in the last 14 years and my adventures (or at least some of them) in catching up will be recorded here.

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