Need guidance on long distance 2-way communication

Hello. I am completely unfamiliar with 2-way radios, so I am hoping to get some guidance here. For background, I will say that I am relatively expert in cybersecurity. As a result, I am concerned that all of us may be plunged into an emergency environment with no digital communications of any kind possible for an extended period of time. This is probably not likely, but I am trying to come up with a family emergency communication plan nonetheless. Assuming that HAM radios (or similar) will still work during a digital blackout, e.g. no Internet, no cell phones, no voice over IP, etc. is it possible for someone in, say, New Jersey to communicate with a shortwave operator who could relay a message to me in Ohio? Is that possible. If so, what equipment would I need? Are there better ways to have such communication between two people 500 miles apart? Thanks :wink:

Welcome to the forum. Yes, 500 miles is doable via HF radio. In some cases it may be doable via VHF/UHF radio as well but it is dependent on existing infrastructure.

500 miles is about the limit of NVIS (Near Vertical Incidnece Skywave) which is a setup popularized by the US military during the Vietnam war. It consists of a low to the ground dipole antenna (10 ft or less) and essentially uses uses the backdrop of the earth to push signal upwards which then reflects off the ionosphere and back down (thus the limitation in distance). It is quite reliable on 40m, 80m and 160m though and typically doesn’t take a ton of power (100W or less). Of course, other antennas setups will function just as well.

For VHF/UHF there are many analog link systems out there which piggy back from site to site only requiring the sites have power. This takes some research to get right. Many of the newer analog link systems use an Astrisk based module to transport audio over SIP. This transport can be either private microwave links or the internet (though you are trying to avoid internet), doesn’t matter as long as it is a L2/L3 network. Another similar option is digital radio modes such as DMR which still requires some form of IP network.

There are also such systems called packet radio networks. These use slow speed data (300 bps for HF, 1200-9600 bps for VHF/UHF) which can function similarly to a basic IP L2 network to pass messages and emails. There are even some protocol stacks to merge the IP network with the packet network called AX.25 but much of this still requires some form of infrastructure somewhere.

To make HF practical you will need at least a general license. For VHF/UHF a technician license will suffice. You may also be interested in systems such as HamWan and Winlink for data transport.

Save your money and buy an Icom 7100. It’ll do the UHF/VHF for local traffic and HF, D-Star and other very cool things for global traffic. All under 1,500$. It’s very user friendly and with your background it’ll be a cinch. Your concerns are very relevant and shared by myself and many others. Waiting until a catastrophic event happens is way too late to overcome it.

I’m afraid I rather have to smile when I read these topics. The question people always forget is that in communications we forget who we really want to talk to, and why.

Being able to use ham radio is a common question. A Ham can talk to any other licensed ham. Always been this way, even during the Cold War. Russians and Americans chatted about things every day. Passing messages however, is far from easy. I can only use our UK regulations as a basis for factual comment, but let’s say I was NOT a ham, and we had a disaster as described - no conventional comms. I could knock on the door of my ham friend and tell him my mother, 300 miles away was diabetic and I was desperate to check she’d got enough insulin and was fine. My friend could find a ham operator near my mother and get them to check she was OK. All fine and dandy, and for this purpose, perfectly legal - it’s an emergency situation and fine. In practice it’s rather different. Finding a person the other end in the right place, who is able to get access to the person you want, and is willing to pass on the message is hard - and in some places probably very unlikely. In real life of course, the message content won’t be an emergency at all, and then you would (here at least) me carrying third party traffic and probably breaking the rules. Asking my mother if she’d put the antiques in the barn because the storm was coming would probably be breaking the rules and the ham operator would be less likely at both ends to get involved.

I and my mother could become ham operators - we could then chat fine, on those days when the propagation allowed it - which is probably not often when distances are involved.

The reality is that emergency comms systems are expensive if they are to be reliable, and not something that can be cobbled together. Emergency comms planning was something I was involved in back in the 80s/90s and it’s ■■■■ expensive, unreliable in most cases and needs training. Hams were part of the system. They got bored with training exercises quickly and efficiency drops. Vital nodes would be off the air, people move, jobs change and the lack of actual real use means the ham networks are always going to be adhoc systems that cannot be relied on. Most areas of the UK back then had emergency systems that linked our counties if the major systems went down. They cost a fortune to keep running and most were gone by the end of the 90s. The one I maintained was shut down in 97 and scrapped. Hams are nowhere near as common as they were and frankly, the technical ability of the newer ones is dreadful. Standards have been lowered to allow entry to the hobby, but HF radio is frankly rare worldwide. It’s an expensive, difficult and time-consuming strand of the hobby. Finding people capable of doing what you want is difficult, and you would need to consider the content and importance of your traffic. If it’s public safety and lifesaving important stuff, then my guess is that even if your message has to travel by multiple hops to get to the destination, you still have the problem of final delivery. If the final station is just five miles from the destination - how does it get that last bit?

In a real disaster, it’s perfectly legal to save your life or someone else’s by any means possible - so you could commandeer your local hams kit if they were absent. Could you use it, and have the knowledge to do so? Would the local ham be willing to send your message, would the distant ham be willing to pass it on? Emergency comms is a dangerous thing to rely on - because until the emergency happens, nothing nowadays is certain. My experience of HF radio is that it works, on a good day, with the wind behind you, facing downhill, if there is an ‘R’ in the month. Most times a radio call produces ZERO response. In the UK - nobody has family communication plans. If the system falls apart, so be it. We just don’t see the sense in this level of preparedness. People near here may well live in flood risk areas. Nobody is ever prepared. Perhaps nobody is a stretch, but very, very few. When it happens, people watch water creep towards their homes and shrug. A few years back I saw a flood do exactly this. The local authority had been round to endangered homes and businesses and delivered sand bags, Empty sand bags. The plan was that in an emergency, they would send lorries to the beach to collect tonnes of sand - no need to stockpile it. Of course, they went to get the sand and discovered it was all under water. Seriously! The US have people who don’t trust the authorities I believe, and want to do it themselves, at their own expense. We don’t have this at all.

You could take the ham exams, you could learn the tricks and techniques of HF radio, you could in vest lots of money in equipment. Maybe you would do this. How about your children and family members? Any plan that relies on others is flawed. I can shout on an HF radio and instead of the person I want to talk to 50 miles away, I find somebody in the Ukraine who can hear me loud and clear, yet I don’t hear ANY English people. For HF, this is common. In Australia, they use HF radio for things like fire service comms - using American Harris expensive kit. It is far from reliable I am told.

In the USA, this is not correct. MANY people have incorrectly interpreted the regulations. So much, that I blogged about it:

Well - actually, there is The International Telecommunications Union countries support something called the Tampere Convention. I assume the USA are a ratified member of the ITU, and if they are, then in actual catastrophes there is immunity from prosecution guarantied by the convention. I remember this being mentioned at an Emergency Communications seminar I attended. The wording is this

6.3 Tampere Convention6

The Tampere Convention (see Annex E) is designed to facilitate the use of telecommunication resources for disaster mitigation and relief, by establishing a framework for international cooperation for states, non-governmental entities and intergovernmental organizations. It provides a legal framework for using telecommunications within the scope of international humanitarian assistance. This framework, when applied in conjunction with nationally developed procedures and bilateral and multilateral agreements, reduces regulatory barriers and gives protections to personnel providing telecommunication support, all the while respecting the national interests of the country receiving assistance.

In order to promote the use of telecommunication/ICTs by emergency teams, the Tampere Convention recognizes that it is necessary to abstain temporarily from the application of national legislation on imports, licensing and use of communications equipment. It also guarantees legal immunity to personnel who use emergency ICTs during catastrophes. The above is important considering that, in many countries, legislation continues to hinder, or even prohibit, (e.g., by applying restrictive laws to imports, organizational barriers or high costs) the arrival and timely installation of communications equipment in affected territories.

There you go - every country who have signed up and ratified the agreement have this facility - in a genuine emergency, you did what is needed. Practically, it means pallet loads of Motorolas on strange frequencies being put into action quickly and blow the licence and frequency allocations normally available. It also of course can be used to prevent the prosecution of somebody calling the coastguard when that person has not passed a test, or whatever else is needed for normal radio operation on that band. It’s pretty much a world wide accepted feature, and people can argue all they like - but nobody has ever been prosecuted by any country signed up to the agreement, as Section 6 covers it.