Ham radio not a viable option for Egypt

There are few licensees in Egypt and so far there have been no confirmed transmissions

Despite the best efforts of Internet activists who are trying to help Egyptians communicate with the outside world, ham radio isn't a viable option in this situation, experts said.

The Egyptian government has ordered the shutdown of all ISPs (Internet service providers) as well as some cell phone services. The move appears aimed at disrupting protestors, who have been demonstrating across the country since last week. They are calling for the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

In order to fill the communications gap, supporters around the world have set up free dial-up phone lines and are trying to get the word out to Egyptians that they are monitoring certain ham radio bands for their transmissions.

However, despite reports of ham radios being used to send Morse code, there have been no confirmed transmissions out of Egypt, said Allen Pitts, a spokesman for the National Association for Amateur Radio. "I haven't heard of any transmissions, period," he said.

The group We Rebuild has set up an IRC for ham radio enthusiasts around the world listening for transmissions on the designated band. They have reported hearing what may be Morse code and possibly some audio messages.

Hearing little, the supporters sometimes voice their frustration. One, called "+HAMguy," joked: "Who needs a social life when you can listen to faint beeps all day long while talking to complete and utter strangers."

There is a long history of using ham radio in emergency situations, but it is not ideal for the current situation in Egypt, Pitts said. "Ham radio does do wonderfully in situations like this ... but in this particular case, there's nobody transmitting," he said.

That may be partly because there are few ham users in Egypt to begin with. "Most people cannot afford it or do not have the political connections needed to get a license there. Those with licenses are apparently, wisely, keeping low," he said. They may be concerned about who is listening and whether there will be consequences for what they say.

Although there has been little to no traffic coming out of Egypt, ham radio enthusiasts have been having a lively discussion about whether the technology should be used in a situation of political upheaval.

"Amateur Radio should not be used for this political purpose -- Especially to subvert the will of any government. It's not its purpose. This is not emergency communications," a person with the call sign KB3X wrote in a forum for ham radio users.

But others said the situation in Egypt is exactly the type of emergency where ham radio can be helpful, and that the politics behind it is irrelevant.

There is an "international gentlemen's agreement" that people don't talk politics or religion over ham radio, Pitts said. But to use ham radio in a situation of unrest where people are communicating to improve their safety is a good use of the technology, he said.

In fact, some cities, including Seattle, have emergency response centers that include rooms set up for ham radio enthusiasts who volunteer to help with communications during emergencies. It wouldn't matter if the emergency were a natural disaster or political unrest.

"The bottom line is that aside from politics, people are concerned about the health and well-being of folks that are over there," said Mark Sheppard, who heads emergency communications for Seattle's Office of Emergency Management. It would be totally normal and accepted, for instance, for someone in Seattle to use ham radio to try to speak with someone in Cairo about locating a friend or family member there, he said.

Ham radio was used for communications in other recent emergencies around the globe, including the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, he said. It was also used during the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, when a dedicated operator continued to broadcast information about what was happening in Kuwait after other forms of communications were cut.

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy's e-mail address is Nancy_Gohring@idg.com

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