Flood Aftermath
Mobility, Preparedness

Using Amateur (HAM) Radio for Emergency Communication

Importance of Multiple Communication Channels

When it comes to being prepared for emergency situations, there is a popular and very impactful phrase that appears in the prepper community. That phrase is “two is one, one is none” meaning that if you only have one tool for a particular survival function, and you have no backup tool or alternate solution, that is as good as having none.  Reason being, that you are creating a single point of failure for that survival function. If any aspect of it should fail, be that a mechanical malfunction, a lack of knowing how to perform it, or even simply not being able to find the tool, that aspect of your preparations becomes useless. 

One area of storm and emergency preparedness that many of us simply do not consider having backups for is communication.  Most of us rely heavily on our cell phones for communications. And we mistakenly take for granted that since cellular service is supported by a network of large infrastructure and thousands of telecom workers, cellular communication will always be available as long as we don’t wander into some remote backwoods or down into a rocky canyon.

But the truth is that the same forces that can cause us to lose electrical power at home, can cause disruptions in cellular service. Wind storms, hurricanes, flooding, or even the random lightning strike can bring down cellular service in your neighborhood.

That’s why it is essential for anyone who is serious about emergency preparedness to have a backup method (or two) of communicating with family, loved ones, or anyone who can help direct emergency services to your location. 

A Lesson from Hurricane Katrina

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf coast, my immediate family and I were safe and dry in Texas.  But all of my extended family was trapped in New Orleans. My older brother had the foresight to gather up not only his own wife and small children, but he also drove around down collecting our younger brother and his wife, children, and 11 year old sister-in-law of whom they were the guardians. As the storm was rolling in and starting to beat the city with wind and rain, he also drove out to the lower ninth ward to get our aging mother who was determined to ride out the storm in her home as so many native New Orleanians are want to do. After the flood waters receded, we would find out that her home had been completely inundated when the levees broke in the ninth ward and had been pushed by the flowing water three feet off of its foundation.

My brother brought all of these people to our father’s accounting office on the third floor of a downtown office building.  When the floods filled the city with water, my mother, my two brothers, their wives, and their children, one of them an infant were all stranded in the small office with no way to communicate with the outside world: no way to relay their position to emergency services, and no way to even let anyone know that they were still alive.

It was months before I would receive communication from them that they had survived and were relocated to Houston.

I later learned that during the flood and subsequent rescue operations, there were a handful of people who were able to get messages into and out of New Orleans. These people were HAM radio operators.

In those months that I worried and waited, not knowing if I would ever see my family again, HAM radio operators were communicating the whereabouts of survivors to other HAMs across the country making it possible for others to post lists of survivors on the internet.

That was absolute proof to me that HAM radio offers a tremendous amount of value for emergency communications.

The Strengths of HAM Radio

HAM radio is an almost ideal solution to the problem of back up emergency communications. Depending on the type of equipment you choose, HAM radio can be portable, it can provide both short range and long range communication, and it can continue to work even when local infrastructure goes down.

HAM Radio Is Portable

Ham radios come in a variety of sizes, power levels, and frequency capabilities. One available feature that makes it ideal for backup communications is that it can be portable. Unlike landline telephone, which I actually recommend later in this article, HAM radios, just like cell phones, can be purchased as a hand held device. With a form factor similar to the walkie talkie that most of us are familiar with, hand held radios can be easily packed in emergency (bug-out) bags, or kept in vehicles. As such, they can provide on-the-go communication when an emergency requires travel, such as when you need to coordinate meet ups with family members, or in the event that you must move an injured person to emergency services.

Short Range Communication (1 – 2 Miles)

Ham radio has options for short range and long range communication.  I have the good fortune of living within a 3-mile radius of both my mother-in-law and one of my brothers-in-law.  Although this means that any local catastrophe will likely affect all three of our households, it also means that as long as we can communicate, we can work out the logistics of who needs assistance and how to get it to them.  If the cell towers in our area lose power, none of us will have access to cellular communication. Ours is a perfect situation for the use of short-range HAM radio.

Generally, the short-range radios come in a small hand-held form factor that look similar to the walkie-talkies you may have used as a kid, or those you take hiking. The difference is that these “hand talkie” HAM radios operate in a different set of frequencies that are more tightly regulated. So, like any of the HAM radios discussed here, you’ll need to get a license to transmit on these devices.  But, while you are learning about HAM radio, and building out your radio setup, you can freely listen to any broadcasts you receive. 

The hand-held short range radios are typically used on two frequency ranges or “bands.” Those being the VHF 2 meter band (144 – 148 MHz) and the UHF 70 centimeter band (430 – 440 MHz).  When buying your first HAM radio, you’ll want to check the specifications of the device to ensure that these two bands are included in the radio’s capabilities.

Amazon has a good selection of inexpensive hand-held radios that are quite accessible for most new and aspiring HAM operators.

Click here to see prices for short-range radios on amazon. 

Medium Range Communication (Up To 50 Miles)

Depending on where you live, these lower powered radios also have the potential for much greater distances if there are HAM radio repeaters in your area.  Repeaters are well-placed antennae connected to transceivers for the purpose of re-transmitting radio signals. This free service is provided on a volunteer basis by other HAM operators.  Though it can be of great value to you in getting into HAM as a hobby, it’s best not to rely on repeaters being available in an emergency situation. The same power outage you experience will likely affect any repeaters in your area.

So for any emergency communication beyond the 1 – 2 miles your hand-held can provide, you’ll want to step up to a more powerful, albeit more expensive solution. That is setting up a radio base station in your home.

Long Range Communication (50 Miles, 100 Miles, and Around The World)

When you get serious about using HAM radio for emergency communications, you will undoubtedly want to set up a home radio base station for long range communication.  In the HAM world, long range communication is done with the magic of lower frequency radio waves. Though the area of the radio spectrum I’m referring to is called HF for High Frequency, its range is lower than the Very High Frequency (VHF) range used by small hand-held radios, and the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) range used by cell phone towers. 

These HF radios transmit lower frequency waves with much longer wavelengths. These characteristics cause a phenomenon that allows HF waves to be used for communication at great distances. HF waves actually bounce off of the upper atmospheric layer called the Ionosphere rather than passing through it into outer space. This signal reflects off of the Ionosphere directing the radio waves back down to Earth giving HF signals the ability to travel far beyond the horizon as seen from the antenna’s point of view.

With ideal solar and weather conditions, HF signals can travel halfway around the world allowing communication with other HAMS across the country or across the ocean.

Even though I live only a short bicycle ride from my in-laws, my own family all live some 500 miles away in New Orleans.  And while they live with the very serious threat of hurricanes and other tropical storms, my area is always on the watch for tornadoes.  Either of those scenarios can mean worrisome periods of non-communication when the local infrastructure is damaged.

In those situations, it is comforting to know that we can reassure distant family that we are alive and well using the long-range communication capabilities of HAM radio.

Here is a good example of a HAM base station transceiver on amazon. 

Independent of Local Infrastructure

One of the key benefits of HAM radio for emergency communications is that it can be independent of local infrastructure.  Cell phones depend on the short-range tower in your area to be up and running. In many residential areas, there is no redundancy in cellular coverage. if the tower located in the center of my neighborhood loses power, or gets struck by lightning, the one bar of signal that i get from the next closest tower is not enough to even relay a text message let alone sustain a phone call.

Shortcomings of HAM Radio

Though the utility of HAM radio for emergency communication is impressive, there are limitations.  

Cost

You can go to Amazon right now and buy a HAM radio for under $60.  But to build an effective alternative to telephone communication, you will probably spend hundreds or even a couple of thousand dollars in equipment including things like the radio itself, a power supply, an antenna tuner, and a quality antenna.

Learning and Licensing

As stated above, if you’ve already ordered your equipment, you can set it up and listen to HAMs broadcasting all day and night. But, if you want to strike up a dialog, you’ll have to get a license first.  There are many people who include HAM radio in their emergency preps because in an emergency, transmitting without a license will probably not incur any punishment. But if you are going to learn to operate your equipment properly, you’ll need to get licensed to broadcast.

Licensing involves a multiple choice test that requires some study.  More information about becoming a licensed HAM can be found on the website of the National Association for Amateur Radio, ARRL.org. 

Limited User Base

Most adults (and many teens) in this and many countries own and use cellular phones.  Millions of people use instant messaging and social media everyday. The number of people who actively use HAM radio is comparatively small.  Unless you were able to convince your distant family members to also buy, setup, and use radio equipment (not to mention getting licensed), you will likely need to relay your emergency communications through a HAM operator who does not personally know you or your family.  Though this seems like a strange situation, HAM radio is a community, and in times of need, HAMs have banded together (pun intended) to form ad hoc communications network relaying information about local emergency situations and the survival status of people on behalf of others. This article is original content published to homeplustech.com. If it is published on any other site, it is stolen content.

Use It Before You Need It

As great as HAM radio is as an emergency communication medium, there is a significant learning curve associated with the technology.  And you don’t want to be reading radio manuals or books about electromagnetic wave propagation when your house has a foot of water in it, and you’re holding a flashlight between your teeth.  Hopefully, before you really need your HAM radio to work for you, you will have learned to work with your HAM radio. That means going through all of the setup and licensing, and actually talking to people to get a handle on the etiquette and protocols of over-the-air messaging.

Alternatives to HAM Radio for Emergency Communications

Landline Telephone

Before researching HAM radio as my backup communications channel, my main choice and recommendation to family members was a land line telephone.  Hardly anyone has a landline telephone anymore for various reasons. Even though land lines used to be ubiquitous, with one in every home, newly built homes often have no telephone wire built into the walls, and some new housing developments don’t even have telephone wire running to the houses at all. 

Many in the younger generations don’t even know what a landline telephone is.  When I called my local telephone service provider to activate landline service to my home, the sales representative was confused by my request insisting that the VOIP phone that he kept trying to sell me was in fact a “landline” phone. And though it does use underground cable to relay the signal, what I wanted was the analog telephone that is powered by the phone system. That way, I explained to him, when the power goes out in my home, I can still make phone calls.  I guess he was not old enough to remember that such functionality existed.

That is, however, one of the best features of a landline phone in addition to being directly tied to a location for the purposes of calling emergency services.  

Unfortunately, analog or Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) service is actually difficult to come by these days. For one, although it used to be the cheapest option, the price of analog phone service has more than doubled in the last 20 years. I suspect that the reason for this is twofold. One, to deter people from using a service that the telephone companies would like to retire, and two, to push customers toward the newer voice over IP (VOIP) phone service that allows easy bundling with internet service.

Still, if you can get analog landline service in your area, it is a reliable secondary communication channel for the reason listed previously.

Internet When Cellular Is Down

Of course, for most of us, available communication media in our household often includes our home internet connection.  As long as your internet service is not provided by cellular service, it may be available when your mobile phone has no reception.  With a home internet connection provided by underground wire like cable or optical fiber, it can often be used in place of mobile service.  Not only can you send emails and messages via social media programs, but many smartphones have apps available that will allow you to make phone calls over your WiFi connection.

Some smartphone apps to look into for WiFi-based communication are WhatsApp, Signal, and Google Voice, the last of which does not require the other party to have the app installed. 

Another internet-based communication device that many may overlook, is your smart speaker.  Devices like the Amazon Echo Dot allow you to call the phones of existing contacts or communicate directly to another Alexa-enabled device.  I frequently use this feature when I leave my children at home for short periods. I remind them that Alexa is on, and they can use it to call me, their mother, or Grandma.  Alexa’s “drop in” feature also gives me a little extra comfort knowing that I can call into the device while I’m away and check on them, often letting them know that I’ll be home soon.

There are a couple of major caveats with internet-based communication during an emergency.  First, it may be difficult to contact emergency services when using a WiFi-based phone app. You may want to keep a print out of your local police and fire service phone numbers where they can be seen as internet-based phone service may not connect you with your local 911 service. Second, depending on the type of internet service you have, a power outage in your home, may also mean an outage of your internet service.  For this reason, it’s advisable to at least keep a battery backup for your internet modem or DSL device as well as for any computers you would need to access your service.  

The More The Merrier

Whether or not you decide to jump into HAM radio for your emergency communications needs, it is always better to have multiple options for communicating with loved ones and with local services.  But HAM radio is an excellent hobby, and a great prep for emergencies.

using mobile hotspot for home internet
Mobility

Using a Mobile Hotspot for Home Internet: If You Absolutely Need To

In today’s internet-savvy world, it’s hard to think of going a whole day or even an hour without wireless connection. We connect when we’re at home, in the office, at school, in restaurants, and in transit. In most of these cases, our devices are provided with internet access using DSL, broadband, or a cable connection. However, in the case of our cell phones, a cellular service carrier administers the connection and equips the phone with a set amount of data. With an ever increasing data rate speed (soon to be 5G), improved coverage across the country, and a variety of payments for data available, why then don’t we replace home Wi-Fi internet services with the services provided with a cell phone? Can a mobile hotspot replace your home Wi-Fi? To answer these questions, let’s start from the beginning.

Click here to see mobile hotspots on Amazon.com

What is Wi-Fi?

Like home phones in the past, computers too had actual wires and cables that connected them to the internet. As technology advanced, though, the wires became increasingly small or limited to the point of nonexistence. So without those wires, a new system was developed in order to enable our computers, phones, and tablets to connect to the world wide web: Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is a standard of using wireless networking to set up communication over the net. A wireless router facilitates this communication. It is a device that is plugged into the telephone socket of a home, office, or business, and uses radio waves (instead of cables) to transmit and receive messages, aka internet data, to any device equipped with wireless access. Essentially, the router acts as an access point of connectivity to the internet. The availability of the access, however, is defined to a certain area or range known as a hotspot.

What is a mobile hotspot?

In essence, a mobile hotspot is a portable, usually battery-operated, wireless router. It allows you to transmit and receive data from the internet without actually having to plug it into a telephone socket. Instead, it taps into cellular networks and uses a cellular signal to connect to the internet. There are three main types of mobile hotspots: cellular phones, USB mobile data sticks, and stand-alone devices. All three have the capabilities that allow devices to connect to the internet provided you have a cellular provider.

Hotspot service providers

Due to the fact that mobile hotspots require a cellular signal, it is necessary to go through a wireless internet service provider. Hotspots in the United States are available from all four major nationwide carriers: Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint; as well as from several smaller virtual operators.

Where to buy a hotspot

If you own a smartphone it’s safe to say that you already have a mobile hotspot connection. Simply go to your Settings, and search for “Wireless Hotspot” or “Personal Hotspot.” Here you can turn on your personal mobile hotspot, which uses your cellular data to tether or connect other devices to the internet.

If you’re in the market for a USB mobile data stick or a stand-alone device, three venues stand out in terms of purchasing value. First, you can go directly through your wireless service provider. Each carrier usually has a variety of devices to choose from and can assist in your selection based off of your data plan. The second option is through Best Buy. You can buy your device online or in-stores, and with their selection tool online you can compare price, key specs, and current discount offers. The final venue is Amazon.com. With this option you can read reviews of the products from people who have already purchased and used them. Furthermore, in addition to supplying devices from the major nationwide carriers, they also serve as a selling platform for the smaller virtual carriers.

Bandwidth capacity/ Upload and download speeds

So you’ve decided on a device. Now it’s time to determine how much bandwidth you have or how much bandwidth that you are going to need. Bandwidth is classified as the volume of information that can be handled and transmitted over a given unit of time. The larger the bandwidth, the more data you’ll be able to transmit and receive, therefore giving you a faster connection. Obviously in contrast, less bandwidth means less data and a slower connection. It’s safe to say then, the more bandwidth the merrier!- depending on your budget of course.

So let’s begin with the lowest and slowest, 2G. Second generation, or 2G, of mobile cellular data was not built for smartphones but for the limited functionality of making phone calls, basic text messaging, and viewing small amounts of data. The bandwidth measures between 0.1-0.3Mbit/s (average download speed: 114kbit/s; average upload speed: 20kbit/s) and is therefore NOT recommended when deciding on the capacity of your mobile hotspot.

3G is a much better option and is usually sufficient for most users. Bandwidths range from 7.2-52Mbit/s (average download speed: 8Mbit/s; average upload speed: 2Mbit/s) and allow for a better transmission speed of data. With 3G you can comfortably browse the web, use GPS, listen to music, and watch videos all online.

To take advantage of the best bandwidth available to date, a 4G cellular connection is necessary. Bandwidth speeds are far superior to that of 2G and 3G, 100Mbit/s- 1Gbit/s (average download speed: 15Mbit/s; average upload speed: 5Mbit/s). In addition to the basics, on a 4G network you will experience higher- resolution video and audio, faster connection speeds, and a larger volume of data that can be transmitted. But please note the breadth of the bandwidth scale! Not all 4Gs are created equal.

The capacity of the bandwidth as well as upload and download speeds are in conjunction with signal strength, latency (delays incurred in the processing of data over the network), and your service provider. Although each generation- 2G, 3G, and 4G have standards set for speed, each provider employes their own technology and consequently Mbit/s will differ.

How many devices can be on a hotspot?

If you are going to use your smartphone as a hotspot then the number of devices you can connect to is dependent upon the device, manufacturer, and cellular network you have. In most cases if you have a 3G network you can connect with up to 5 devices while with a 4G network up to 10.

However, if you are using a USB data stick or a stand-alone mobile hotspot device you can connect an infinite number of devices to your hotspot, in theory. Sure, you connect 8 computers, 5 smartphones, and 2 tablets to your hotspot’s single access point, however, the issue comes down to the bandwidth of your network. Are you working with 2G, 3G, or 4G?

Think of your bandwidth as the plumbing of your kitchen sink. When there is just one or two liquids poured down the drain, they can pass through the pipe freely and quickly. On the other hand, if you pour 15 liquids of different consistency all at once down the drain, it becomes clogged, slow-moving, and backed up. This is exactly what occurs with your mobile hotspot. The transferring and receiving of data is only as large as the pipe in your kitchen sink, your bandwidth. The higher the number of devices trying to connect and use your hotspot, the slower and less successful your hotspot will function. Therefore, it is best to restrict the amount of computer, phones, and tablets that connect to a single hotspot to 5 devices.

So how much is running a mobile hotspot going to cost you?

Well first off, will you be tethering with your phone, or using a USB stick or stand-alone mobile router device? Next, let’s determine what type of work you’re going to be doing. Are you checking and replying to emails, updating your social media, streaming videos, creating new graphic designs, video or conference calling? The tasks you plan to do on a daily basis will determine how much data you will need and consequently allowed by your provider per month. Finally, are you looking to sign a new one or two year contract specifically for hotspot mobility, would you prefer a pay as you go method (month-to-month), is it possible to add a small fee to your already existing plan for hotspot capabilities, or does your plan already come with a hotspot data allotment that will be sufficient for your monthly use?

Yes, so many questions, and unfortunately, just as many answers. Prices vary greatly based on the above factors as well as which provider you will be dealing with. In general, if you are going to use your smartphone as a hotspot then check how much data allowance you are allowed. If it’s a substantial amount then no need to add extra data, or you can purchase an additional 1GB for around $15. If you already have a cellular plan and choose to add a stand-alone device to that plan, you’re looking at spending between $30-$115 per month extra for mobile hotspot capability, with data usages scaling from 1GB to 30GB to unlimited data (only offered with Verizon). Lastly, if you have no cellular plan and would like to use a cellular network for the sole purpose of a mobile hotspot, then prices range between $15-$120 for 1GB-30GB of data per month.

So can a hotspot be used for home internet?

Technically, yes! Let’s look back at bandwidth capacity. A home cable Wi-Fi network is capable of delivering acceptable service with download and upload speeds ranging from 4-12Mbit/s. That’s to say it’s somewhere in between 3G and 4G. But say you have 4G with your cellular service and are looking for faster speeds, than a mobile hotspot is the way to go. 4G speed capabilities sometimes surpass those of home broadband, and with a mobile hotspot you eliminate the need to pay two bills and condense them down into one. Further still, if you’re on the move, mobile hotspots are portable and allow you to connect anywhere there is coverage.

But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine if you’re looking to switch over completely. Mobile hotspots tend to have much lower data limits, with stricter download and upload operations. It’s advisable to check first how much data you use on your home network. If it’s more than 30GB, then stick with your broadband. Additionally, prices can be higher than similar home cable packages. It’s usually more expensive to get the same amount of data from a cellular provider than from home broadband. Finally, a mobile hotspot is less reliable than your home network.

So generally speaking, a mobile hotspot can replace your home internet but only when absolutely necessary. If you must have the internet right now, just need it for some light projects, or need a connection on-the-go, then try it out for a few months and test the waters. However, if you’re looking for something more permanent, plan on having several devices connected, and download or upload large amounts of data, then stick with the more reliable, (usually) less expensive home broadband.