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Connecting remote amateur radio club members
For hams who have difficulty attending all meetings, how can we maintain a strong sense of community?
My home radio club
I’ve been thinking a lot about my “home” amateur radio club. Over the years, I’ve visited several clubs and actually belonged to a few outside my home area. However, I’ve never run into a group of hams as accepting and warm as my home club.
COVID interrupted the normal course of things with our club, just as it did for everyone else. Our club officers did an amazing job of keeping people connected and communicating. As we started to emerge in 2022 from the dark shadow of COVID, we saw more club members than ever attending monthly meetings. This has continued to grow to the point we are a bit crammed into our meeting room at the county emergency management center.
Going through these changes caused me to reconsider what it meant to be a club member. I had been a pretty passive member, meaning I would attend meetings, listen a lot, and contribute little. That is changing as my thinking changes about the value of an amateur radio club.
Why belong to a club?
I became a member of my club to learn more about ham radio. For me, at that time, I hungered to expand my radio knowledge. This is an amazing hobby of hobbies with many different vectors one can take. If you like technology, this is your hobby. If you like tinkering — either mechanically or electrically — this is your hobby. We have contests and distant conversations, and we have digital modes for making contacts and transferring data. If you like talking, and if you don’t, this is your hobby. It seems as if there is something for everybody in ham radio.
I’m probably on slippery ground here, but whether a club is organized to support ARES/RACES, or mainly to gear up for Field Day, or for supporting emergency medical services, or any other reason or set of reasons, the real value is helping people be a part of your radio community. Over time, the value I placed on my club shifted from being focused on radio to, instead, putting people first.
People first, radio second
I’ll say it more clearly. To me, a ham radio club is less about the techniques and technologies of amateur radio and more about helping people feel they belong and creating a sense of enjoyment as they communicate with each other. At some level, it is more social than technical. Over the long haul, it is people first, radio second.
Why have I come to this position? Because I have seen the hunger in some of our club members as we resumed in-person meetings. We have some members who can barely move and some who can’t move without a great deal of pain. We have people who have trouble hearing and some with speech difficulties. All of these hams are making the investment to attend club meetings, even when it is difficult, inconvenient, or even painful for them to do so.
What do members really get from the club?
Why? What do they get out of pushing themselves to get out of the house, drive to the emergency management center, and with difficulty or pain, slowly amble into the meeting room?
I conclude that they get something unrelated to the mechanics and technology of radio. Instead, they get to bask in the company of folks who share their interest in radio. In club meetings, they listen and learn, and they speak and teach. They smile at each other, have plenty of sidebar conversations, laugh at jokes, and seemingly don’t really want to leave when the meeting is over. The sense of social bonding seems very strong to me, and so I’ve come to believe that the role of the club is not just to support ham radio but also to support the sense of community and belonging that our members are experiencing.
How can we help people belong when they are distant?
I wrote of people who have difficulty getting to meetings. As the baby boomer population continues to age, we are likely to see more of this. How can we help people belong when they become unable to attend meetings?
We also have some folks who, for part of the year, live in other regions, sometimes very far away. They pay their dues so they are club members but they aren’t in contact with the group for long stretches of time. How can we help them remain engaged when they are wintering several states away?
Technologies and services that could help
These are reasons I’ve been exploring technologies and services that could bridge those gaps. Right now, those include:
I’ve picked these three because the voice quality is very good, the technology can be easy to use once set up, coverage is good if you have internet service, and the ongoing cost is quite low.
I did think about a repeater voting system in the county but that would require quite a bit of additional hardware as well as more cost and complexity related to the main repeater. It would be a good “radio only” solution if we could afford the hardware and additional complexity.
AllStarLink requires a node (physical or virtual) and a good internet connection. A usual ASL node will be a physical hotspot device with a radio in it like a ClearNode or Shari.
A virtual node has no radio so all connections are done via internet. My virtual node on Vultr.com has incurred $5.75 in charges this month with only a few days to go. I am nowhere near my bandwidth allowance so I budget $6/month with a high level of confidence. A downside of a virtual node is you are in charge of fixing it if something goes wrong. I keep additional snapshots of the working node on file so that I can replace the instance with a known good snapshot at any time.
By the way, linking the repeater to an AllStarLink node would check a lot of boxes for people near and far. Unfortunately, that would require internet service at the repeater site and my understanding is it isn’t available or affordable.
VoIP phones and Hamshack Hotline
VoIP phones require good internet. Used VoIP phones can be found for $20 on up. The phones I bought were refurbished Cisco SPA-series IP phones for about $60 each. Of the three, only one shows any wear and it is almost unnoticeable. The VoIP service I’m using is voip.ms where the total monthly cost is a combination of a DID number ($0.85/month) and calls at $0.009/minute. There is also an e911 fee since I enabled 911 dialing on my desk phone. For January 2023, I had $0.2286 in inbound charges and $2.315 in outbound charges, making my total cost for one line $4.89.
VoIP through voip.ms also provides audio conferencing service, otherwise known as conference calls. However, conferences are charged at the per minute rate for every incoming connection. A positive feature is the ability to record conferences.
Hamshack Hotline is a VoIP connection through a service that is only for hams. The service is free to hams so unlike my voip.ms phone line, the HH line is completely free. You need to be a licensed amateur radio operator, have a supported IP phone (which is why I bought the older Cisco phones), and get an HH number from the administrators. (Technically, you could use a softphone [translation: software on a smartphone, tablet, or computer] but HH policy is that you have a hardline phone first.)
You can set up a conference bridge on HH, too, at no cost. (I’ve also seen a reference to a “ring group” which might be helpful.) Provisioning a supported IP phone is via a script that runs through your local web browser. The downside of this system is you can only call to, and receive calls from, other HH accounts. You cannot dial a regular phone number or 911.
DMR is my latest interest. I have a radio and am awaiting being approved to join the PNW Codeplug group. (Actually, I have a few older DMR radios that perhaps I should resurrect!) Coming up will be a post about hotspots as I learn more about this technology. A downside of DMR is if a person can’t hit a radio repeater, they can’t access the DMR network…unless they have good internet and a hotspot.
Most expensive to least expensive
ClearNode-and-Radio probably tied with DMR-and-Radio
VoIP phone tied with Hamshack Hotline
Vultr.com AllStarLink node server
Internet connection (cost will vary by location but will dwarf other costs)
Vultr.com AllStarLink node server at $6/month
VoIP phone service at $5/month
Conceivably, I could have skipped the ClearNode device and jumped straight to a Vultr.com cloud server, but I wanted the option of a local device I could use with a handheld radio. All things considered, though, I could operate the cloud server for quite a while at $6/month before I reached the acquisition cost of the ClearNode!
Purchasing or building an AllStarLink node, DMR hotspot, or similar device probably exceeds the budget and capacity of many people. On the plus side, hotspot devices are portable so if you travel, this solution could go with you. Voice quality is also high with ASL and DMR.
I think a sweet spot is buying a VoIP phone and getting a Hamshack Hotline number. The cost to acquire hardware is relatively low. While not pocket-sized, VoIP phones are movable from place to place. The cost of operating is zero (not accounting for internet service, which many hams already pay for). This gives club members easy access to each other and also supports group conversations via a conference bridge.
For those who want to use the phone as a regular telephone, a phone number can be provisioned on most supported phones. For a very low monthly cost, one can have an amateur radio phone system (Hamshack Hotline) and a normal household phone system (voice over IP) on a single device.
A VoIP phone plus Hamshack Hotline checks some important boxes: movable from place to place, probably sits in the radio shack, inexpensive, and very good voice quality. These attributes would help club members stay connected when they are out of range of the local repeater and could be set up to help them engage in club meetings when they can’t physically attend.
What are your thoughts on this?