Green Radio?

I’ve been living in Uganda since October 14, 2009, just over three months. I have visited Uganda on four previous occasions for three to six weeks each time. I remember well my first visit in the summer of 1999. That was the year we were preparing for Y2K, and there were a whole bunch of voices predicting the meltdown of civilization.

On that visit, I travelled across the countryside in an old Toyota LandCruiser. As we drove through village after village, I came to the conclusion that if the world were to meltdown because computers failed at midnight, December 31, 1999, it would have no effect whatsoever on Uganda.

Why? Because no one in the interior of the country was connected to an electrical grid! Most had never seen a television much less had the resources to own one. A few had radios.They simply lived too close to the land to be even remotely dependent on computers and the devices computers managed. They were, and are, a green society in that they make do, recycle, use what they have, improvise from resources at hand, and live off the land.

What, you ask, has any of that have to do with ham radio? Well, depending on your point of view, lots, or nothing at all. I just received the January 2010 issue of QST courtesy of a visitor from the States. American magazines are like gold here, and I am savoring each page. The cover calls this issue “the DIY issue,” and the articles largely live up to the billing. What impresses me, though, is how complicated ham radio can be, and in most cases, has become. Both the articles and the advertiserments describe many devices for connecting a radio to a computer, or operating a radio in conjunction with a computer, or operating over the Internet. Just about every company or person mentioned has a Web address. There’s also an article about working satellites, which I would like to do when I can. From another source, I just received an email notifying me of a QRP Net that will be meeting on Echolink!! QRP on Echolink just seems odd to me.

Ham radio is a technologically sophisticated hobby. It always has been. In the early days, savvy operators created components from what they hand. Today’s operators use and assemble more complex gear, but in principle do the same. There is one exception, however. Today, we rely on ready-made parts, manufactured components, and advanced engineering. Driven by time pressures and the compulsion to get on the air quickly, our economic status usually means we can buy what we need, plug it in, and go.

At the same time I browse QST, I have been reading “Calling CQ” by Clinton DeSoto. I found a link to the 1941 first edition in a PDF file one can download for free. Mr. DeSoto describes the early days of ham radio, and I am struck by the ability of ham radio operators to create working radios from almost nothing. Their ability to improvise and adapt is possibly directly tied to their times, their financial capacity, and the impossibility of buying parts or components given their circumstances. I will be the first to admit I cannot do what they did.

It was after I arrived in Uganda and began assembling my station that I began to have a new appreciation for the fine science of improvising and adapting. I had limited space to bring stuff and there are no simple or inexpensive means to acquire them. So one must do what one must. The whole country is run that way. Resources are limited and pricey. Don’t run out and buy it if one can make it or adapt something else to work. Even my ladder here is homebrewed. There are no ladders for sale in the entire district. You gotta make one if you want one. “Green” living is, in its simplest expression, living closely with what’s around you. It is Field Day every day here.

We all accumulate junk boxes and use what’s in them. Even though we use microprocessors and internet connections and computers, hams are really “green” at heart. Creativity is, by definition, the art of making something new or using something old in a new way. I hope we all have gear at our disposal that does not require an internet or computer connection to work. The scare about Y2K came about because of our dependency on systems stored or managed somewhere else. While there is no fear these days of a Y2K-like meltdown, I am still concerned about an over-reliance on systems outside our control. The emphasis these days on emergency radio procedures should speak to us hams about the need to be ready, whatever the situation, to get on the air and communicate regardless of the challenges we face. And if you want to practice, I have a spare room here in Masaka.

Getting a License in Uganda

Jack Dunigan, 5X7JD, is my first guest blogger. He is the Senior Management Leader of Aidchild, Inc., a project providing a home for orphans living with AIDS in Uganda. His ham radio blog is called Ham Radio Safari. Thanks, Jack!

5X7JD QSL CardI came to Uganda in October from the the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean where I had earned callsign NP2OR, a U.S. General Class amateur radio license. I made a pre-move trip here in June and began the license process then, filing application and associated paperwork then. It turned out to be a waste of time. When I moved here in October, I checked with the Uganda Communications Commission with whom I had filed and discovered they had lost the paperwork. “Would I mind starting over?”

Well, I didn’t really have any choice and sharp rebukes at those personnel who might have mislaid the application would have only delayed everything. So, I began again. I had to write a cover letter, which must contain the over-the-top courtesies and deferential language most Americans find artificially sweet and out of place in business correspondence. Nonetheless, its goes a long way here to recognize the authority and position of the officers who will expedite your application. They also asked for specifics of the radio gear. So I provided make and model info, a description of the antenna, and the power output requested.

The most difficult part was the requirement to supply geographic coordinates. I had no idea what they might be. I knew I could find it on the Internet, but Internet access is so excruciatingly slow it seemed a daunting task.

No one I could find had GPS and I am doubtful anything other than a very sophisticated sytem will work here anyway. So I logged on and began the search. It was actually harder than I thought. Were I in the U.S. or Europe, I could have nailed it down in a hurry. But Africa is tougher. After some searching I found a website that specified the coordinates for Masaka, the city where I live. It wasn’t precisely on the dot where the station would be but here in Uganda, close enough is close enough. So I wrote them in, filled in the other details, and took in all the paperwork.

The clerk who helped me was very efficient and friendly. He shot a photocopy of my U.S. license and asked what callsign I would like. This took me by surprise. He suggested I could have my initials to which I readily agreed. He told me there would have to be a site inspection of the radio shack and antenna installation. I didn’t actually have the antenna up yet, but figured I could do so before the inspector arrived. I left the paperwork there, and hoped for the best. I hoped I could get a license within a month.

Three days later I was in the car on my way out of Kampala, the capital city, driving back to Masaka when my mobile phone rang. The young lady on the line told me I could come in and pick up my license. I wondered about the site inspection, which had not happened, but did not ask. Its better not to confuse things with procedures. I was a licensed Uganda Amatuer Radio operator—callsign 5X7JD!

The promised inspector has never showed up and it is extremely unlikely one ever will. I guess because Masaka is 125 kilometers from the Communications Commission office and no one has a car. The license fee is $63 USD a year so there’s not enough money in that for the commission to pay for transport to the site, so they just won’t bother.

There was one apparent complication with the license. When I received it, there was a specification that I was authorized to use code only. I must confess I do not know Morse code. My license in the States came after the code requirement was dropped and I did not, have not learned it. So, we made another trip to the Commission office to see if it could be changed. I discovered that no one there—not even the Chief Commissioner himself—had any idea that the designation they had entered into my license limited me to code transmissions.

In fact, they weren’t familiar with the idea of emission types. It became a delight to educate those in the office, and they have asked me to return and conduct a seminar for the staff on amateur radio! I will be going to the office this week to set it up. I would like to teach more Ugandans about amateur radio. I have already started corresponding with a local engineering student who saw my blog and has asked for help. I am pleased to offer it. We are all Elmers as we are being Elmered.